Saturday, February 23, 2008

On Moving Targets, and On Those Moving Them

The New York Times's Book Review has an "Inside the List" column every week, delving a molecule or two down into some aspect of the bestseller list that the editors find mildly amusing that week. (The Times, being an august, serious Newspaper of Record, is never more enthusiastic than "mildly amused.")

This week's entry is by Dwight Garner, who is also the primary writer for the Times's PaperCuts blog, and could thus be assumed to be slightly less old-fashioned and dry-stickish than his compatriots.

However, Garner takes this space to look back at the bestseller lists of 25 years ago -- February 20th, 1983 -- and look down his nose at them. He notes that the NYTBR invented the "Advice, How-To, & Miscellaneous" lists in early 1984, so this particular list was before that watershed -- and thus "advice bestsellers were placed on the general nonfiction list, where they crowded out almost everything else."

Note carefully that "were placed." The Times is not reporting on the actual sales of books, it is placing those books on its hallowed list.

Garner has drunk the NYTBR Kool-aid; he clearly believes that when a bestseller list contains the books that real people are actually buying in large quantities, those books are "crowding out" "everything else." Yes, Dwight, that's what bestseller lists do: they "crowd out" the books that are not selling as well. Surely someone smart enough to get a job at the Times could realize that.

Garner also reprints the fiction list from that same week, and sniffs that he's "struck by the number of narratives about space and other worlds -- also struck by how few of these books I'd particularly want to imbibe today."

On his first point, the list of ten books includes Michener's Space, Clarke's 2010: Odyssey Two, Auel's The Valley of Horses (not really germaine to his point, but I thought I should mention it), Asimov's Foundation's Edge, Straub's Floating Dragon, Adams's Life, the Universe, and Everything, and Kotzwinkle's E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial Storybook (which would be gerrymandered off the main list and into the kids-books ghetto, these days). Seven of the ten bestselling hardcover fiction books that week were at least mildly speculative. The '80s were quite good for SpecFic.

As to the question of what books Mr. Garner particularly wants to imbibe, I doubt that any writer worth her salt tries to write something that will appeal to a middle-level book review functionary a quarter-century in the future. She's writing for the people who buy and read books now. And hitting a major bestseller list is a good sign that she's succeeded.

So, if Mr. Garner's successor in 2033 looks back at 7th Heaven and Sizzle and Burn and Plum Lucky, sniffs in his turn, and mentions that 2008 was during the times when the Times "placed" romances and thrillers on the general fiction list, where they crowded out almost everything else...well, then, it won't come as any surprise, will it?

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