Saturday, July 02, 2011

Of Bestsellers, and Their Lists

I saw, via GalleyCat, that Michael Dirda had written an essay for BookForum [1] with the modest proposal that authors be only allowed to appear on bestseller lists once in their lives, and so I knew I had to check it out.

I like and respect Michael Dirda, who has been a champion for good books (even good genre books, which is pretty rare) over a long career at the Washington Post, and I was hoping that his proposal was at least partially tongue-in-cheek, growing out of an appreciation for the many ways the list-makers have manipulated those results over the years. [2] That, however, wasn't his angle: he wrote yet another essay about how those poor benighted book-readers would really, really want to read obscure, small-press masterpieces if only they weren't eternally bedazzled by the shiny surfaces of James Patterson, Janet Evanovich, and so forth. [3] And so I sighed, heavily, once again.

Dirda's plan wouldn't work, even if it could be implemented -- which it couldn't. Bookstores would still have tables up front with the titles that are selling most strongly in their particular location (including one very large virtual store named after a river), and, more to the point, readers would still continue to read the kind of books they prefer. And those books, let me say once again, are not the ones that Dirda wants them to read.

Look, I agree with a lot of the things he wrote in that essay -- Gene Wolfe is one of our best living writers, and I'd love to see millions of people reading "The Book of the New Sun." But de gustibus non est disputandum. You simply cannot argue or cajole people out of their tastes. What you can do -- as I've been learning about less metaphorical tastes with my two growing sons -- is to find things congruent or adjacent to specific people's existing tastes, and introduce those items in an enticing way. It won't always work, and it has to be done one-on-one -- but that's what we book people are always rhapsodizing about, aren't we? Isn't that just handselling?

If I had one wish for the book world, and I could be convinced to use it unselfishly, it would be to ask that we forevermore stopped worrying about what other people like, and complaining about the relative worthiness, or popularity, or visibility of the various pieces of that world. It never helps; it only saps energy that we could better use to celebrate the things we do enjoy and treasure and love. So let's stop trying to keep other people from finding and reading the books they want, OK? Can we agree to that?

[1] Has the internal space entirely disappeared from the names of book world media outlets? How sad.

[2] I've commented on this issue in the past, as when the New York Times proudly exclaimed that an ancient Julia Child book would hit their list, and when the Times looked twenty-five years into the past and found that people then, as now, preferred to read entertaining books. To be brief: the bestseller lists are quietly managed already, and there have been murmurings that they already have a very strong tendency to lean in the direction Dirda wants and away from the books that millions of people are actually buying and enjoying.

[3] Also, as usual with this argument, it focuses entirely on fiction, which makes works-for-an-entirely-factual-publisher Andy grumpy. Novels are indeed wonderful things, when done well, but the real world contains even more wonders than that.

1 comment:

mjlayman said...

Dirda is a fan, comes to Capclave. And he's no longer an editor in Bookworld, which is only the occasional page these days.

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