Book product, much like food product, is manufactured—from its very inception, designed to make money by shameless pandering to mainstream taste.
By Kyle Clauss
Several weeks ago, I had lunch with my high school Spanish teacher, an immigrant from Soviet Belarus. Olga Tcherviakova is a polyglot of five languages, a health food enthusiast, a fierce critic of the corrupt Belarusian establishment, and a connoisseur —often a dispenser—of the dry, sardonic brand of ironic humor characteristic of Eastern Europe.
“What a shame. It’s a week before the election and the French don’t know who their president will be,” she mused in her thick accent, then began to laugh. I joined her once I got the joke a few moments later.
We dined on the patio outside the Wegman’s in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. Between discussions of quinoa and Bulgakov, she gestured to the grocery store behind us and began to wax philosophical.
“I go to the grocery store, and I see cheese and cheese product. You know? All throughout the grocery store—food and food product, things I can’t even pronounce. I think that goes for a lot of things. Books and book product. Relationships and relationship product.”
In the days that followed, this particular snippet of our conversation lingered in my mind and buzzed around like a persistent gnat. Of course, I have long been aware that popular culture is often by no means redeemable culture. Yet I was astounded by how well Olga put into blunt words the nausea that washes over me whenever I peruse a Barnes & Noble. These days, the vast majority of people are reading “book product” rather than books.
Book product, much like food product, is manufactured—from its very inception, designed to make money by shameless pandering to mainstream taste. This decade, it is vampirism, and just recently, zombies; last decade it was wizardry. It is full of addictive additives: formulaic plots, ubiquitous clichés, hollow, archetypal characters, and the latest medical condition du jour. Instead of ambitious authors attempting to spin entertaining yarns worthy of comparison to greats like Jane Austen, they produce inane, foolhardy mash-ups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters.
The latest issue of Publisher’s Weekly features its usual list of top 10 bestsellers according to data collected from Nielsen, and it displays a grim state of affairs in the literary realm. Atop the list are the three installments of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy by E. L. James, which began as erotic, Twilight fan fiction. Its three-volume, boxed set follows close behind in fourth place.
Next is Glenn Beck’s latest fulmination over some vague problem plaguing this country (this time, “cowards”), followed by Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy. For good measure, John Grisham, literary darling of everyone’s grandma and supermarket book displays, holds the ninth spot with Calico Joe. Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination That Changed America Forever rounds out the list at number 10, despite numerous historians disputing the purportedly nonfiction book’s historical accuracy.
A small, optimistic, oft-stifled voice inside me says, “At least they’re reading.” Those who find consolation in this counterpoint are the first to smear the line between informed taste and snobbery. However, it does not take a Harvard degree to realize the dismal output of the publishing industry.
These people fear technology with the zeal of a Luddite and malign the rise of the tablet and e-reader, blindly believing that anything with an LED screen is the direct antithesis of literature, literacy, and all things good and bookish. So they welcome the literary world’s rough equivalent of the Michael Bay summer blockbuster in order to make the printed word more marketable, only destroying the integrity of the industry. The medium is not what is important; it’s content.
It is times like these that make one truly miss Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club. Sure, back in 2001, Jonathan Franzen declined the inclusion of The Corrections on her list. He did not wish to be associated with the other authors featured. He heavily insinuated that the club’s members were simply too dumb to fully comprehend the book. He was worried that the club’s predominantly female composition would scare away male readers. But the ensuing controversy from the declined invitation catapulted his work into the public’s eye and eventually landed him on the cover of Time with the near simultaneous publication of Freedom and reconciliation with Oprah.
An October 2005 editorial in Bloomsburg Businessweek details the truly impressive scope and power of Oprah’s Book Club at the high noon of its reign.
Winfrey’s actions have inspired so many book-buying frenzies that we are no longer fazed. She has repeatedly proved herself to be the arbiter of literary taste for millions of Americans, turning classics such as John Steinbeck’s East of Eden into overnight million-sellers and making sensations out of lesser-known works such as Mary McGarry Morris’ Songs in Ordinary Time . . . Publishers estimate that her power to sell a book is anywhere from 20 to 100 times that of any other media personality.
Detractors may point to A Million Little Pieces and the James Frey debacle. Suppose the contents of the “memoir” were fabricated. Was it not then a compelling piece of fiction without a single vampire?
Anyone with discriminating taste knows that he or she must do a little digging in order to satisfy it. It is why I not only write for The Arts Fuse but voraciously consume its content daily. It is why I spend over an hour each time I visit the dusty, underground labyrinth of vinyl beneath Commonwealth Avenue that is In Your Ear Records. It is why, amongst all the boutiques, restaurants, and frozen yogurt, Raven Used Books is my favorite spot on Newbury Street. (The Raven Used Books in Cambridge, MA is also a treat for hungry minds.)
All the digging grows tiresome. America could benefit from a new “arbiter of literary taste.” While Oprah did launch Book Club 2.0, much like OWN, it is a shadow of her past endeavors. Reviews and ratings have only proliferated with the advent and growth of the Internet, and readers look for a consolidation of recommendations from a trusty voice with intellectual integrity. In the end, however, the most satisfying sense of taste is one that is developed and honed through personal discovery.