Cultural Commentary: The Rise of Book Product — Fifty Shades of Blech
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.
I, too, am bored by the cynical and formulaic offerings of corporate publishing, but instead of only encouraging readers to support their local used bookstores (and I’ve been shopping at Raven since they were only in Northampton then Amherst), why not make an effort to look harder? The Big 6 of NYC publishers aren’t the only game in town: it’s a golden age of innovative small press literature and the web makes those books easier to track down than ever — the “arbiters of taste” you ask for are all online drawing attention to excellent under the radar books. If you want publishing to improve, you need to support better publishers, and that means buying NEW books, from working writers, not just used ones.
That is an excellent point — there are plenty of alternatives to mainstream garbage. It just takes some effort and curiosity to find them, and that is the rub. Too many want their reading given to them (in the form of quickie recommendations) rather than actively discover their likes and dislikes through dialogue and experimentation. Used book stores are a part of the solution. It also means exploring alternatives proffered by small or university presses and sharing enthusiasm and warnings with others. That is what we try to do at The Arts Fuse. Check out the review of the Robert Walser translations … a brilliant writer.
It also means going outside of pernicious media coverage that only deals with big box stupidity. Mainstream journalism is only interested in mass approval and ratings. For example, recently I heard an interview on NPR’s Studio 360 with the director of the Abraham Lincoln versus the Vampires movie. Why should any serious program spend a second covering a film (or talking about a book) with a multi-million marketing campaign? Demand coverage of books that are off-the-beaten-path, not the usual rotten subjects.
You’re right, Archy. Last November, I visited the Boston Book Festival in Copley Square, and I was both surprised and delighted by the number of small publishing houses flourishing today. As any Macroeconomics 101 textbook will tell you, purchases of new goods create real and lasting growth, while buying used goods only shifts the money around.
However, used bookstores are a fantastic place to establish and develop a unique taste of one’s own. Literary exploration often follows a chain formation. A tattered, $2 copy of Gabriel García Márquez may ignite an interest in his other works, then magic realism, then other members of the Latin literary boom, and beyond. Places like Raven are not merely selling used books; they’re offering hundreds and hundreds of enriching chain reactions. This process is far more rewarding than the ad populum model the mainstream bestsellers rely on.
Good piece! The manufacture of book product is abetted by the new brand of agent shop. Over dinner a few years ago with a reputable agent, I heard him describe how he much enjoys developing a book idea with a writer and his own in-house committee of editorial and marketing staffers. It sounded like Hollywood to me then and the results are in Costco and Target now. It’s encouraging that some younger readers still can tell the difference between book and book product. Thanks!
I’m glad somebody finally said this. As a writer who’s heavy on the “book” and woefully light on the “product,” it’s good to know that there are readers out there who know the difference.
I do try to comfort myself by Dr. Johnson’s dictum that reading anything is better than reading nothing.
There are many independent book “tip sheets”; I pick up the Indiebound list (www.indiebound.org, which also locates independent bookstores by zip code!) at the Harvard Bookstore, and always have my curiosity piqued by the Kenyon Review’s summer reading list. http://www.kenyonreview.org/newsletter/june-2012/ Check them out!
I also want to note that not all serious readers are afraid of ebooks or Kindles and not all best-sellers are junk: the current list includes Toni Morrison, Julian Barnes, David McCullough and (for many, many months) Rebecca Skloot. Yes, literary publishing is in trouble, but let’s not paint it with too dark a brush.
I have no qualms with ebooks and tablets. In fact, Apple offers an overwhelming number of titles for the iPad in its online store’s “Free Classics” section thanks to the efforts of Project Gutenberg. A couple months ago, I met an editor who works for a large publisher, and she lamented the industry’s electronic turn, how she must now not only be able to edit the material, but format and insert the HTML code for the electronic version as well. I had a hard time feeling sympathy for her; to quote DiCaprio’s Howard Hughes, it is simply “the way of the future.” The change in medium isn’t what’s cheapening the industry – it’s the change in content.
While writers of merit like those you mentioned, Debra, do float to the top of bestsellers lists from time to time, they are few and far between, unfortunately.
Also, thank you Helen and Shelley!