Adam Ash

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Monday, February 19, 2007

Bookplanet: Are best-sellers good for literature or bad?

The tyranny of the bestsellers
Are Dan Brown, Harry Potter, the sequels and the prequels killing ‘good’ writing?
From The Times UK

1. Fay Weldon laments the death of creativity

TIME WAS WHEN popularity was the mark of artistic failure. David Shepherd’s painting Elephant was dismissed because so many people bought it; Tretchikoff’s ubiquitous print Chinese Girl appalled critics. Paganini filled concert halls too easily. Dickens always lingered as a slightly dubious figure in the ranks of fame, as did Tennyson. If the common man likes it, the theory went, it can’t be any good.

These days it’s the other way round. “Bestseller” betokens artistic success. It is the publishers’ ultimate accolade. If enough others like it, the suggestion is, so will you. Popularity becomes the measuring stick. A “good” book is, by inference, an easy book. A “good” book is one that sells.

Today’s famous writers are not the enigmatic Nabokov or the mysterious Kafka but Dan Brown and J. K. Rowling. Their pictures are on the jacket, their life histories known by all. Their function is to make money for their publishers. And this is bad for “serious” writers, who have something more complex to say, and also for those publishers who play safe and will publish only if a profit is assured. “Best selling” should not be an accolade so much as a warning.

Today the danger for writers who continue to aspire to “good” in the old sense is that they won’t get published at all, or it will be with miserable print runs. The synopses they must have approved before they begin a commissioned book will please marketing rather than the editorial department.

Caution is the death of creativity. The field of biography narrows because authors are told to steer clear of unsung heroes and concentrate on household names. Children’s writers must stick to their age groups, fiction writers to familiar themes. That way profit lies. Our area of interest narrows as our vocabulary shrinks. Life gets dull for the writer and for the reader. Dull does not sell, and never has.

Noticeable, and dangerous, that the Christmas books splashed over the Underground this year were spin-offs from TV series, not original work by recognised writers. This should make everyone involved uneasy: an admission that TV rules; the printed word is subsidiary. And did the marketing department get it right, any-way? This year’s Public Lending Right (PLR) figures reveal that many writers get more from library borrowing than from sales — which might suggest some serious flaws in selling strategy. Oh, sacrilege, perhaps money is being spent on promoting the wrong books.

A terrible sense of inconsequence hangs over publishing houses. From outside it seems as if they act on whim. The culture of the group prevails; individual decision is discouraged, committee rules apply. It can be thumbs down for some splendid book on an unfashionable theme — babies were in last year, not now — or if the author is not photogenic, or is too posh, or for a variety of reasons which weigh heavily with marketing people.

Chain booksellers are rumoured to control everything, even down to the jacket illustration. They, too, must be placated. Submitted manuscripts get stuck in-house for years while internal departments fight it out: by the time a decision is reached the book is old hat. The rejection letter comes in the form of a rave review followed by “However, not for us”. No one wants to offend.

The danger for publishers who ignore their dignified middle market is that they get their fingers burnt running after trashy bestsellers that then do not sell. As with films, vast sums can be spent on duds.

What has happened in the visual media shows signs of happening in the book world, too. As the sequels and prequels take over — if they liked that one, surely they’ll like this one — the creative imagination withers. The advent of the Booker, the Whitbread and others was oddly pernicious in the public perception of what the writer does for a living — that the aim of the literary writer is to win the Prize. That the pursuit of excellence is yesterday’s preoccupation: the writer’s skill now lies in how he or she conducts the race to the finish, the race to celebrity. The camera fixes on six faces, and then whips the cheque away from all but one of them.

Perhaps if the newspapers could be persuaded not to publish the bestseller lists, we would be better off? Meanwhile, we must try not to be envious of the undeserving but successful. We were all golden lads and lasses in our time, it’s just that the sun now shines from another and rather puzzling direction.

2. Scott Pack can’t see the problem

EVERY COUPLE OF YEARS some member of the literary establishment pipes up with a well-intentioned rant about the state of publishing. They aren’t usually as articulate as Fay Weldon, and she makes some reasonable points, but she falls into the common trap of pitching “trashy” bestsellers against more “serious” writers. I don’t think the reality is that polarised.

Sure, there are misery memoirs and copycat crime novels flying off the supermarket shelves, but some of the finest books of the past few years have been huge bestsellers: Atonement, The Shadow of the Wind, Cloud Atlas, for example. The Amazon Top 100 right now shows William Boyd sitting alongside Sophie Kinsella, Irãne Nmirovsky ahead of Marian Keyes, Sarah Waters and Kazuo Ishiguro outselling Tess Gerritsen and Paul McKenna. Things ain’t that bad; the literary types are holding their own.

I have a problem with the implication that all bestsellers are, by definition, not as worthy as more “serious” books. The only attribute you can truthfully apply to all bestsellers is that they are popular.

And is that such a bad thing? Does a great novel turn bad the moment it passes a certain sales threshold? Does a fine novelist become a sell-out once their books appear on the shelves of Tesco? Of course not.

If you were to find the most high-brow of reading groups (you won’t have to look very far, it is bound to be in Kensington or Notting Hill) and give them The Plot Against America and The Da Vinci Code to read, then it is a cast-iron certainty that they’d all prefer the Roth. However, ask them to try Salman Rushdie’s Fury and John Connolly’s Every Dead Thing and I would bet a hefty sum that the majority would favour the latter.

A good book is a good book no matter what the genre or how many copies it sells. And a bad book remains bad, whatever the pedigree of the author or how many critics fall over each other to praise it. Quality is not always in inverse proportion to the number of copies sold.

Are publishers obsessed with best-sellers? Weldon can probably level that accusation at the big corporate houses with some justification — though most of them also have imprints and divisions that specialise in niche genres or literary fiction.

If you really want to see cutting-edge publishing, risks being taken, books being published with passion and integrity, look at the independent sector. There are hundreds of small companies producing books of the highest quality, and most will never trouble the charts. Many will be ignored by newspaper reviewers, high-street chains and prize panels as well. We have an incredibly vibrant indie scene in the UK and Weldon would find much to celebrate in that.

The irony is that most of the “serious” writers she fears for are published by the same big conglomerates as the “trashy” ones. The explanation is simple: that is where the big advances can be found.

Weldon is right to criticise publishers for their strategy at Christmas. They spent a fortune acquiring and promoting dozens of celebrity books, most of which will make a loss. That money could have been spent on supporting hundreds of more literary writers. But it is wrong to assume that you can just replace one with the other.

Publishers worship at the cult of celebrity because when they get it right, as in the case of Peter Kay, they can sell hundreds of thousands of books. This is nigh-on impossible to achieve with any sort of literary book and it would be futile trying.

Publishing is a commercial industry and should not have to apologise for it. As author of The Bulgari Connection , Weldon knows that only too well. The money a publisher makes from the fast turnover of John Grisham or Patricia Cornwell allows them to invest in less popular titles that won’t sell anywhere near as well. The literary world can look down on bestsellers as much as it wants, but the truth is that the two need to coexist and it is a good thing that they do.

In my heart of hearts I find myself in mild agreement with Fay Weldon. I would love the most popular authors to be Haruki Murakami, Tom McCarthy and Elif Shafak, but I know that I will need to live with The Da Vinci Code, Harry Potter and a host of Blist celebrities if I am going to continue to have the opportunity to read the former.


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