January 27th, 2006

Jin Shei Cover from sgreer

Sic transit gloria, and a general rant

I was just at makinglight and you should all go there and read the January 27 entry in its entirety, right now - but then I went to one of the links, http://www.caderbooks.com/bestintro.html, and just as an exercise I looked at the 1990s Bestseller list. It only goes up to 1998, apparently, but it's enough for a glimpse into what's been going on in the last decade of the 20th century For the purposes of discussion, i will concentrate on fiction only.

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Sic transit gloria, as it were - how many of those do you actually even remember? How many have you read? (And if the answer is "very few", like it was with me, then *who buys* the collossal quantities of copies that these books must sell in order to qualify for this list...?

That's 8 years, ten books each, 80 books. But what we have here is 22.5% Danielle Steel, 12.5% Stephen King, 10% Grisham, a showing (6.25% each of Mary Higgins Clark and Tom Clancy; 5% Sidney Sheldon and Patricia Cornwell; 3.75% Crichton and Waller) by another handful of instantly recognizable other names. It's all starting to look depressingly like those supermarket shelves, where the same names turn up over and over and over and over again. It's like nothing else is out there, nothing else is published, the reading public is incapable of reading anything other than King or Steele. (No wonder my mamma wants me to be Danielle Steel when I finish dabbling in this writing lark and finally "grow up" and write books that actually make me rich...) In slightly more recent years you can add the name of J K Rowling to that list, probably with one or another or all six of her Potter books being counted.

But this is a vicious circle. These books sell well because *they are damn well the only ones being sold*. If a non-King, non-Steele, non-Grisham novel was hyped the way these are kept out there in front of the buying public, it too would sell gazillions, thank you very much - and there is proof that I am right - look back on those lists above. They may have made only one glittering appearance, but books by Jean Auel made it into that hyperbestseller list, and so did books like the egregiously mixed bag of stuff like "The Celestine Prophecy". "Like water for chocolate", Toni Morrison's work, and that thoroughly unfortunate attempt to write a sequel to "Gone with the Wind". IT IS POSSIBLE to hit the bestseller lists, if the industry throws money at marketing. But it's a catch-22 situation - you have to spend money to make money, and today's conglomerates, focused as they are on the bottom line, will not spend money on "unknown" writers who cannot guarantee a return and therefore in a bitterly self-fulfilling prophecy those unknowns stay unknowns and more millions find their way into the select handful at the top of the peckign order. If you don't think these particular writers make a killing, go back and comb the news stories for the amount that John Grisham donated to the New Orleans disaster funds in the wake of Katrina. Count the zeroes. This is a ONE-TIME DONATION, by ONE MAN. Income earned from writing.

I must be an aberration. I don't read Steele. I don't read Clancy. I read maybe two of Grisham's novels (okay, I watched the movie versions, does that count?). I read King only sporadically. Michael Crichton, especially his later works, makes me grind my teeth. And we haven't even got close enough in time for these lists to include such folk as Dan Brown and the DaVinci phenomenon. Yes, I understand that most people don't want to bother thinking when they are reading, that books are increasingly a pick-up-and-throw-away kind of thing - but I *write*, dammit. This matters to me in a visceral way. I don't particularly aim at the bestseller lists, but I am concerned that they seem to be a closed club, with the keys being held jointly by the pursers of the publishing corporations and Oprah WInfrey. I am concerned that readers aren't readers any more, that nobody makes, nobody is allowed to make, their own decisions any more as their fields of vision are narrowed by what is made available and what is currently being pushed. Hype has never attracted me to a book - WORDS have, LANGUAGE has, STORY has. I just can't help feeling that the latest Danielle Steel sells not because she writes a good tale but because there's a hypnotic compulsion out there - "New-Danielle-Steel... must-have-new-Steel... where-are-the-new-Danielle-Steel-books..." It's like the name of the writer constitutes some sort of binding agreement, and if you buy ONE of their books, ONCE, you are somehow obliged to keep doing so ever more.

I think - I may be prejudiced here, but I do think - that genre readers tend to be more knowledgeable and more discerning in their reading tastes than the general public. Of course that doesn't explain the Danielle-Steel-like "must buy latest book" attitudes to endless series like "Wheel of time" or a whole slew of vapidly derivative stuff that somehow slips past the editorial radar and gets put out there, a generic story with generic covers. predictable to an extent that makes me grind my teeth. But there are writers out there considered "Genre" - Neil Gaiman, China Mieville, Ursula LeGUin, Octavia Butler - who can run rings around their "mainstream" colleagues, and there is a damn good reason why they are so popular. They write well, and their imaginations hold worlds enough to get lost in. None of their books are the same twice; they do not simply change the names of their people and places, add one or two different details, and write the same story again and again and sell it to the same reader over and over. And get into the bestseller lists.

There is hope yet - Gaiman's latest actually made its debut as #1 on the New York TImes list as it was released - but untill and unless the industry stops focusing so hard on about a dozen lucrative "name" writers and start paying attention to other books and other writers, the situation remains dire, and we are heading for a bland vanilla world where there ARE no other reading choices. You can have a King horror story, a Steel romance, a Grisham court drama or a Clancy thriller. Period. Nothing else can exist.

Beware, oh beware of monoculture! Once something gets pushed out and made extinct, it may never come back again as a living, breathing, viable thing. You readers out there, next time you find yourself in a bookstore with a bit of disposable income in your wallet - make a statement, browse the stacks, choose with a cool and calculated deliberation a new name which you have never read before. They also are writers with words aching to be read.

Take a chance.
Jin Shei Cover from sgreer

And then, just to be silly, the Challenge Meme (just because I can)

*Name a CD you own that you think no-one else on your friendslist does:*

I am going to cheat. I bet nobody else owns ANY CDs by the Yugoslav group "Legende", nor could understand it if you did. So that was easy enough.

*Name a book you own that you think no-one else on your friendslist does:*

Someone sent me a copy of a law book, in LATIN, published in 1793. I am willing to bet nobody on my friendslist owns anything like it.

*Name a movie you own on DVD/VHS/whatever that you think no-one else on your friendslist does:*

"Hedd Wyn", a movie in Welsh, subtitled in ENglish. A gut-wrenching piece of moviemaking.

*Name a place that you have visited that you think no-one else on your friendslist has:*

Etosha National Park in South West Africa.

*Name a piece of technology or any sort of tool you own that you think no-one else on your friendslist has:*

There, I fail. I'm not a gadget geek and I tend to get everything AFTER everyone else has had it for three years and is looking to upgrade to the next latest avatar of said gadget. What can I offer up here? Electronics are right out, for obvious reasons - er - rdeck bought a water distilling gadget just before Christmas - will that do?