anghara (anghara) wrote,

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,, 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.


1 9 9 0


1. The Plains of Passage, Jean M. Auel

2. Four Past Midnight, Stephen King

3. The Burden of Proof, Scott Turow

4. Memories of Midnight, Sidney Sheldon

5. Message from Nam, Danielle Steel

6. The Bourne Ultimatum, Robert Ludlum

7. The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition, Stephen King

8. Lady Boss, Jackie Collins

9. The Witching Hour, Anne Rice

10. September, Rosamunde Pilcher

1 9 9 1


1. Scarlett: The Sequel to Margaret Mitchell's "Gone with the Wind," Alexandra Ripley

2. The Sum of All Fears, Tom Clancy

3. Needful Things, Stephen King

4. No Greater Love, Danielle Steel

5. Heartbeat, Danielle Steel

6. The Doomsday Conspiracy, Sidney Sheldon

7. The Firm, John Grisham

8. Night Over Water, Ken Follet

9. Remember, Barbara Taylor Bradford

10. Loves Music, Loves to Dance, Mary Higgins Clark

1 9 9 2


1. Dolores Claiborne, Stephen King

2. The Pelican Brief, John Grisham

3. Gerald's Game, Stephen King

4. Mixed Blessings, Danielle Steel

5. Jewels, Danielle Steel

6. The Stars Shine Down, Sidney Sheldon

7. Tale of the Body Thief, Anne Rice

8. Mexico, James A. Michener

9. Waiting to Exhale, Terry McMillan

10. All Around the Town, Mary Higgins Clark

1 9 9 3


1. The Bridges of Madison County, Robert James Waller

2. The Client, John Grisham

3. Slow Waltz at Cedar Bend, Robert James Waller

4. Without Remorse, Tom Clancy

5. Nightmares and Dreamscapes, Stephen King

6. Vanished, Danielle Steel

7. Lasher, Anne Rice

8. Pleading Guilty, Scott Turow

9. Like Water for Chocolate, Laura Esquivel

10. The Scorpio Illusion, Robert Ludlum

1 9 9 4


1. The Chamber, John Grisham

2. Debt of Honor, Tom Clancy

3. The Celestine Prophecy, James Redfield

4. The Gift, Danielle Steel

5. Insomnia, Steven King

6. Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, James Finn Garner

7. Wings, Danielle Steel

8. Accident, Danielle Steel

9. The Bridges of Madison County, Robert James Waller

10. Disclosure, Michael Crichton

1 9 9 5


1. The Rainmaker, John Grisham

2. The Lost World, Michael Crichton

3. Five Days in Paris, Danielle Steel

4. The Christmas Box, Richard Paul Evans

5. Lightning, Danielle Steel

6. The Celestine Prophecy, James Redfield

7. Rose Madder, Stephen King

8. Silent Night, Mary Higgins Clark

9. Politically Correct Holiday Stories, James Finn Garner

10. The Horse Whisperer, Nicholas Evans

1 9 9 6


1. The Runaway Jury, John Grisham

2. Executive Orders, Tom Clancy

3. Desperation, Stephen King

4. Airframe, Michael Crichton

5. The Regulators, Richard Bachman

6. Malice, Danielle Steele

7. Silent Honor, Danielle Steel

8. Primary Colors, Anonymous

9. Cause of Death, Patricia Cornwell

10. The Tenth Insight, James Redfield

1 9 9 7


1. The Partner, John Grisham

2. Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier

3. The Ghost, Danielle Steel

4. The Ranch, Danielle Steel

5. Special Delivery, Danielle Steel

6. Unnatural Exposure, Patricia Cornwell

7. The Best Laid Plans, Sidney Sheldon

8. Pretend You Don't See Her, Mary Higgins Clark

9. Cat & Mouse, James Patterson

10. Hornet's Nest, Patricia Cornwell

1 9 9 8


1. The Street Lawyer, John Grisham

2. Rainbow Six, Tom Clancy

3. Bag of Bones, Stephen King

4. A Man in Full, Tom Wolfe

5. Mirror Image, Danielle Steel

6. The Long Road Home, Danielle Steel

7. The Klone and I, Danielle Steel

8. Point of Origin, Patricia Cornwell

9. Paradise, Toni Morrison

10. All Through the Night, Mary Higgins Clark

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.

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  • We provide... Leverage

    What suricattus and matociquala say here, cosigned: If I am a guest at a convention you are attending, or simply a fellow attendee, and…

  • A timely PSA...

    Christmas is coming and you may be thinking about what to give the readers inyour life. If you are interested in giving a signed book as a gift…

  • An anniversary approaches.

    Someone brought this to my attention today, and it is eerily appropriate to some of my own recent thoughts. Because, you see, there is an odd time…