Notes on the Atrocities
Like a 100-watt radio station, broadcasting to the dozens...

Sunday, October 26, 2003  

Each year, a non-profit group called the Friends of the Library hosts a book sale, the proceeds of which benefit the Multnomah County Libary. I first attended one about 8 years ago (give or take a year), and now consider it one of the most important events on the calendar. They boast that 100,000 books are for sale each year, but bibliophiles know that gross numbers don't mean anything. The question is, are there any good ones, and are they bargains? A huge yes on both counts.

Portland's a reading town. On the morning bus, more than half the riders are likely to have their noses in books--and many of these are good books. Portlanders check out more books from the library per capita than citizens of any other city. And so, the books that get donated to the Friends' sale are a select group.

(There's a point to this post, and I'm getting to it.) The sale, aside from being rockin' cool, is also an interesting window into publishing. In '95 or so, when I went to my first sale, I could easily walk down the table of fiction and select the literary fiction by the design style on the spine: lit fiction had smaller fonts, more elegant typesets, and often had textured backgrounds. Popular fiction had bold, sans-serif types, emphasized authors rather than titles, and had bright backgrounds. No more. Literary fiction styles now tend toward brighter colors and larger type, and popular fiction has ratcheted back the screamer types and colors.

More significant, the types of books being published have changed substantially. The cause, as we'll see, may be the same reason packaging styles have changed. As I picked through the books--more slowly this year, as I found it harder to distinguish the books I'd enjoy--I started seeing a familiar logo: Oprah's Book Club Selection.

As an aspiring novelist (my first novel is moving along, thanks), I have a love/hate relationship with Oprah. I love that she exposed people to literature who would never have read it. I love that she rarely deviated from straight literature into pop fiction. But her influence hasn't all been good. Generally, she wasn't able to convert readers of book club selections into readers of literature. Authors who saw million-printing spikes by Oprah selections were dismayed to see sales on their next book drop back to the old level. Also, Oprah is a human and as all humans, has idiosyncratic tastes. Hers tends toward stories of women rising from humble origins to overcome hardships. This worked very well for her audience, who also found resonance in these stories. Bur for authors who told different kinds of stories, there wasn't much hope of an Oprah choice--something the publishers were well aware of.

As I perused this year's selection of books, I saw what effect this had. Whereas books published in the early and mid-90s were much like books published since the beginning of time--white male-authored, focusing on themes of interest to males--books on the shelves now are potential Oprah selections. The industry has followed Oprah's tastes.

To be clear, I don't blame Oprah. It's the industry that lacks imagination and follows whatever might look like the next big score. It no longer nurtures authors and tries to develop a healthy backlist to keep itself in business--bookselling, now in the hands of movie studios, sees booksales as movie releases. Why screw around with a safe Merchant-Ivory profit when you can have a Jerry Bruckheimer rainmaker? And in another sense, the market is responding to economic forces--most readers are women; male hegemony in publishing defied readers' interests.

But I think an unintended consequence is that publishing, like a crackhead wanting the next score, has tried to manufacture big sales by fudging the genres. Oprah readers read literature because Oprah was guiding them; left alone, they'd rather read something lighter. Based on what I saw at the book sale this weekend, it seems publishers are trying to blur the lines. This is may or may not be a good business move, but as someone interested in the health of literature, further blurring of the lines can only be regarded as bad news. And even if you love the Oprah storyline, it means you sacrifice experimental fiction, complex, challenging fiction, and even just fiction that deviates dramatically from her tastes.

But it's not all bad news for literature. The American publishing industry may stink, but there are magnificent writers beyond our borders. My favorite thing to do is pull out a book I've never heard of and discover a masterpiece. The first time this happened with with the Basque writer Bernardo Axtaga and his delightful Obabakoak. Yesterday I discovered a book called Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavic. He's not obscure by any means, but I'm an ignorant American. Perhaps a little less so once I read his first novel. So, whatever the state of American fiction, there are other alternatives.

Hmmm. Lacking any snappy way to conclude this post, I'll just stop.

posted by Jeff | 11:47 AM |
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