Monday, February 05, 2007

The Bestseller List, and How I Haven't Read It

One of the pitfalls of telling people you "work in publishing" in social situations is that they almost immediately and without fail ask if you have read the new ____ book and what you think of it. At this point I've perfected the art of either faking it or saying "well, it's on my list, but I've heard that ..." and then I proceed to quote what I read in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and very occasionally, Entertainment Weekly. I read book reviews not only because I have a general interest in what's happening in the market but also because I don't want to sound like an idiot in social situations.

I am a poor student. I make $10 an hour without benefits and I don't work full time. If I bought and read every bestseller, I would be broke. And no, we don't get books for free in publishing, unless you either work for the house that happened to publish that book or work for the agent who happened to represent that offer. Also, I have tastes and interests that might be different from things that sell really well.

Here is what I read last week:

Beowulf (the Burton Raffel translation)
Beowulf: Cliffnotes (hehehe)
The Illustrated Library of Our Colorful World: Asia
Don't Stand Where the Comet is Assumed to Strike Oil: A Dilbert Book
The Confession of Saint Patrick (Howlett's translation)
The Rule of Saint Benedict (Abbot Parry's translation)
About a bajillion short stories for class

Some of those were for research (I write historical fiction), some were for fun, and some were for class. None of them are currently on any bestseller list that I know of. Sorry.


Anonymous said...

But here's a puzzle. You're choosing to read certain things (and as far as I can see, they're excellent choices, although no Henry James novels are on your list). Likely the latest Philip Roth would be around #260 on what you'd want to read, even if someone gave you a copy. I'm not sure that folks who actually choose to read and enjoy the act would wander too far from a list like yours (and similar stuff). So where does it follow that it's the responsibility of agents and publishers to promote trash? Are there basically bad business decisions being made on this stuff?

The Rejecter said...

First of all, it would be lower, because I really don't like Philip Roth, even though he is one of the greatest living writers. It's a taste thing. I have read him and I don't like him.

Second, people do occasionally give me copies - mainly, my dad. He likes to buy something he sees a review for and hand it to me to get my opinion before he bothers to read it. It can be annoying, but he's my dad.

Third, we come yet again to the classic "why do I see so much trash on the market" question that no one can answer because there's a lot of answers and no one's satisfied with any of them and a lot of them contradict each other. So, I'm not going to make an attempt, as I've done it in earlier posts and it hasn't worked. I will say that if we were getting ancient heoric epics every week in glorious prose, we would publish them. We would also be very suspicious as to why all of these ancient epics were suddenly being found. It would be weird.

Tattieheid said...

I think that was a good question but to an extent I disagree with Rejector.

I will say that if we were getting ancient heoric epics every week in glorious prose, we would publish them.

I am sure you would want to and try hard to do so but they would not appeal to the "mass" public and let's face it agents are paid on commision so overall have to go with the market. Is the market determined by the publishers or the readers? Nobody really knows any more.
It is highly unlikely that such books would appeal to the modern mass market, we don't teach that kind of literary appreciation in schools anymore. (did we ever?)

Publishing is a business determined by and large by financial dictates. And yes I know good writing may have a place but luck and an eye for the market counts for more.

I know lots of people that would never even attempt the books on your list but consider themselves avid readers and buy a lot of books. (Readers like Crap?)

In my own case I was brought up on "quality reading". Greek, Roman, Chaucer,Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Longfellow, Spenser, Dante, Sartre to name a few. It was a long time ago (between the ages of 8 and 12) so many have vanished into memory oblivion. I could hold my own in any "literary or philosophical" discussion at the age of 14.

Thankfully? at that time somebody introduced me to westerns and thrillers, I had already devoured Dickens, R L Stevenson, Scott and many others so was desperate for stimulation of a less than literary function. From there I eventually evolved into Fantasy as my favorite genre.

In the following years I went from knowledgeable and good taste to needing mindless entertainment, light hearted reading and that lose yourself quality.

Sad really. Now that I'm at an age to appreciate good writing (54) I find I can't concentrate enough, miss many of the nuances I would recognise at an earlier age; and would probably struggle with some of the works that I never had to be forced to read in the past.

Sadly I'm even getting bored with fantasy. Shit, where now?

Saipan Writer said...

I think your list looks interesting. (wondering where I can pick up a copy of the Confessions of St. Patrick)

bebe said...

Raffel's Beowulf was originally published in 1963 and it's still in print.

Heaney's new translation was published by FSG, a trade publisher, to rave reviews in 2000, won the Whitbread award, then was reprinted in paperback by Norton.

Yeah, why would any agent want to be associated with anything like that? No possible way to make money without mass appeal.

The Rejecter said...

Saipan Writer, I get almost all of my books used on Amazon for the lowest price available. I bought the edition that was cheapest and paid I think .50c plus shipping.

Bebe, yes, the Seamus handy translation was a huge deal. That said, we don't have a ton of ancient sagas that come long every day with an awesome new translation based on new scholarly interpretations. There's really only so much pre-1500 literature out there and most of it has been done to death.

bebe said...

Right but the point is, when and if the next Beowulf comes around (in whatever form that may be), something tells me it won't die in the slush pile for want of mass appeal. Literary publishing might not be breaking the bank but it's a little narrow minded to assume that no single book can make anyone any money without Da Vinci Code potential. If they discovered and translated something akin to Beowulf in significance, they'd print at least enough for every freshman English major in America to buy one at crazy college bookstore prices. That alone would be worthwhile for an agent.

Bernita said...

I still have Klaeber's Beowulf - had to do my own translation - A-S class.

December Quinn said...

I want to read all of those. Especially Beowulf, which I've had on my list for years and never gotten around to.

Richard said...

I have never read any Cliff notes o Cole’s notes. Sometimes I wonder what I am missing / missed.

Anonymous said...

"Sad really. Now that I'm at an age to appreciate good writing (54) I find I can't concentrate enough, miss many of the nuances I would recognise at an earlier age; and would probably struggle with some of the works that I never had to be forced to read in the past."

I think when we're younger we're more forgiving. We have more patience. As we get older, we realize there are too many good books to waste time on something we don't enjoy.
Last summer before going away on vacation, I bought my usual stack of twelve books (two weeks' worth -- my taste is very eclectic, and includes mystery, thrillers, romance and fantasy).
Out of the dozen, I read two from cover to cover. Two were unreadable. Truly. The rest were mediocre, and while I made it through, it was more work to finish the book than reading pleasure.
I always prided myself in discovering new writers, new talent, new sources, but it's not happening as fast any more. Way too much homogenization of writing. Way too -- for lack of a better term -- flat writing, for my taste. And it's not just voice.
I have my favorites, who I buy in hardcover as soon as they come out. Again, not so fast. Too many have disappointed me too often now to plunk down the cash automatically. For example, some of my favorite historical romance writers who now write contemporary suspense. They're popular, but as someone who read suspense before romance, they're not the real thing. I miss the historical romance they were so good at writing, and I'll pass on the so-so suspense.
When I made this observation in my writing group, someone suggested it was age (48) that was doing it. My tastes had "matured," and I should try more literary. That genre is generally aimed at younger audiences.

Truly a depressing thought. Like not being able to shop at The Gap any longer. I never considered genre being aimed at a younger audience, but who knows? She might be right.

I'm not giving up, but I'm getting way more action on my library card.

Anonymous said...

i love your blog!


Kanani said...

I find your reading list refreshing. I have eclectic tastes as well, and as of late, I've been borrowing more and more from the library because I simply don't have the money.

As far as books with ancient heroes that are glorious epics with good solid prose... guess what? I'm proofreading a rough draft of one right now. That's right. It's a bit rough, the writing not exactly up to snuff, but the writer is really close to figuring how wonderful prose is like the best classical music; how the characters have push the plot along and show their strengths, and mostly, how to tell a good story. And I really do think he's going to get it, which is all the more exciting!

Renee said...

What area of history do you write about, Rejecter? If you don't mind my asking. I also have read both St. Patrick's Confession, and his Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus. Love the blog. Thanks for taking the time to write it.

The Rejecter said...

I'm currently writing early 19th-century stuff, but I usually have to branch out my reading because of some text that may have influenced a character's thinking. In what I'm working on, I have a monk from Spain who goes to Ireland, so you can see there's some connection there.

Tristi Pinkston said...

You know what, I've just about decided that market trends are decided by a dark, evil committee that sits around a table and comes up with arbitrary subjects. Then only books on those subjects are readily available until the next committee meeting. Or maybe it's all decided by monkeys. Or maybe the monkeys have a committee meeting. All I know is, I really don't think readers have that big of an input into what's big on the market. I'm continually bombarded by people who are unhappy because they can't find anything they want to read when they go to the bookstore.