Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Print is Dead.

I recently stumbled across a fairly interesting website that lists bestselling books from the last century, and I think it highlights what is wrong with the world today--or at least, one thing that is wrong with the world today. While it is true that most people don't read books anymore (TV and the internet being the preferred method of entertainment), it is also true that those who do actually pick up novels generally read the lightest of materials, making fluffy romance novels and murder mysteries best-sellers, while "literary fiction" (a genre I had never heard of until several months ago) stumbles its way from publishing houses to discount racks at Barnes and Noble.

For example, check out the best-sellers from 1998, just ten years ago:

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
1. The 9 Steps to Financial Freedom, Suze Orman
2. The Greatest Generation, Tom Brokaw
3. Sugar Busters!, H. Leighton Steward, Morrison C. Bethea, Sam S. Andrews, and Luis A. Balart
4. Tuesdays with Morrie, Mitch Albom
5. The Guinness Book of Records 1999
6. Talking to Heaven, James Van Praagh
7. Something More: Excavating Your Authentic Self, Sarah Ban Breathnach
8. In the Meantime, Iyanla Vanzant
9. A Pirate Looks at Fifty, Jimmy Buffett
10. If Life Is a Game These Are the Rules, Cherie Carter-Scott, Ph.D.

When three of the best-sellers are written by Danielle Steele and one is The Guinness Book of Records, you know there's a disconnect between what is popular and what is good. (This depends entirely on your definition of "good," of course. Far be it for me to label Danielle Steele romances as lacking any worth, because escapist reading definitely has its place in day-to-day life. It helps one to relax and it stimulates the imagination in a way television does not, but from a literary standpoint, it also lacks any kind of thought on a deeper level. So while I enjoy a Nora Roberts novel as much as the next woman, I do not put having read one on my list of accomplishments to date, and I hardly think anyone would put Stephen King's name on a list alongside F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Steinbeck as great American novelists.)

The conclusion one inevitably comes to, however, is this: as a writer, I am faced with the decision between writing what I feel is important to write--what my soul demands I write--and what will sell. There are, of course, a few exceptions to this norm, and a few contemporary authors manage to walk the line between "good" writing and commercial writing. I would include Toni Morrison on this list, but obviously few other "literary" authors can compete with Jimmy Buffett's biography the way Morrison can.

So if I write what I feel is important and good to write--for my own mental and spiritual well-being--it follows that it has little chance of being published and even less of a chance of doing well. I will get no accolades for my novel, nor will I be able to quit my job and take up writing full-time, which always has been and always will be my fantasy. On the other hand, if I write a romantic thriller (or any kind of "thriller," for that matter), I will potentially have the opportunity for another book deal in the future, which could eventually lead to writing full-time.

Nor do I have some kind of hope that my novel will be different--if only 1% of authors are published and 70% of books are dismal flops, it follows that my book has roughly a .03% chance of getting published and a .00000001% chance of making it big and getting a movie deal. We can't all be J.K. Rowling. That means that my novel has to be better-written and more commercial than 99.97% of the other books submitted to publishing houses, which average over 2,000 submissions a day. These are not very good odds by any stretch of the imagination.

Plus, getting published is entirely dependent on the fates: the mood of an editor on a particular day, the demand for a genre or style from week to week, whether you have the correct contact information in an ever-changing field... the list of reasons your (my) book can be rejected is endless, and the quality of your (my) book has very little to do with them.

Of course, I can't say I'm surprised by this. Even I, a self-proclaimed "reader," have not recently picked up a good book that was published in the last ten years. I've been too busy frantically trying to cram all of the classics into my free time that I haven't been able to even consider a book that was published this year and got rave reviews. Hell, in my literature classesat UCLA, I never even got past the 1800s because they were just so dense with good stuff. So I can't blame people for not reading new books, and I can't expect them to be interested in mine if and when I ever finish it, leading some to the conclusion that print really is dead.

So I come to my final conclusion: if there's very little chance my book will ever be published, and even less of a chance that it will ever be read, then there's no reason not to write the book purely for my own pleasure. There's no reason I shouldn't pour as much of my soul as can fit onto the page, and to take fifteen years to do it, because I'm not writing for anyone other than myself. What I'll do with the finished product is another topic altogether, but until then, I'll write for myself and myself only, because I can't reasonably expect that there will ever be an audience

(For those who are interested, here's the website that lists the best-sellers for every year since the 1900s. Pretty interesting, since I've never heard of most of the authors. Just goes to show you, you might have to choose between being good and being commercial, but being commercial doesn't necesarily mean you'll be remembered: http://www.caderbooks.com/bestintro.html.)

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