Are You One of the 35,000?

Nathalie of GalleyCat asks about the number of readers of “serious fiction” given by the Center for Book Culture. “Fans of serious — i.e., challenging-fiction . . . include no more than 35,000 people nationwide, and they’re concentrated largely around universities.”

“Is this true?” she asks, “or is it the result of an overly strict definition of ‘serious’?” I have to ask the same thing; but if it’s true, I suggest that the Center itself reflects the reason.

Go to the Center for Book Culture’s home page. Today there are two quotes:

“Nothing is good save the new . . . If anything of the moment results – so much the better. And so much the more likely will it be that no one will want to see it.”
— William Carlos Williams

“We know that life is good for nothing.” — Viktor Shklovsky

If that is the worldview of what the Center calls “serious fiction,” then it deserves only a few thousand readers. If that’s the perspective the Center takes on promoting books, then let it wallow in self-afflicted obscurity. Who wants to read many depressing stories on life being worthless? Wasn’t that buried with Samuel Beckett?

On the Center’s About page, the Center’s founder, John O’Brien, says literary fiction used to be profitable. “With the emergence of a literate middle class and the technology to produce books in mass numbers, publishers emerged who could make money from selling books.” Think Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. It was Twain who wrote, “High and fine literature is wine, and mine is only water; but everybody likes water.”

He says something changed three decades ago. “Larger publishers bought out smaller ones, merged lists, and cut lines that weren’t profitable. Even though commercial publishing has always been concerned with profit, it also had certain standards of what a book should be in order to be a book. Those standards no longer exist. If you write a book called ‘How to Lose 50 Pounds in 5 Days,’ someone will publish it. Since it is printed and has a cover on it, it’s a book! It was Alfred Knopf who said that best-sellers would kill publishing, that they were insidious. It would be impossible to find a New York publisher now who would agree with him. You might find some editors who would agree with him in a bar late at night in a very private conversation, but they certainly would not agree with him in terms of how to run a publishing house.”

So, if large publishers print “serious fiction,” they’ll lose their shirts. Is that a fundamental problem for publishers, authors, or readers? Again, I have to wonder whether the worldview of what the Center promotes is worth reading. If “serious fiction” means the kind an average reader should not expect to appreciate alone, the kind that needs to be discussed with a literature professor or learned friend to understand in full (or as close to full as you want), then how could there be many readers of it? It’s the same reason poetry isn’t read much. People don’t want to read something that is too obscure to communicate anything to them.


  1. There is another way to look at this problem (and this is true at many houses, I think): the bestsellers enable the literary books. So, the big type, big photo authors make a pile of cash and that is how the literary authors get paid. If you think of things that way, it makes it all much more palatable, at least for me.

  2. I wrote this comment at another blog (Buried Treasure) today where the ladies were discussing modern poetry, and it applies here, too.

    … there’s not enough that is inviting in it to draw me in and make me want to come back and work at understanding and squeezing out meaning. I think this is the reason many, many people have trouble reading poetry these days. It must invite you in somehow, and much of twentieth century poetry doesn’t invite but rather repels. At least with modern art there is sometimes something that is “pleasing to the eye.”

  3. Bookgirl, that situation is acceptable to me, and that’s not what publishers must do, then I don’t have a problem with profitability being one of their goals.

    Sherry, I agree. Some, maybe most, want to repel. Commercial success means they are serious enough, but I think they still complain that they aren’t being read or understood.

Comments are closed.