November 30th, 2003

books

The Need to Read Stephen King...

In a recent issue of Publisher's Weekly, Jeff Zaleski, the Forecasts Editor, spent a couple of pages on thoughtful comments concerning the schism between publishing professionals and the reading public. I'm just quoting a selection of it here as a point of interest. I've certainly heard similar things from other colleagues and also seen statements leading in the same general direction in query letters. As a bit of backstory (for those readers not already acquainted with the facts), the board of directors of the National Book Foundation voted to give Stephen King the 2003 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, which apparently caused a bit of unrest in the publishing community. The award is given to "a person who has enriched our literary heritage over a life of service, or a corpus of work."

Literary awards rightfully go to authors of great books -- works of originality, lasting power and beauty. Yet literature, even great literature, surfaces in genre just as in "literary fiction." But many of us are unfamiliar with genre, because we don't read it (one wonders how many of those who object to the King medal, including Bloom, have read King's work thoroughly); nor do many of us read, much less study, the bestselling commercial authors. And that may be a serious problem for our industry: because what publishing professionals read by choice differs from what the book-buying public reads.

That observation is based on years of conversations I've had with publishing professionals, and it is, admittedly, a very broad observation. And it is true that publishing is in part a niche industry, calling for knowledge of specialized markets, and that literary excellence may thrive equally in books that sell poorly and in books that sell well. Even so, it's significant that many publishing professionals, when asked what they read, cite "literature" rather than commercial or genre fiction -- a new book by T.C. Boyle, say, rather than one by the much better selling Michael Crichton. This preference manifests in the mainstream literary awards, the great majority of which, of course, are given by publishing professionals.


As an agent who handles primarily commercial fiction in a variety of genres, I tend to be an exception to the rule -- my reading pile is packed full of popular thrillers, mysteries, fantasy novels, science fiction, romance and so forth. However, I also must admit that in reading these materials, I have also noticed an evolution over the last few years towards books that are more literary, even within the genres (e.g. China Mieville, Neal Stephenson). And I have wondered if it's somewhat inescapable that a person who reads (or writes) for a living goes through such stages. I hope I never lose my love for genre fiction, but it has stumbled once or twice, and I know that many of those who work in publishing find it difficult to read for pleasure. Food for thought.
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