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Old 03-17-2013, 08:15 PM   #1
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The Decline and Fall of American Literary Culture

I recently heard about Matt Kahn, who is reading every novel to reach the number one spot on the Publishers Weekly annual bestseller list, starting 100 years ago in 1913. The complete list is here: http://kahnscorner.blogspot.ca/2013/...-94-books.html

One date jumps out at you: in 1977, Tolkien's The Silmarillion(!) was #1 in the U.S.

Take a look at the authors before that date: Pearl S. Buck, John Steinbeck, Philip Roth, E.L. Doctorow, Boris Pasternak, Sinclair Lewis, Winston Churchill, Erich Maria Remarque, Margaret Mitchell.

Then look after: Stephen King, Tom Clancy, Robert Ludlum, John Grisham, Dan Brown, E.L. James. In 1983, a Star Wars novel was the most read book in the United States.

What the heck happened?
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Old 03-17-2013, 08:43 PM   #2
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Winston Churchill . . .

What the heck happened?
This is the fiction writer, not Winston S. Churchill the statesman and nonfiction writer.

I have a feeling Winston S. Churchill might have deservedly made the list if it was a combined fiction/nonfiction list, which it is not. But the idea of the good old days being ones of literary high standards would have been sorely challenged by likely presence of Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich (1937).
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Old 03-17-2013, 08:45 PM   #3
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Nothing. As this list demonstrates, John Grisham is the greatest writer of all time, with more books in the survey than any other author.
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Old 03-17-2013, 09:22 PM   #4
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What the heck happened?
I agree with Fat Abe: nothing happened.

Harold Bell Wright, Booth Tarkington, Zane Grey, Gertrude Atherton were among several listed who wrote popular fiction, but probably not of outstanding literary value. There are few of any era that I would nominate for MR's Literary Book Club.

These are just the books that people most enjoyed reading (or succumbed to the hype) and were willing to buy. I think only a few are outstanding, and most just entertained people. I probably intentionally read only 1 in 10 books (if that) of outstanding literary value, and I choose the rest in the hope they will simply make me happy. It's wonderful when a book, like The Good Earth, meets both goals.

I really don't see any overall decline in taste, although I feel a tad snobbish about Fifty Shades. Surely Forever Amber does not exceed any of Grisham's books in literary value.
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Old 03-17-2013, 09:38 PM   #5
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What the heck happened?
I'd make a case that people realized litfic wasn't the end-all be-all that it had been set up as, and started looking for entertainment.
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Old 03-17-2013, 09:54 PM   #6
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Another factor may be who is reading. The world was a very different place back then.

Reading is much more accessible these days. Publishers offer more choice. People have more disposable income. Higher levels of education are attained. Literacy is expected of far more people. This created a huge shift in who reads, which would create a shift in what they read.

(As an aside: it is interesting to look at different measurements of literacy. Frequently cited statistics for western nations are above 95%. Those numbers drop below 80% if you expect people to do anything more than read and fill in forms. Assuming that I'm interpreting the report correctly, about half of the population doesn't have the skills necessary to read a novel.)
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Old 03-17-2013, 10:13 PM   #7
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(As an aside: it is interesting to look at different measurements of literacy. Frequently cited statistics for western nations are above 95%. Those numbers drop below 80% if you expect people to do anything more than read and fill in forms. Assuming that I'm interpreting the report correctly, about half of the population doesn't have the skills necessary to read a novel.)
Sad but true. Work as a Substitute Teacher for a few months and have a look at the English classes in our middle schools. Dick and Jane is heavy reading for some of them.
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Old 03-17-2013, 10:22 PM   #8
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I liken reading to Film or TV. Some people watch Godzilla, or Superman (entertainment), others watch Ghandi or The English Patient (History, Lit etc....
Some watch both. Some read both. My guess is Pulp Fiction is entertaining and like Bellazora said, occasionally a book does both.
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Old 03-18-2013, 01:01 AM   #9
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All movies are entertainment. It just depends on who is being entertained.

So too with fiction. All fiction is entertainment. H G Wells, it is remembered, believed that the purpose of fiction was to educate, it had to have didactic aims; but he never lost sight of the need to entertain first and foremost. A little bit of sugar makes the medicine go down.

Those novels which have survived are, for the most part entertaining to a sufficient readership to ensure that survival. I personally am not entertained by Joyce's Ulysses, but thousands are. I am entertained by the original Ian Fleming James Bond novels, but thousands--millions--aren't. But enough are to keep them in print nearly 50 years after Fleming died. (This year is the 60th birthday of Casino Royale.)

Best-sellers come in two main types: the big gaudy bubbles, which burst and are never heard of again (think Peyton Place, By Love Possessed, The Green Hat); and the ones that never seem to go away (Think Tolkein, Fleming, and probably The Godfather...)

Unfortunately, in the world at large, very few people actually read novels at all. A huge best seller like, say, the Godfather, sold a few million copies; but there are 250 million people in the US, 55 million in the UK, and another 100 million or more native English speakers about the place... so that blockbuster reached maybe 2 percent of the available population. Very few novels no matter what their merits or demerits, reach one percent, and most authors would be very happy with one tenth of one percent.

I read Dickens' Great Expectations and Hiassen's Skinny Dip for the same reason: entertainment.

Re-reading this, it doesn't make a lot of sense, but WTH.
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Old 03-18-2013, 07:01 AM   #10
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My first answer was going to be, "Books got cheaper." But in reading the list I think your choice of 1977 as the "edge" makes the break between "literary fiction" and "mass market genre fiction" seem sharper than it may actually be. Bestsellers prior to 1977 include Love Story, Portnoy's Complaint, Valley of the Dolls, etc.

Still, I'm comfortable with the idea that paperbacks became more affordable and readers had (a little) more discretionary reading time from the 1960s on.
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Old 03-18-2013, 08:16 AM   #11
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Here's the reason for the inflection point (circa 1975). Several publishers decided to do the unthinkable - give best seller treatment (hardbacks, displays, advertising, promotional tours, ect.) to top genre writers.

Before then, the purpose of genre writers was to be the bottom feeders of the publishing world. Good for profit, but not worthy of other notice. (after all, they weren't literature.)

The first experiment was Herbert's Children of Dune (1976). To the great surprise (and horror), it sold massively. Thereafter, top genre authors started getting the "best seller" treatment for their new books. And they sold (even if they weren't always so good...)

And the rest was history...
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Old 03-18-2013, 10:09 AM   #12
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Before then, the purpose of genre writers was to be the bottom feeders of the publishing world. Good for profit, but not worthy of other notice. (after all, they weren't literature.)
So what was the original standard?

"Have to disservice a casual reader at least X times, and be completely incomprehensible to at least Y percent of the population"?
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Old 03-18-2013, 10:20 AM   #13
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'77... was that the year they immanentized the eschaton?
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Old 03-18-2013, 10:59 AM   #14
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The first experiment was Herbert's Children of Dune (1976). To the great surprise (and horror), it sold massively. Thereafter, top genre authors started getting the "best seller" treatment for their new books. And they sold (even if they weren't always so good...)

And the rest was history...
I find the same is true for movies........the more it is advertised and promoted, the more i tend to shy awayfrom. They hardly ever are as good as advertised. With very few exceptions this has worked out to be true
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Old 03-18-2013, 11:02 AM   #15
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Reading is much more accessible these days.
I've lived long enough to disagree with this view. From my own life: my family was so poor we had an outhouse, a galvanized tin wash tub, and we heated water on the wood stove, yet we owned shelves of books from the 1800's to contemporary titles. In the 50's and 60's when I was living on spuds and beans there was always 25-40 cents to spend on the latest pulp fiction in drugstores and convenience stores, usually provided by finding discarded soda and beer bottles lying around and returned for deposit (yes, in those days glass bottles were recycled). Even money earned babysitting gave me enough for a subscription to at least one monthly discount club. Then there were libraries and the numerous second-hand stores where you could trade in 2 or 3 books for a new one. Clearly, from my family's collection, my parents and grandparents had no more difficulty accessing books than did I.

Beyond attaining literacy, education level is not necessarily all that relevant to this discussion. My parents never made it to high school and I never made it to college, yet we were always aware of popular fiction, as well as fiction deemed of literary value.

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