Waterstones have come up with a canny and interesting marketing ploy. They have started asking well-known authors to list 40 books that influenced them or that they recommend and are listing them individually on their website. In The Independent books supplement on Friday, Boyd Tonkin addresses Philip Pullman’s selection. His article has an interesting slant – that of the impairment of literay innovation by the current trend towards a reading monoculture that is based around middle-of-the-road fiction and biography. The implication is that there is a shallowness to the modern reader (as a generalisation), who rarely steps beyond the star names.
While I’m aware that it is total generalisation, I have to say that to a degree I think he has a point. Certainly the readers that I interact with on-line are exceptions to that rule but they, for the most part, are a rare breed of passionate bibliophiles who gravitate from their corners of the globe to literary hubs online such as LibraryThing or groups of book blogs. On a day-to-day basis, I often find resistance amongst people to ‘trying something new’ and on more than one occasion, on recommending a classic or challenging read, I’ve had the reply (or a paraphrase of) “Life’s to short to read books like that!”. It’s odd, because for me, life’s too short not to! How will I ever read all the books I want to before I shuffle off this mortal coil, especially with new books appearing each year? I certainly find that the good finds in the large book multiples like Waterstones or Borders are often hidden away in the back shelves, the book piles on prime display bearing a disturbing similarity to each other whichever chain you visit. I know for a fact that some people don’t step beyond the central pedestals when browsing.
So, does this affect literary originality and innovation? Whatever the root cause, be it selective marketing or selective reading, I would say that it does. How often do you see a best seller followed by a swathe of clones or also-rans? When publishers identify a market niche that is selling well, it’s quickly filled by all manner of versions of what is essentially the same premise. But is this a bad thing? I find myself questioning whether authors who fill these niches would be the authors who contributed with great originality an innovative piece to the literary canon. For all of the clones and substandard versions of hackneyed themes, there is always the odd gem. The odd literary marvel. These are rare but then so are brilliant writers. I tend to think that these brilliant writers rise up above the ‘unfertile ground’ and would whatever the tendencies of the readership. We have such a volume of work on the market now that we have come, possibly, to expect excellence at every turn. When that isn’t the case, we look to the authors, the readers and the sales outlets to cast blame. Is it possible that excellence can and should be rare?