23 March 2010

Are mass market books bringing us all down?

This Guardian blog comments on the disgust from elitist corners about the recent wave celebrity novels and ghosted memoirs in Britain (one multi-million copie best selling memoir "written" by Katie Price, a professional slag who makes Pamela Anderson seem positively classy, distinguished and regal). Blog writer Robert McCrum nags the reader with a familiar refrain about popular culture being, well, popular, going back to the Middle Ages. He compares the printing press to the internet, few of the 16th century tracts and pamphlets of reportedly disreputable nature from that age survive, but McCrum is sure they must have been just as badly written as our emails and tweets.

The industrial revolution, he goes on, gave rise to a wide class of professional writers and just as in the Middle-Ages and Renaissance, those times saw great writers find their voice above the fray.

McCrum doesn't fulfil the promise of his blog subtitle, how mass market sales support better fiction, but one intuits that  it must be true. What's interesting however is whether recent mass market phenomena principally in the UK but also in North America have dumbed down the entire industry.

I'm always struck by stories about what ravenous readers people used to be in the Eastern block. In Russia, Pushkin was the best seller. All Russians knew their Dostoeysky backward and forward. Within  a couple of years after the fall of the Soviet Empire, Danielle Steel was the best seller. That's one hell of a cultural shift. Pushkin readers didn't start devouring Proust once bourgeois lit became available. Steel didn't expand Russian readership. She actually replaced Pushkin.  People went from reading the best that world literature has to offer to reading, well, something far from the best.

This is purely anecdotal but I've noticed a similar trend amongst friends with whom I studied literature. Most read a wider range of books in the years following graduation and many continue reading literature, classic and contemporary. Many, however, do not and are reading complete trash if they are reading at all.

I'm fine with walking the same earth as the likes of Dan Brown and if the revenue he generates means that John Donne's sermons remain available in paperback, then I appreciate his contribution. Still, there's that Martin Amis short story in which poets are treated like rock stars, put up at the Beverly Hills hotel when in town and in the old Soviet Union it was like that. Poets were rock stars. I'm not advocating communist censorship of course, but there is certainly something to the idea that the lowest common denominator has a way of bringing too many of us down to its level.

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