the contextual life

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On the Shelf: What’s a Bestseller?, Ed Champion Recommends, and Short Stories for a Busy Life

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The summer issue of Bookforum features a collection of critical essays about bestselling books. Ruth Franklin, literary critic and senior editor at The New Republic, discusses the history of the infamous list and book critic for the Washington Post Michael Dirda talks about how bestselling aspirations of publishers and authors affect the literary scene.Ruth Franklin begins her piece with a dose of humor and poignancy, “The term best seller has always been a misnomer. Fast seller would be more appropriate, since the pace of sales matters as much as the quantity.”

She looks into where the lists get their numbers from: the New York Times bases its numbers on approximately four thousand unnamed booksellers, the Wall Street Journal uses the respected industry source Nielsen BookScan, which grabs its numbers from three-quarters of the nation’s bookstores, and IndieBound goes by what the independent bookstores are selling. Amazon.com, somewhat misleading, is based on orders not actual sales and is updated hourly. After this bit of technical background, Ruth dives right into the cultural history:

“If people look to literature to explain themselves to themselves, then the popular novelists of the past, whose books once lined the shelves of every well-appointed middle-class home, can tell us a lot about the preoccupations of the people who read them. The story that emerges from the novels that triggered national obsessions constitutes a map of the mainstream—and its changing boundaries over the years.”

“The book business began to change in the ’70s. Literary novels were still a regular feature during this era, with Ragtime, Sophie’s Choice, and Humboldt’s Gift all appearing on the list. . . . But if the list was not yet as mass-market-heavy as it would become in the ’80s and ’90s, there was nonetheless a marked decline in the literary level that reflects the changing marketplace.”

“A combination of factors brought about the homogenization of the best-seller list that began in the late ’70s and continues today. First, consumers’ shopping patterns changed: Readers who had once depended on the Book of the Month Club to supply them with popular fiction now could find discounted hardcovers at mall retailers like Waldenbooks. Then the ‘superstores’ pioneered by Barnes & Noble began to edge independents out of the market, which made publishers less inclined to publish the quirkier fiction in which the smaller bookstores specialized. Meanwhile, the conglomeration of publishing houses under larger and larger umbrellas meant that profits were often managed by distant executives who prioritized the bottom line over promoting literary culture, making editors less likely than ever to take risks on anything beyond the mainstream.”

You can listen to her discuss her research on ABC Radio National’s Book Show.

Michael Dirda pulls no punches, opening with “However you refer to it, list is a disaster for literary and general culture.” He goes on to explain, “I think it’s bad for readers, bad for publishing, and bad for culture. Above all, despite appearances, the best-seller list isn’t populist; it’s elitist.” He feels that if both bestseller lists and tables were to disappear “People would spend more time browsing a bookstore’s stock . . . they would actively engage with a greater portion of our literary culture” and that readers “might even discuss their tastes with the shop’s owner or staff, who would actually recommend a few appropriate titles.”

Echoing sentiments that can be heard from a few authors these days, he continues “In the past, a decent author photo, the solicitation of a few blurbs, and an occasional bookstore reading were all that a writer was expected to do to promote his or her work. No longer. You need an author website, Twitter account, Facebook page, YouTube video, and blog to which you contribute posts every day.” In the end he offers some sage advice: “Think outside the list.”

Where do you find your next book? Who do you trust for suggestions? If you’re lucky enough to have independent bookstores in your town or city do you notice a difference between the books they carry and what the box stores display on their tables?

I’m fortunate to have great independent stores in my area—and to be honest, my local Barnes & Noble is large enough to carry more than the average fair compared to their less-trafficked counterparts. I’m also lucky to have access to, what I’ll call, professional readers who are up on what’s new and what’s great—inside and outside of the bestseller lists. One such person who I spent a Friday evening with at my local indie, WORD, for their Literary Karaoke night was Ed Champion, host of The Bat Segundo Show, a literary podcast, and editor of Ed Rants, a literary website. I’d mentioned that I was on a science fiction kick—no surprise to those who follow my blog—and he picked out two of his favorites. They are, in no particular order:

Spaceman Blues: A Love Song by Brian Francis Slattery
The publisher describes it as “a literary retro-pulp science-fiction-mystery-superhero novel, the debut of a true voice of the future, and a cult classic in the making.” If it’s as fun as the cover, it should be a great read.

You can listen to Ed’s interview with Brian in 2007 after the book was published. You can read an excerpt on Brian’s site.

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
This biopunk novel is set in a future Thailand where the entire global economy is built on calories; where the heroine, Emiko, is a “windup girl,” a genetically modified being created by the Japanese as a toy. Lev Grossman of TIME magazine, in his roundup of top ten fiction for 2009, called Bacigalupi “a worthy successor to William Gibson” and described the novel as “cyberpunk without computers.” Boing Boing called it “an exciting story about industrial espionage, civil war, and political struggle, filled with heart-thudding action sequences, sordid sex, and enough technical speculation for two lesser novels.” The Windup Girl won both the Hugo and Nebula Award for Best Novel in 2010.

Ed also interviewed Paolo. You can listen to it here.

Another book that caught my attention this week, which is not science fiction, was:

Ladies and Gentlemen: Stories by Adam Ross
Acclaimed author of Mr. Peanut is back with a book of short fiction billed as a “darkly com­pelling col­lec­tion of sto­ries about broth­ers, lon­ers, lovers, and lives full of good inten­tions, mis­un­der­stand­ings, and obscured motives.” One of Adam’s biggest supporters, Rebecca of the wildly popular Book Lady’s Blog, says: “this collection establishes Ross as a writer unconstrained by format, one who doesn’t need the bells and whistles, twists and turns, regardless of how skillfully he deploys them.”

You can listen to Adam discuss his collection on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show.

What’s on your shelf this week?
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Written by Gabrielle

July 21, 2011 at 5:44 am

2 Responses

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  1. Thanks for the shout-out! I hope you enjoy LADIES & GENTLEMEN. On my shelf this week is THE FOREVER WAR by Joe Haldeman, which I’m reading for my get-recommendations-from-smart-booksellers-at-my-local-indie-for-books-I-wouldn’t-normally-read project. Written in 1977, it’s a sci-fi satire of the Vietnam War (akin to what Heller did in Catch-22 for World War I), and so far, it’s fantastic.

    Rebecca Schinsky

    July 21, 2011 at 10:53 am

    • anytime! always looking for reliable sources for my book picks. scifi is so good in the summer, i’ll have to check that one out.

      Gabrielle

      July 21, 2011 at 1:07 pm


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