A couple of weeks ago, I was quite
rude about those who take their literature extremely seriously. Today, in
order to redress the balance a little, I’d like to respond to the opposite tendency:
the idea, as Michael Blowhard puts
it, that literary writing is "no longer something special and above,
but a niche market instead."
Well, in terms of numbers of books sold, one could probably say that ’twas
ever thus. Genre fiction, be it sci-fi, horror, romance or mystery, has always
sold more in aggregate than difficult, literary works. But Michael wasn’t talking
about sales figures, he was saying "that, in the larger scheme of things,
lit just doesn’t matter that much, that it’s just a specialist taste and activity."
Michael is particularly
rude about his two bêtes noir, Salman Rushdie and Toni Morrison. He
doesn’t like them one bit, and, what’s more, he claims that his friends in the
publishing industry don’t like them either. It’s all some kind of conspiracy,
it would seem: the powerful few, lunching at the restaurant whose name Michael
borrowed for his nom de web, constituting a cabal who pump up the likes
of Rushdie and Morrison in order to perpetuate a literary heritage of their
very own. Or something.
It’s pointless trying to get into an argument about quality here: I could shout
very loudly about how wonderful Rushdie is, and Michael would shout back "oh
no he isn’t," and no one would get anywhere. De gustibus non est disputandum,
and all that. But then I had an idea: I could show, quantitatively,
that literary fiction is not just another genre, and is, in fact, separate and
different from the rest of contemporary fiction.
The idea came from reading a column
in Slate which reminded us that classic novels are big money makers. It’s
hard to track their sales, since they come in so many different editions, but
when you do, they outsell many bestsellers from only a few years ago.
Well, I don’t have access to Nielsen BookScan, but I do have access to Amazon.com,
which helpfully provides a sales rank for every book it offers. I had an idea:
that Rushdie and Morrison could be distinguished from their non-literary contemporaries
by their staying power. I would compare their books to those written at the
same time, and see where the numbers fell. If the literary types were selling
much more than the genre writers, then it would be clear what the difference
is between literary and other fiction: literary fiction aspires to longevity,
to being read many years in the future, whereas most other contemporary fiction
is written basically only for immediate consumption.
What follows is not tweaked at all for rhetorical purposes. I have included
every book I looked up: I haven’t excluded genre fiction which sold better than
I thought it would, or literary fiction which was languishing in the 200,000s
on Amazon’s sales rank. I didn’t need to: every literary book I looked up was
in Amazon’s top 10,000, while every non-literary book was lower, sometimes much
lower. What’s more, literary books were generally available in hardcover or
library bindings, whereas non-literary books generally weren’t: it’s clear which
ones are aimed at posterity.
The results, then: Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is ranked
paperback and 23,337 in
hardback. Toni Morrison’s Beloved is 4,002 in
paperback, 6,788 in a
different edition, and 84,203 in hardback.
Other relatively recent literary books might include One Hundred Years
of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez, which is 2,394 in
paperback, and 9,469 for the Everyman’s
By contrast, the number one bestseller in 1988, The Cardinal of the Kremlin,
by Tom Clancy, is now 11,396 in
paperback and 28,473 in
hardback. Clancy’s royalties from this book are lower than those received
by Thomas Pynchon for the famously-unreadable Gravity’s Rainbow, which
The number one bestseller in 1991, selling an unprecedented 2 million copies
in hardback, was Scarlett: The Sequel to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the
Wind, by Alexandra Ripley. Where is it now? At 17,776 in
paperback; the hardcover is long out of print. Even the paperback is outsold
by Infinite Jest, ferchrissakes.
The following year, the biggest-selling book was Dolores Claiborne,
by Stephen King. It’s now 85,325 in
paperback, and good luck finding the hardback (there is a library
binding, ranked at 500,670).
Meanwhile, let’s go back to literature, and Don DeLillo, whose White Noise
at 3,461. The Viking Critical Library also has its own
edition, ranked at 26,378, which includes "an extensive critical apparatus,
including a critical introduction, selected essays on the author, the work and
its themes, reviews, a chronology of DeLillo’s life and work, a list of discussion
topics, and a selected bibliography."
DeLillo has another claim to literary merit: a scathing
review of his latest novel in the New York Times’ Sunday books section.
It is impossible to imagine a review such as this being written of any book
without literary aspirations: if Walter Kirn had written anything half as cutting
about Clancy, Ripley or King, the Times would never have published it. If such
a piece ever did appear, thousands of letters would come in, complaining that
Kirn doesn’t get it, or shouldn’t be reviewing such books in the first
place if he hates them so much.
Literary fiction is different, is more important, and not
only is taken more seriously than other types of fiction, but – rightly
– will continue to be taken more seriously for the foreseeable future.
Rushdie was universally panned for his latest
novel: he’s not some kind of sacred, untouchable icon of the publishing
world. Rather, he’s written some books – Shame, Midnight’s
Children, The Satanic Verses – which are magical, wonderful
works, the kind of writing that will be read with great pleasure long after
anybody reading this article is dead. In a word, literature.