Esprit de l’escalier

November 5, 2009 by · 7 Comments 

Yesterday, I moderated a panel put on by the Book and Periodical Council. The session’s title was “What Rules Reading: Ranks or Reviews?” (I trust that frequent readers of this site will be able to divine on which side of the equation yr. humble correspondent falls.) While I was prepared for a healthy debate about diminishing review pages, the migration of criticism to an online environment and the concomitant rise of amateur “citizen” reviewers, precious little time was devoted to these issues. Instead, the panel focused more on the utility (or lack thereof) of bestseller lists in driving book sales.

In the course of the discussion, I floated the idea that bestseller lists created what are essentially self-fulfilling prophecies: if, as one of the panelists suggested, people consult bestseller lists to find out what books they should be reading in order to contribute to discussions around the water cooler at work, do such lists not simply create demand for books that are already selling in large(ish) numbers, leaving a whole raft of equally worthy (if not infinitely more worthy) books unnoticed by the general public? Ancillary to this, why do publishers and booksellers put all their effort into publicizing books that are already selling, as opposed to paying attention to other books that people might not be aware of due to budgetary restrictions for marketing, lack of visibility in bookstores, etc.?

The answer to these questions was illuminating. We’re all in the business of selling books, said one panelist, and if the bestsellers by people like Dan Brown are what the public wants, that’s what should be front and centre in bookstores. What interests me about this comment is not the idea that booksellers should heavily promote things that the public is already aware of; from a retail perspective it only makes sense to put your heavy hitters up front. (Although booksellers might want to take a cue from department store philosophy, which often counsels putting desirable items at the back of the store, so that customers have to walk past all sorts of other things they didn’t know they wanted in order to get to the one item they are actually looking for.) What interests me is the assumption, which I’ve come across with wearisome regularity, that books as products are equivalent to, say, toothpaste or dishwasher detergent.

This assumption is so wearisome, so apparently ingrained in our consumerist psyche that it prompted no challenge from the panelists or the audience, which was made up of publishers, librarians, and other industry players. It prompted no response from yr. humble correspondent, who should have had his wits about him. What I should have pointed out is that books are a product to be sold, and booksellers and publishers obviously need to make money to stay in business, which means moving units. But unlike toothpaste or dishwasher detergent, books are also cultural artifacts, records of our distinctly human heritage, and so should not (in the best of all possible worlds) be treated simply as line items on a P and L sheet. Books like The Lost Symbol and Twilight – the ones that frequently make the bestseller lists and find premium placement in bookstores – are entertaining diversions, but they are also flashes in the proverbial pan. What passes for today’s water cooler conversation will be forgotten next week, next month, or whenever the new big thing comes along. However, carefully crafted works of literature, works that often risk getting lost in the noise of our apparently insatiable blockbuster mentality, endure: why else are we still reading The Iliad, The Faerie Queen, or Dead Souls in 2009?

At their most sublime, the stories contained in works of literature speak to us about our common humanity, they help us understand how to be human. And that’s much more important than merely moving units.