The King-Hazzard debates that began at the National Book Awards dinner and rippled through blogland a couple of weeks ago are anticipated in this 1999 piece by Ray Sawhill on what publishing professionals wish they had time to read–and what they would like to never have to read again.
It was when I asked my interviewees to specify what they’d be happiest not reading that the surprises began. (The wittiest answers: Publishers Weekly and the New York Times Book Review.) John Grisham, perhaps predictably, topped the list. But after him came writers from among today’s most respected literary figures. Salman Rushdie (“boring and pretentious”) and Toni Morrison shared top honors. Don DeLillo (“he’s homework”), Norman Mailer, Thomas Pynchon, John Updike, Tom Wolfe and Martin Amis trailed close behind. (To be fair, each of these writers also had a fan or two.) In fact, of the dozen publishing people I polled, only three would still be devotees of what passes today for literary writing if it weren’t part of their jobs.
The list of living writers my subjects would willingly continue to read was much more varied…
Click through to find out who. Sawhill’s essay originally appeared in Salon. His reflections on the results of his informal poll cut to the heart of the discussion about the relative merits of popular and “literary” fiction (a distinction that has proven hard to hold in place) that followed the awards dinner:
What would our reading lives be like if they weren’t preoccupied with, or nagged at by, the dream of literature? My poll suggests that in such a world the reader who finds Toni Morrison a hectoring drag and Salman Rushdie a radical-chic blowhard wouldn’t hesitate to say so. We would give serious thought to the argument that, for example, Elmore Leonard is more likely to be read 50 years from now than Martin Amis. Preferring Rikki Ducornet and Dennis Cooper would be fine, too. In any case, it turns out that, even if your reading stash looks like a disorderly heap of magazines, mysteries, celebrity bios, a classic or two, fiction by a couple of literary figures you’ve grown attached to and books about your personal interests–whether it’s birdbaths or the nature of consciousness–there’s no reason to feel shame or guilt. Nobody can read everything. And, besides, you’re already reading like the pros wish they could, if only they had the chance.
Very nicely said.