8 Easy Steps to Understanding Bestsellers

book/daddy sincerely hopes that Lisa Adams and John Heath's Why We Read What We Read has some interesting observations about the 200 pieces of bestselling woodpulp the two authors read -- more interesting observations than what they had to say Thursday on The Diane Rehm Show.

Bear in mind that these are year-end bestsellers they're talking about, not the occasional bit of originality that pops on the list and then dies a quick, justified death as if the other books on the list instinctively gang up on any external threat. These are their conclusions:

-- American readers like happy endings.
-- We like simplistic answers.
-- For all of our search for answers, we're happiest with books that validate the values we already hold. We don't want to pursue any troubling inquiry into our own thinking.
-- Oprah views all literature as essentially the author's autobiography, but despite her taste for "uplifting" stories (and the understandable skepticism some have expressed toward her choices), many of the novels she's picked are actually worthwhile, often well-regarded by critics before the books ended up in her club. Terry Teachout has argued, along with others, that the middle-brow culture that we knew in the '50s, the middle-brow culture that often supported high-brow culture and ushered ordinary people into experiencing it on occasion, no longer exists. A central tenet of middle-brow culture, it seems to book/daddy, is the notion that "art is good for you, art is elevating" -- as opposed to the intellectual's approach of connoisseurship/fetishism/appreciation of complexity and difficulty for their own sake. book/daddy submits, therefore, that Oprah is the essence of middle-brow culture today. And doing quite well, thank you.
-- Americans confuse spirituality with self-improvement and with financial success. It's a mix going all the way back to the Puritans, and it's still selling self-help books like mad.
-- Romantic advice books posit that men and women are so utterly different, "it's a Darwinian miracle that they even breed." So we have to work at it. Meanwhile, romance fiction is based on the premise that if we meet the right person, happiness inevitably results. There's no work required at all, once you get over yourself. Sex involves vulnerable women being dominated by Big Strong Brutes. In both romance fiction and romantic advice, despite the ideology of the authors involved, traditional gender roles are enforced; women are nurturers; men are providers. Not a single best-seller, fiction or nonfiction, has espoused a "more modern" view.
-- Political/policy bestsellers are rarely balanced or nuanced. They're mostly just partisan ammunition. The only thing that can be said for the liberal side is the occasional welcome bit of humor.
-- Americans read for plot and character and don't care a fig about literary style.
-- The educational system is not doing a very good job at improving reading skills, but parental influence is an early and crucial factor.
-- And in a tidy demonstration of many of these points, there was the inevitable e-mail from one listener who complained about her student-child's summer reading list always involving downbeat topics like racism or the bad language in Hemingway, and why couldn't more uplifting role models be provided for teens?

Whether one agrees with these points or not, all of them would seem to be pretty much standard-fare intellectual analysis/dismissal of mass-market books. A grad student who spent Christmas vacation working at a Borders could have arrived at the same conclusions.

In fact, he could have found many of the same arguments -- though offered with a more casual and much less aggressive edge than I've presented here -- if our grad student had simply picked up Michael Korda's 2001 book, Making the List: A Cultural History of the American Bestseller, 1900-1999.

September 6, 2007 10:16 AM | | Comments (2)



Hey Jerome, thanks for listening. Okay, I'll admit we really didn't get a chance to showcase our wit and charm and most nuanced analyses on the Diane Rehm show, but hey, we weren't the ones asking the questions. Give us a teeny weeny break.

Michael Korda's book is excellent (we quote it in ours). But there are many differences. Most obviously, our book is rather sarcastic and sassy (we had hoped this would be mentioned in the interview) while Korda's is purely scholarly. Also, Korda handles an entire century, while we cover only the past 16 years. Therefore we delve much more deeply into the individual books and their themes than Korda does (his intention is not to look at themes per se but to study the publishing industry). While perhaps the overarching conclusions of Why We Read What We Read are obvious, the more detailed findings of the book are not. We are alarmed by many of these findings, but we're not dismissive. We can't be: millions upon millions of Americans read these books. They're important because they reveal our deepest desires and fears.

Since I've spent the past three years of my life reading, thinking about, and comparing bestsellers, I really truly hope this book couldn't have been written by any ol' grad student hanging at Borders for two weeks! But heck, even if I've wasted my life, I don't mind. John and I read some terrible bestsellers and we read some wonderful bestsellers, and we had the pleasure of writing a spunky book about a topic that's deeply important to both of us.

If any of you out there do decide to give the book a chance, come on by our blog afterwards at http://www.whywereadbooks.com/blog. There we continue the discussion with reviews of books we didn't get to cover in Why We Read What We Read.

Happy reading...whatever you read!

Well, damn, wish I had read this sooner! Let me know if you'd like a review copy of my new novel--and hope to see you soon in Austin!


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