July 30, 2008

The humdrum of conformity

Perusing through a book store in Porter Square today, I was numbed after a while by the number of books published these days. This was not a new observation. I have been wondering about it every time I go to the public library (2-3 times a week) and see the new books shelf, overflowing with new books. And the library probably gets just 10%, if that, of new books published.

I wondered if books have become like movies - new ones hit the shelves every few weeks and then they disappear into the dustbins of history. Movies go to DVD rentals, then sell for a few bucks a piece. Books end up in bargain book shelves in stores or on amazon.com, selling for throwaway prices - sometimes for less than a dollar. At the book store today, I saw a Pulitzer prize winning book in the bargain books section, selling for $3.99 within a year or two of having won the accolade. Where is the longevity to all that gets published these days? I guess, by its very definition, we will know in time. Also, 99% of everything published is probably crap. (Yes, Sturgeon was an optimist!)

I also wondered if publishers, like investors picking mutual funds instead of betting on individual stocks, pick a whole slew of first-time authors (on whom they do not have much to lose as I believe they do not pay first-time authors much; the latter are just overjoyed to be published and do not have the bargaining power that only success can bring them) not knowing which one of them will be the next 'God of small things' or 'Inheritance of loss'. (Sorry for my India-centric examples; I am sure there are other examples from US authors that would probably make my point equally well but names fail me at this instant.)

But how then
does one resolve the paradox of new novels being published by the hundreds every month and yet it being so difficult to publish?

And is it just me or is it true that literature from American authors has become like typical Hollywood fare: every now and then there is an unexpected and exceptional work of art but for the most part, they are formulaic, mundane, trite, and oh-so-conventional.

On the other hand, authors that I have read from non-UK Europe (lumping the UK for the time being with the US), I find that even in translation, novels from the last 25-odd years from France, Spain, Portugal, Poland, Albania, Russia, etc., and even those from the Arabic or African world, are much more out-of-the-box, more adventurous, a little less homologous; peerless pieces of literary forms that go beyond a genre or a fad. The same can be said of movies I have seen from non-UK Europe or the Middle East in the last 10-15 years: innovative fare that leaves you satisfied and moved more often than not; almost never repenting the time and effort spent in watching the movie.

To some extent this is a problem not just of North American writers but also South American writers, who indulge in the same old literary form of magic realism made famous by Gabriel Marquez (my ignorance - maybe it existed before, but arguably this has become more apparent to the English-reading world since the world took notice of and appreciated the adventure in magic realism through Marquez's successes); efforts that sizzle with life and imagination and yet are unified, and hence limited, by their homogeneity of style.

In some ways, Arabic, African, and anything from India or China, also runs the same risk as the Latin American writers of getting boxed into a certain genre, a certain way of thinking and writing. But since authors from these countries are still new to the Western world, perhaps their efforts are a little bit easier to tolerate; for the time being.

Perhaps the pressures to get published makes writers sync up their efforts to meet the current fad (memoirs; stories of love and pain and heart-rendering loss, etc.); although why this would be more true in the US than elsewhere is not clear to me. Perhaps this is a fallaciaous argument, biased by my own experiences living in the US. However, I remember someone else ruing this homogeneity too; aruging that the uniformity in voices and styles by American authors is a by-product of writers these days being products of the many MFA programs that have sprung across the nation, which train them in a certain style, beating the uniqueness out of them and rendering them impotent through the humdrum of conformity.

Anyways, just some random thoughts today after spending an hour browsing through the book store.

Thoughts? Is this a baseless allegation by me, warped by my own biases...or is there some truth to it?

P.S. Another question that I did not really ask but is sorta related and was explored in the New York Times earlier this week: Just who is really reading?

It is a
the first of a series of articles that the NYT will publish on the future of reading, comparing digital versus print reading and looking at "how the Internet and other technological and social forces are changing the way people read."

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