You Are What You Read – Postcards from The Bookshelf – Part Two
Writers and other people who ruin our lives
Over the past three years I have interviewed dozens of writers and hosted seminars on writing. People like Aziz Hassim and Azad Essa have been subject to my glee.
Initially I must admit that my love for books was fueled by my hatred for Shakespeare (don’t ask, lets just say I had a bad experience which included a stage, a Juliet and humiliation) but upon speaking with these authors I have come to two conclusions. The first is that don’t ask a writer “is your work autobiographical” and two, writers ruin society about as much as they build it.
You don’t believe me? Allow me to contribute evidence to prove my point. How many times have you heard a female friend going on a date saying she is going “to meet prince charming”? A literary reference that I am sure has ruined many promising evenings. If there is one thing I hate about books is how they can easily result in unreasonable expectations.
As much as people would not like to admit it, some writers are so good that they leave us wondering what is real and what is not. A few years ago a man had to be hospitalized in Pietermaritzburg after saying he believed that he was the reincarnation of Tom Sawyer. Any writer who has the power to drive people mad should be the subject of vigorous public scrutiny.
But over the last decade analysts have been predicting the decline of the novel. And unfortunately this has in some regards come to pass. We have seen book sales drop significantly over the last ten years. Partly fueled by the redirection of publishers to online and audio book formats but also by the popular novel. Even Oprah has had fewer book club selections.
Whilst many classical works have gone out of print and newer ones gone unnoticed, a large bulk of global book sales have gone to a concentrated market. Surprisingly the teenager is now the “it” market in the literary world. Adults are reading less and the 13-25 year old is the target of many book selling campaigns.
It is this transformation that has rendered the likes of J.K Rowling to be millionaires and the Twilight series to be a global brand that moves beyond just pages, to other ventures ranging from T-shirts and even to chocolate. If only Austin had been so lucky perhaps we would be much better of.
Which brings me to my next question, is the idea of a popular novel such a bad thing? I recently read an interview on Time magazine with renowned author Danielle Steel. In it she says “Shakespeare is far more important than anything I’ll ever write, but when I go to bed at night and I want to read something, I don’t read Shakespeare. I read authors like me, and I guess other people do too”
Comparatively speaking if you were to go out on the street and start asking randomly, people are more likely to recognize a name Like Danielle Steele over a Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or a Philip Roth or J.M Coeetze. This is the case even if they have not read a book by Steel. Now more than ever in the world of literature marketing is becoming more and more central. Whether that is a good or bad thing is not the issue. But I am concerned that we are building a literature that lacks longevity and genuine ideas. A kind of novel that is only convenient for current years. And it is not the first time this has happened. Years ago the Goosebumps books were similarly popular, but if you ask today’s teenagers what they think about them – they will most likely not even know what Goosebumps is. Clear testimony that a novel without ideas – no matter how popular will certainly not last.
I have nothing against popularity in fact I encourage it – these bastards need to read more and watch less infomercials if you ask me. But if popularity means that you are reading books that are just up in the air then there really is no point.
The trouble with the publishers is they after one success there is a distinct need for the writer to increase their output. That is why series’ are so popular, because writers and publishers are keen to milk that market for all its worth. Perhaps our authors should seek to expand and write about the weather and other interesting subjects.