Nathan Bransford first offers a post in which he critiques the idea that in those halcyon days of yore the general public loved highbrow literary fiction, while today cultural tastes have degenerated.
Nathan’s take: “Personally, I’m very skeptical of golden era attitudes toward the past. While books have had to cede cultural ground to other media with the rise of movies, TV and the Internet, I also don’t know that there was ever an exalted period in the past where everyone in America was reading literary fiction and arguing about Proust vs. Flaubert at the dinner table, or even that there were more people who did that in the past than do now.”
Then! To explore the issue, he also offers:
A list of the best-selling novels every year this century, and, for good measure,
A list of the best-selling nonfiction books every year this century.
But I don’t know! Much as I admire Nathan Bransford, I’m afraid that for me, having Dan Brown appear twice in the past ten years is, um, not a positive sign. Also, having Fifty Shades as the 2012 bestseller kinda adds weight, all by itself, to the thesis that cultural tastes in books have degenerated in the modern day. Is there anything half as bad in the first 15 years of this list, as the bad ones in the last 15 years? And here I mean “badly written,” not just “pornographic.”
3 thoughts on “Taste in books, then and now”
Well, one question I have would be, how much does word of mouth figure into it? Because people may be buying Dan Brown and Fifty Shades, but they aren’t keeping them. I browse used bookstores a lot, and it’s always funny to see which authors they have in stock and which they don’t.
People buy books for any number of reasons. And quite a lot of people buy books to read about the latest hot thing that they can talk about with their friends, then find they don’t care for them very much. And even if these hot things aren’t very good, it’s much easier to spread them around. Who knows about the staying power. Books aren’t just for the elite anymore.
(If this sounds a little rude, I’m sorry. I always get a little tetchy when I hear things about cultural degeneration.)
I was surprised at how many of the fiction authors on the best seller list’s earlier years (up to mid-century) I’d read, even if not the same books. But back in the days when they were in the libraries I read ’em. I think most are gone now. And, looking back at them, they had more variety in plot and were less degrading in their assumptions about humanity than a lot that is published today.
I think we’ve lost something, or publishing has. I see some people on other blogs proposing that publishing is in trouble because the editors aren’t buying and publishing much that people can actually be enthusiastic about. I could believe it.
OTOH, Dan Brown & 50 Shades were successes, and I couldn’t get past Brown’s first page, the writing was so bad, yet, it sold. I think I looked at a bit of 50 Shades but don’t recall. Something in these works speak to people, and I can’t imagine what. I’ll take the worst ER Burroughs (he wasn’t a great writer, at all) book for my airport reading over either.
Reminding myself of Sturgeon’s Law, also.
I looked at some of the comments and was depressed by the horror! mostly white men! comments.
Another resource could be Book of the Month Club lists of offerings, which someone has probably put on the web somewhere. They were, when I was paying attention to them, a mix of the highbrow and middle of the road sort of thing.
Hi, Nicole — no, no, not rude at all! I was actually being casual and flip with the topic, or I would have written a much longer post! All about how fifty years ago it was acceptable to make openly racist comments, so that’s a huge improvement, and how today American culture seems much more sexualized, a trend which has reached down to encompass quite young girls, and that is definitely not an improvement. And so on.
I actually think you are right that a lot of people bought Fifty Shades (for example) and then dumped it. An analysis of flow of information (word of mouth in the internet age vs fifty years ago) and buying + reading + approving-of-the-book patterns would be really interesting, but way beyond my scope.
I do think Fifty Shades and Dan Brown’s books are *badly written* , aside from any questions of overall quality of the story. The appalling lack of literacy that I have personally seen in my students just over the past decade or so does make me feel that fewer people today can distinguish good writing from bad — again, that is a big and complicated topic, and of course I see a biased sample of students, but far too many college students today are totally unable to put together a coherent sentence and can’t possibly be reading above, say, the sixth-grade level. But then a wider cross-section of students attempt college today than did fifty years ago, so . . . yeah, complicated.