While I wait for my copy of Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince to be delivered I have had plenty of opportunity to witness the reactions of a variety of people to the phenomenon that is Harry – from the new pope’s condemnation, (if he can’t tell that this book teaches between right and wrong it certainly explains a lot of the Catholic Church’s moral stands) to treatises on declining sales of books written for adults. (No this is not a week late in being posted: I’m a weird bibliophile and have ordered my copy from Bloomsbury in England. I prefer their publications; the binding is better and the paper is higher quality.)
It’s funny how the publication of a new Harry Potter always brings about soul-searching on the part of so-called serious writers. They ponder and pontificate about the state of the novel, and how sales are down with a few obvious exceptions. Like Hollywood moguls discussing diminishing box office returns, they comment on the new competition for the entertainment dollar and other societal factors. But they all seem to be ignoring a key factor in their considerations. People don’t buy what they don’t like.
After reading one heart-rending article by a writer wondering what would happen to his books about urban life, they sounded sort of like field guides to thirty-somethings of the eastern sea board, I began to wonder if the problem wasn’t with the public but with the people producing the product.
A new hardcover book in Canada will set you back $40.00 with 7% tax. Even a mass-market paperback can be as high as $9.99 plus tax. That’s quite an investment to ask anybody to make. To ask them to make it on the speculation that they might like what’s being sold is quite the risk.
The number of times that I’ve dished out thirty to forty dollars and been disappointed is probably equal to the times I’ve been satisfied. I hate to say it but invariably the books that seem to fall well below my expectations are those most heavily touted by critics, or the ones on everyone’s bestseller lists. Very rarely now will I go out and buy a book on the recommendation of something I’ve read about in anybody’s book section.
I usually end up trolling through the aisles seeing if anything rises to the surface and takes my hook. A cover, or even a flash of colour from a cover, catches my eye. I’ll scan the back or the flyleaf, look at the author’s picture(many the time a book has been rejected because I’ve taken an instant dislike to the author because of their picture) and a quick scan through the book in an attempt to discern style.
Far too many writers seem to be under the impression that the more oblique their writing the better, as if incomprehensibility is something to be achieved. Any book that makes vague promises about structure and perception is rejected almost immediately. I don’t need to read any more books about three generations of poor Irish farmers told in a stream of conscience from the cow’s point of view.
Why does everybody think they are either the new James Joyce or Virginia Wolfe? This whole post-modernist deconstruction of the novel has gotten tired. It had very little appeal to most people in the first place. It always seemed like an in-joke for tenured English Professors anyway. Now it’s just boring.
The books I find myself being attracted to are the ones which promise the best stories. For me that is a combination of the events portrayed and the characters who are propelled through them. I’m not looking for so-called realism or escapism, although they might be considered both. Real characters in unreal situations makes as fine a story as any you’d read anywhere.
If you look back on the original purpose for storytelling, it was primarily educational. Sitting around the fire at night the storyteller would pass on the information that was important to the tribe. They would tell the stories of their history, the beliefs, and that exemplified the qualities needed to lead a good life.
Storytellers seem to have been universally important throughout our history. Repositories of wisdom and information, they were held in high esteem and excused from all other tribal responsibilities. I seriously doubt they would have offered up a post-modern analysis deconstruction of that day’s hunt to the assembled folk around the fire.
People want to hear stories, or read them. The problem is that very few writers seem to know how to tell a story well anymore. The only ones who do nowadays are primarily thrown into the science fiction or fantasy category. Not that very many of them have anything to do with space or even science, nor do they deal with the elves and little people’s associated with fantasy.
“Real Novelists” seem to look down on their storytelling contemporaries. They are not allowed to share shelf space with them, as if they had some sort of disease. But if they ever got off their high horse long enough to check out their neighbours they would discover something, that these are the people who are recreating the storyteller role in our world.
These books sell because they strike a chord with their audience. The more universal the chord, the more they sell. While it’s easy to dismiss these books as “light fiction” or other pejorative labels, it’s not as easy to deny their success.
Why would so many adults of all backgrounds read the Harry Potter books if there wasn’t something in them that was missing from so-called serious novels? Sure they are escapist to some extent, but so are a lot of things which don’t attract that large an audience. It wouldn’t be because they are well written and talk about things which we can all identify with would it?
Novelists need to look at themselves and what they are writing if they want to answer the question of why aren’t we selling books. Sure there might be more competition for the entertainment dollar these days than before, but as J. K. Rowling has proved, if you write it (a good story) they will read.
Ed:NB, Edit: BMcK