Musings on the Wild World of Writing & Editing

Posts tagged ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’

The Reading Renaissance?

Before I get down to business, I have some news to share. I recently got published in the Sagebrush Review, Volume 7. I’m pretty excited that I’m in a book that’s on Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/Sagebrush-Review-Volume-Brooke-Wallace/dp/098234533X/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1344608988&sr=8-2&keywords=sagebrush+review) and that has an ISBN number. If you the extra funds and are so inclined, it’s definitely worth spending the fifteen dollars.

Now that I have unabashedly and shamelessly promoted myself, I can get on with it. I recently read an article from the Guardian about how publishing really is still going strong (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/aug/08/publishing-fifty-shades-books-important). Even though the publishing world is having some major setbacks (DoJ lawsuit, anyone?), people are still buying books. In fact, “Kindle readers buy four times the number of books they did prior to owning a Kindle.” Although we might hate Amazon for its relentless and crushing rise to the top, at least we have evidence that people are continuing to buy and read books, albeit from the evil empire. Self-publishers (apparently they’re now called indie authors, which I think is a more appealing if more hipster-ish title) are still churning out books like there’s no tomorrow, some of which are even better selling than traditionally published works. Penguin just invested $100m on a company that sells DIY services to aspiring self-publishers.

I prefer to think that publishing isn’t a dying industry, just one that’s undergoing some serious growing pains and enduring massive upheaval as the industry enters the electronic age. I was at a dinner with a family friend of my boyfriend, and he asked me what I was planning to do after my graduation. I told him I hoped to enter the publishing industry and eventually become an acquisitions editor. His first question: “Isn’t that a dying industry?” Like I said, I don’t think publishing is on a slow and inevitable decline. I told him, as patiently as I could, that publishing is trying to adjust to a new era of e-readers and tablets, indie authors, and growing competition from online booksellers. Yes, publishers are reporting losses (partially because of legal fees from the DoJ lawsuit, an ill-informed lawsuit from a government that doesn’t understand the ins and outs of a complicated industry), and university presses are shutting down. But I think it’s partially a matter of time while publishers re-calibrate their methods to suit a new era where books are interactive and recommendations and reviews appear anywhere from an established magazine to a blog (such as this one). New material is pouring out as both publishers and indie authors continue to put their work on the market. On a side note, I find this inundation of material a tad bit overwhelming. I walk into a library or bookstore and can’t figure out where to begin or what to read. But that’s another post for another day–where we should turn to find new titles.

But I did take issue with one of this article’s points–that of the massive success of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy and how that’s evidence of the publishing industry’s continued power and prowess. Phillip Jones writes, “Every half-decade the book business comes up with a title that crystallises what it means to put an author in touch with a reader: a relationship that can be both bountiful and long-lasting.” Despite the trilogy’s success, I don’t think it deserves a special place in publishing history. For one thing, its writing is almost as bad as the Twilight Saga, if not worse (to check out what I mean by bad writing, look at reasoningwithvampires.tumblr.com). Also, it appeals to a fairly narrow audience: adult women who finally get an excuse to read “acceptable” erotica. In my opinion, if you want to read respectable erotica, just open Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I’d have to argue that other series and books are much better proof of the enduring power of books, ones that are much more far-reaching and teach much better lessons than how to have kinky sex. The obvious example is the Harry Potter series, a series that made reading cool again and introduced an entire generation to the magic of the written word. The series’ success far outstrips the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey. For one thing, HP a coming-of-age saga about good versus evil and the amazing power of love–familial, platonic, and romantic. Twilight, by comparison, is mostly about how important it is to have a boyfriend. And also, the book that (I hope) will define this half-decade is not soft-core porn but a book about courage, bravery, and honor: the Hunger Games series. By no means high literature, this series is inspiring a generation of young readers to value strength, whether it be mental, emotional, or physical. Despite the fact that I take issue with the amount of violence it reveals to kids, The Hunger Games is a cross-over series that means a lot more than a sex contract given to an insecure young women by an older man with odd sexual tastes. Evidence of publishing success does not lie with E. L. James but with Suzanne Collins and J.K. Rowling, not to mention Stephen King or Barbara Kingsolver. 

Whether or not we are in the middle of a reading renaissance remains to be seen. Part of this reading renaissance depends on the kind of writing we are consuming. When I told my father I wanted to study contemporary American literature in graduate school, he asked me whether or not I thought any of it was worth studying or reading. He asked if there were any modern masterpieces in the works, if any of them could hold a candle to F. Scott Fitzgerald or John Steinbeck. He seemed to believe that the golden age of American literature had since passed. It’s true that classic authors are influencing contemporary authors less and less (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2012/may/14/writers-no-longer-influenced-by-classics), but that by no means indicates that current writing fails to set a new standard or are classics in the making. Yes, our postmodern (or post-post modern) writing may diverge from the established norms, but today’s writers demonstrate their own style. One can look at the emergence of the prose poem, the lyric essay, flash fiction, and the abundance of free verse and realize that literature with a capital L is still out there, still being written on a daily basis.

I have no facts or figures on how many books are being bought every day and by whom, and I have no clear understanding if losses in publishing houses indicate a decline of reading. However, every day I find more people online who share a passion for reading and writing. Go on twitter and you’ll find thousands upon thousands of people who describe themselves as writers and readers, who tweet about books they’re reading and articles they liked. WordPress features hundreds of blogs dedicated to creative writing, publishing, and books. This core group of people whose love of the written word has not diminished comprise the base of people who are unwilling to let publishing desiccate quietly in a desert of lameness. We are proof that millions of people still read and recommend books to friends. We are evidence that publishing isn’t on the decline but really on the upswing, if only those at the top can find a way to adjust to the electronic age.

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