Thursday, January 6, 2011

Don't Judge a Book By Its Popularity

Welcome to 2011. Compose your New Years' resolutions, the ones that will supposedly make you healthier, happier, a better human being. I made a good comprehensive list, and I'm trying to follow through. But my resolution as a book critic gives me a good amount of hesitation--while I'm fairly certain it'll make me more informed, I wonder if it might prove detrimental to my health.

One of the Christmas gifts I was hoping for this year was a copy of Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games. I asked for this not because it was at the top of my to-read list, but because I'd heard so many people talking about it for so long. It's high on the children's best-seller lists, but it's a YA book that many adults have picked up as well. (And you can't say that Harry Potter became a phenomenon solely on the shoulders of readers under 18.) I felt like I was missing out on some crucial conversation in our culture by not reading the books, and so I was thrilled to find it wrapped up under our tree on Christmas morning. And more thrilling than its presence was the fact that I found the book absolutely thrilling and a total pleasure to read. No, it wasn't a deeply complex literary novel, or a bafflingly well-researched biography, but it was a great, enjoyable read with deeply compelling characters and, more importantly to me, a thoughtful allegory about the post-9/11 culture of both the American police state and obsession with reality television. Why had I assumed that, just because the series was popular, it would be all fluff and no substance?

What chip had landed on my shoulder that convinced me all things profitable and well-liked had to be bad, or not worth my reading? I should've known better after reading The Help, a flawed yet sharply observed novel about the South during the Civil Rights movement. Or when I read Three Cups of Tea and found it a galvanic piece of war journalism. More than just "misunderestimating" these works, I'd missed a chance to better understand the reading public. How better to take the pulse of popular culture than to sample what's popular? I marvel at those who somehow managed to avoid seeing Avatar in 2009, or Inception in 2010--yet I still haven't read a single page of the Twilight saga? Can I really call myself an editor, critic, reader, writer, if I only deign to read those titles that fit my narrow definition of literature? Last year authors like Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner took the New York Times to task for failing to review female writers as often as they would male writers, but they could've gone one step further: why does Jonathan Franzen, who writes a great tome once every 10 years, get countless articles, whereas Picoult, who regularly appears on the best-seller list and has over 14 million copies of her books in print, rarely merits a mention? Is it because Picoult is female? Or is it because she is already being read?

In the recent issue of The New York Times Book Review, attempting to explain "why criticism matters, the writer and critic Elif Batuman said, "Much as there are things about our own life stories that we can learn only from the systematic study of our dreams, there are things about the human condition that we can learn only from a systematic study of literature." If I take a page from the reading public, I may come to understand them much, much better. So here are my New Year's resolution is to reserve judgment of those things most lucrative and well-liked: I will read Twilight. I will read a few novels by James Patterson, Patricia Cornwell, and Tom Clancy. I will spend time in the romance, fantasy, and sci-fi sections of my favorite bookstores. I will not turn my nose up at something just because the author has earned back their advance.

I can continue to champion, in my writing and on my credit card bill, those writers who I believe deserve praise and acclaim, but they'll have to be the ones from a much wider library than I've ever had before.

Next up on my list: S**t My Dad Says.

1 comment:

  1. I am PUMPED at the possibility of a Jess Reads the Bestseller List column.