Trouble in litblogland

The Litblog Co-op has announced its first Read This! selection: a lesser-known work that the 20 members of the co-op believe hasn’t gotten the recognition it deserves in the mainstream media.

The idea was simple: literature blogs are beginning to have some influence on the literary world, but each one individually isn’t going to make or break a book. But if they all got together, and with a unified voice said “this is good,” well now, maybe that would begin to make a difference.

Their selection, Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories, was certainly a book I’d never heard of. Indeed, I’d never heard of Atkinson. When I first saw the selection, I thought to myself, “well, that’s interesting. Here’s a book I never would have even considered buying, and now I’m thinking about buying it because a bunch of bloggers recommended it.” I didn’t think much else about it, and the book slipped out of my consciousness for a couple days.

Then, trouble began brewing. Since I’m only an occasional litblogger, I didn’t notice it at first, but then Scott Esposito made this post. Uh-oh. Apparently there was some sentiment that Case Histories was too mainstream. I checked back at LBC, and sure enough, there were now dozens of comments on the “Read This!” post, many of them highly critical of the selection. Atkinson’s book had been widely reviewed. Atkinson had won the Whitbread award. Case Histories ranked as high as 1300 on the Amazon sales list. Case Histories was just a mystery novel, not serious literature.

So what does make something mainstream? It’s the question Scott Esposito’s asking on his blog right now. If a lot of people like it, is that all it takes? Because if that’s the definition of “mainstream,” then I’m wondering how LBC could ever make a selection — as soon as 20 prominent bloggers agree on something, then suddenly I think we’re talking about mainstream. Since I think it’s worthwhile for LBC to try and promote a non-mainstream book, I think we’re going to have to discard that as a possible definition.

I think a better definition might be this: it’s mainstream if people who aren’t paying attention are aware of it. I’m not talking Da Vinci Code here, but I am talking about people who don’t necessarily read the NYT book review every week. Look, before this little controversy erupted, I hadn’t even heard of the “Whitbread prize.” If you had mentioned Whitbread to me, I would have thought it was some kind of sailing race. My wife, who’s a much more avid reader than I am, had never heard of Atkinson.

So how do we hear about books? We hear about them if they make the non-book review section of the paper, or if their author shows up on NPR when we happen to be listening, or if we see them on one of the main tables at Barnes and Noble, or if their author writes an article in the Atlantic or some other magazine we read. And we don’t listen to NPR all the time, we’re not in Barnes and Noble every day, and sometimes our copy of the Atlantic gets buried under stacks of junk mail, so if we’re going to hear about a book, it’s got to be in the media a lot. Just one mention isn’t going to do it. Certainly by that measure, Atkinson qualifies. She’s currently ranked #2754 in Amazon’s bestseller list. I’d be lucky if I could name 27 current books, let alone 27 hundred. I think this is exactly the sort of book LBC should be recommending: it’s a book that hasn’t reached a typical smart, educated person’s consciousness, but if it did, it would probably appeal to them.

I also think this controversy is good for the LBC. If they had all smilingly picked the same book, with no controversy whatsoever, I would have wondered if they were book reviewers or marketing reps. Isn’t that what litblogs are supposed to do — discuss literature, and sometimes even disagree? It’s a controversy that’s intrigued me, and if it intrigues me, that means they’ve brought a new reader into the fold. I’m not a big reader of current fiction — I probably read 3 or 4 novels a year. I read a lot more nonfiction than I do fiction, and even then I wouldn’t consider myself an avid reader. So if I’m talking about Atkinson, then the LBC is doing its job.

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5 Responses to Trouble in litblogland

  1. Scott says:

    Dave,

    This is a very thoughtful post. I think what you’ve done
    here is to delve a little into precisely what name
    recognition means and how an author acquires it. In my
    post, I argued that name recognition is probably the most
    important element of an author’s mainstreamness.

    But now I’ve got to play the devil’s advocate: What if an
    author is famous, but infamously so? What is that person
    is famous for being difficult, for being unreadable, for
    being controversial (Chuck Palahniuk, for example). Is
    that author still mainstream?

  2. dave says:

    I’d have to say yes. Cmon, if your book’s been made into a successful motion picture, you’re mainstream. Palahniuk’s not the sort of person who needs the blogsophere to help launch/restart his career.

    I suppose you could argue that the same is true of Atkinson. I mean, one of her books did sell 100,000 copies. I’d certainly settle for that sort of public ignorance of my work.

    On the other hand, the book in question also needs to be *good*. The LBC will lose all credibility if it simply started endorsing books based on how much of a loser their author was.

    Maybe the LBC should just run all its nominees by me: if I’ve heard of it, then they have to reject it!

  3. bookdwarf says:

    Great post Dave. I agree with you that all this discussion about books is great, as long as it doesn’t get too heated. People would have complained no matter what was picked. And when was the last time that you saw an argument on what constitutes mainstream/literary/underdog writers?
    As for what is mainstream, I don’t know. It’s in the eye of the beholder I guess.

  4. Arethusa says:

    This was the point I was trying to make in the discussion, but I think I rubbed one person the wrong way with my dismissive tone of awards. I wasn’t doing that at all truly, but I had sort of set myself up as a representative of the sort of demographic the LBC was most eager to reach? The sort that, while aware that certain awards exist, please don’t ask me about winners and what year they were awarded. Don’t ask me about too many titles either. I don’t pick up books and note the publisher (a big to-do was started because she’s with Little, Brown). I think it’s silly to say that book awards make anyone “mainstream”. How many people know who won the Nobel in literature last year? Yeah, me neither.

  5. dave says:

    Well, I thought I was aware of the latest Nobel winner, but it turns out I was remembering the year before, John Coetzee, and that’s only because he teaches at my alma mater, the University of Chicago! Methinks you’ve got a point there.

    I actually think most of the LBC is pleased with the selection, so don’t take the dissent personally.

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