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.