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Indpendents and What the Kids Are Reading

In the Guardian, Hirsh Sawhney has a piece about how independent publishers of the world are going to save literature:

Could literary culture really be breathing its last? Should readers and writers be running for cover? Of course not. But what, then, will save literature from economic disaster? Simple: independent publishing. Yes, independents – the ones who struggle to sell enough books to make payroll – will ensure that engaging, challenging books continue to be produced and consumed. It’s they who’ll safeguard literature through the dark economic days ahead. [. . .]

In an ironic twist of our times, however, these perpetually struggling entrepreneurs might just be able to weather the current financial crisis better than their behemoth corporate cousins. Why? They’re used to constantly innovating to generate revenue and to conducting the business of literature on a tight budget. They don’t expect unreasonable profit margins from good books. And when you’re independently owned, you’re somewhat insulated from the machinations of the market.

All this is true, and beyond weathering the current economic storm, independents play a vital role in book culture, publishing those titles that might not be profitable enough for a big house to do, but that are important nonetheless. And thanks to the nature of the beast, historically, it’s been a lot of indie presses that publish the more subversive, challenging books that shake up how we think about art, politics, life. Books that would appeal to college students who are out looking for something that’s not necessarily sanctioned by their professors or parents . . . Isn’t that what college is all about?

Well, apparently the days of college students reading cult novels that are flying under the collective media radar are long gone. From the “Washington Post“:

Forty years later, on today’s college campuses, you’re more likely to hear a werewolf howl than Allen Ginsberg, and Nin’s transgressive sexuality has been replaced by the fervent chastity of Bella Swan, the teenage heroine of Stephenie Meyer’s modern gothic “Twilight” series. It’s as though somebody stole Abbie Hoffman’s book — and a whole generation of radical lit along with it.

Last year Meyer sold more books than any other author — 22 million — and those copies weren’t all bought by middle-schoolers. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the best-selling titles on college campuses are mostly about hunky vampires or Barack Obama. Recently, Meyer and the president held six of the 10 top spots. In January, the most subversive book on the college bestseller list was “Our Dumb World,” a collection of gags from the Onion. The top title that month was “The Tales of Beedle the Bard” by J.K. Rowling. College kids’ favorite nonfiction book was Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers,” about what makes successful individuals. And the only title that stakes a claim as a real novel for adults was Khaled Hosseini’s “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” the choice of a million splendid book clubs.

Maybe I’m getting old, but I have to admit that I find this pretty disturbing. And some of the explanations for these reading habits are equally cringe-worthy:

Professor Eric Williamson — a card-carrying liberal in full tweed glory — argues that “the entire culture has become narcotized.” An English teacher at the University of Texas-Pan American, he places the blame for students’ dim reading squarely on the unfettered expansion of capitalism. “I have stood before classes,” he tells me, “and seen the students snicker when I said that Melville died poor because he couldn’t sell books. ‘Then why are we reading him if he wasn’t popular?’ “ Today’s graduate students were born when Ronald Reagan was elected, and their literary values, he claims, reflect our market economy. “There is nary a student in the classroom — and this goes for English majors, too — who wouldn’t pronounce Stephen King a better author than Donald Barthelme or William Vollmann. The students do not have any shame about reading inferior texts.”

How wonderful. I’m done for today . . .



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