The End of Oulipo?

The End of Oulipo? My book (co-authored with Lauren Elkin), published by Zero Books. Available everywhere. Order it from Amazon, or find it in bookstores nationwide. The End of Oulipo

Lady Chatterley’s Brother

Lady Chatterley's Brother. The first ebook in the new TQC Long Essays series, Lady Chatterley's Brothercalled “an exciting new project” by Chad Post of Open Letter and Three Percent. Why can't Nicholson Baker write about sex? And why can Javier Marias? We investigate why porn is a dead end, and why seduction paves the way for the sex writing of the future. Read an excerpt.

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Translate This Book!

Ever wonder what English is missing? Called "a fascinating Life Perecread" by The New Yorker, Translate This Book! brings together over 40 of the top translators, publishers, and authors to tell us what books need to be published in English. Get it on Kindle.

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The Tunnel

Fall Read: The Tunnel by William H. Gass

A group read of the book that either "engenders awe and despair" or "[goads] the reader with obscenity and bigotry," or both. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Naked Singularity

Summer Read: A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava

Fans of Gaddis, Pynchon, DeLillo: A group read of the book that went from Xlibris to the University of Chicago Press. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

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Life A User's Manual by Georges Perec

Starting March 2011, read the greatest novel from an experimental master. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Last Samurai

Fall Read: The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

A group read of one of the '00s most-lauded postmodern novels. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Tale of Genji

The Summer of Genji

Two great online lit magazines team up to read a mammoth court drama, the world's first novel.

Your Face Tomorrow

Your Face This Spring

A 3-month read of Javier Marias' mammoth book Your Face Tomorrow

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Ten Memorable Quotes from William Gaddis’ Letters

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Here are ten of my favorite moments from these hugely interesting letters.


Interviews from Conversational Reading

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See this page for interviews with leading authors, translators, publishers, and more.


  • Nostalgia June 15, 2014
    Few habits are as prone to affliction, or as vulnerable to an ordeal, as the bent of a peddler’s consciousness. Placeless, the peddler completes an untold number of transactions; there are ideas to conduct (through language, which can transact a mind) and feelings to certify (through tasks, repeated interminably). […]
  • Why Literary Periods Mattered by Ted Underwood June 15, 2014
    There are some writers who are, and likely always will be, inextricably linked to the “period” with which their work is associated, and in many cases helped to define. Surely Wordsworth and Keats will always be “Romantic” poets, while Faulkner and Woolf will remain modernists, as the term “modern” has been fully appropriated to describe the historical era be […]
  • Trans-Atlantyk by Witold Gombrowicz June 15, 2014
    August 1939. You sail to Buenos Aires on the Chombry as a cultural ambassador of Poland. Why say no to a little holiday on the government’s tab? Soon after arriving you sense that something isn’t right. You emerge from a welcome reception and your ears are “filled with newspaper cries: ‘Polonia, Polonia,’ most irksome indeed.” Before you’ve even had a chance […]
  • Accepting the Disaster by Joshua Mehigan June 15, 2014
    The first collections of most young poets, even the better ones, carry with them a hint of bravado. Flush with recognition, vindicated by the encouraging attentions of at least one editor and three blurbists, the poet strikes a triumphant pose and high-fives the Muse: “We did it, baby.” When Joshua Mehigan published his impressive first collection, The Optim […]
  • The Histories of Herodotus, translated by Tom Holland June 15, 2014
    Two of the greatest of Tom Holland's predecessors in translating Herodotus are Victorian scholar George Rawlinson and Aubrey de Selincourt; the former translated Herodotus in 1860, making an enormous hit (despite the fact that its detractors often referred to it as “dull and prolix"), while the latter's 1954 Herodotus was another enormous hit, […]
  • Bullfight by Yasushi Inoue June 15, 2014
    The premise of Yasushi Inoue's debut novella Bullfight, celebrated in Japan as a classic of postwar literature, is unassuming enough: an evening newspaper sponsors a tournament of the regional sport of bull-sumo. As practical and financial issues arise, the paper's young editor-in-chief, Tsugami, soon realizes he has taken on more than he can handl […]
  • Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones June 15, 2014
    Sworn Virgin was made to be translated. Elvira Dones wrote this book not in her native language of Albanian but in Italian—a necessarily fraught and complicated decision. In an Italian-language interview with Pierre Lepori, Dones speaks about her choice of language: “Sworn Virgin was born in Italian . . . I’ve lived using Italian for nineteen years, it has s […]
  • On the Letters of David Markson June 15, 2014
    Knowing these narrators and how their lives paralleled David’s own, it’s difficult to deny his being a recluse. I certainly held that image of him, and nursed it, secretly cherishing it because it meant I was one of the few people with whom he corresponded, and with whom he would occasionally meet. Arranging our first meetings in person was something of a ni […]
  • Storm Still by Peter Handke June 15, 2014
    Storm Still (Immer Noch Sturm) does not necessarily represent new terrain for Handke. Originally published by Suhrkamp Verlag in 2010 and now available for English-language readers thanks to Martin Chalmers’ fluent translation, the play chronicles the dissolution of the Svinec family, a family of Carinthian Slovenes—a quasi-fictionalized version of Handke’s […]
  • Red or Dead by David Peace June 15, 2014
    David Peace's novel Red or Dead is about British football, but it partakes in the traits of Homer's epic. This is a novel about the place of myth and heroes in modern society, about how the cyclical rhythms of athletic seasons reflect the cyclical patterns of life. It is a book about honor and fate, and one which bridges the profound, dreamlike ter […]

On Correlating Sales and Quality

Nina Siegal has gone through the Publishers Weekly bestseller list since 1900 (I didn't realize PW kept stats this long) and attempted to correlate sales with literary quality and longevity. The results are as follows:

The period we might call the “Golden Age” of bestseller fiction came in mid-century. As I got into the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, I was surprised to find myself highlighting not one or two recognizable titles every couple of years, but three or four sometimes in a single year. In 1961, for example, Americans were reading, or at least buying, The Agony and the Ecstacy (#1), Franny and Zooey (#2), To Kill A Mockingbird (#3), Tropic of Cancer (#6) and Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent (#10). That’s a pretty high-brow reading list compared to 1994, when three of the top ten bestsellers (#4, #7, and #8) were by Danielle Steele, and others were John Grisham (#1), Tom Clancy (#2), James Redfield (#3), Stephen King (#5) and Michael Crichton (#10). . . .

The bestseller in fiction took a precipitous turn in the 1980s towards what might be termed the “throwaway read,” a novel with a shelf life of yogurt. Interestingly, that doesn’t seem to be quite as true with nonfiction bestsellers. America’s nonfiction bestseller lists still have some pretty hefty titles. This week, for example, the nonfiction bestseller list included Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, both complicated and voluminous works.

Trying to read the bestseller lists as a crystal ball is always going to be a bit of a crapshoot, but it's hard to look at what Siegal finds here and not see some kind of trend toward less good books dominating the bestseller lists more and more post-1970.

This is obviously a huge subject open to lots of influences, but the first thing that came to mind when I saw Siegal's picking 1980 as a pivotal year was that this was right about when corporatization really took over publishing. Of course that still leaves open the question of if the general U.S. culture was driving changing values in the publishing biz or vice versa, but there does seem to be a real change starting right around 1980.

There's also the question of what bestsellers actually represent. That is, widespread developments over the past 40 years have changed the way books become bestsellers; a big-name literary prize like the Pulitzer might have been enough to ensure sales 40 years ago, but now sales are driven in different ways. That is, what works at Costco is going to be different from what worked as an equivalent mass market phenomenon 40 years ago.

Caveats aside, Siegal has pulled together some interesting information for people who like to agonize over this sort of thing.

I would say that The Late Age of Print would be a huge help for people trying to figure out how the business side of publishing worked to change any correlation between quality and sales. In discussing Siegal's findings, Andrew Seal points out Making the List by Michael Korda as another useful book in understanding what the bestseller list tells us:

There are sources which answer, to a limited extent, some of these questions, and I'm reading one of them now. Michael Korda, an author and publisher, wrote Making the List in 2001 (which I excerpted a little from yesterday), and it has some nice, very double-spaced commentaries on each decade of bestseller lists, starting from 1900-1909. Mostly, he just points to a few titles from each year which left a slightly less delible mark on the American cultural scene. But he also offers a few notable developments in the history of publishing, such as the marketing of the first crossword puzzle book, which was the first "non-book," or book not meant to be read, to be sold in actual bookstores. These kind of moments I'll try to summarize in a later post, as well as a few broader-scope meditations (like the excerpt posted yesterday) which Korda offers on historical trends or consistencies he has seen over the years. Korda also mentions a couple of other titles of similar subject, and I'll try to track those down and summarize them as well.

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  1. U.S. Book Sales Down 20 Percent? The AP reports the sobering news that U.S. book sales are taking a beating: The numbers at Nielsen BookScan, which covers about 75 percent of...
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7 comments to On Correlating Sales and Quality

  • Do you think the death of the short story market had an effect?

  • Seems like the decline of corporate publishing’s interest in short stories is more of a symptom than a cause. Although, given the way things are going with emergent technologies surrounding ebooks and online publishing, I wouldn’t be surprised if short stories become economically viable in the near future.

  • deebs

    I don’t know the stats, but given my sense of things I wouldn’t be surprised if the post-70′s also saw the trend toward less good movies dominating the box-office.

  • Cynic

    Publishing might be an adequate explanation if this phenomenon were restricted to paperback fiction, but it’s not. Mid-century marked the apex of the middlebrow. The newly-ascendant postwar middle-class attended college on the GI Bill, moved out to the suburbs, and consumed culture in an aspirational fashion. If you wanted to be respectable, you had to read the right books, see the right films, read the right articles.
    Of course, this was easy to mock – and it was endlessly ridiculed and denigrated by intellectuals, who despised and reviled what they perceived as the mindless conformity of the vast middle class. Dwight Macdonald led the charge, but he was hardly alone. By the end of the era popularly known as the 60s – around 1975 – the middlebrow was just about through. The new ethos of authenticity and individuality served, ironically, to legitimize mass-market, lowbrow works. After all, it was the establishment which looked down on such works – and screw ‘em.
    It’s too easy to blame corporatism or Reaganism. Nope, we gone done it to ourselves.

  • True, some intellectuals have long been opposed to the middlebrow, but Reagan-era conservatism also did a great deal to drag any tinge of intellectualism out of mass entertainment.

  • I suspect the same factors that have led to the decline of short story publishing has also affected poetry.

  • Hi,
    This is really great work. Thank you for sharing such a useful piece of information here in the blog.
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