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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Group Reads

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

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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.


  • Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante September 16, 2014
    Few novelists have captured the rhythms and flow of life with the veracity of Elena Ferrante in her Neapolitan Novels. Following the friendship between Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo from childhood to old age, the tetralogy spans fifty years; over the course of that time, no emotion is too small, too dark, too banal to be recorded. No expense, so to speak, is […]
  • Trieste by Daša Drndić September 15, 2014
    As Drndić reiterates throughout the novel, “Behind every name there is a story.” And Haya Tedeschi’s story is draped in death. Born to a Jewish family that converted to Catholicism and tacitly supported the Fascists in Italy, Haya was a bystander to the Holocaust. She attended movies while Jews and partisans were transported to concentration camps; she pored […]
  • The Tree With No Name by Drago Jančar September 15, 2014
    At the opening of chapter 87—the first chapter found in The Tree with No Name—Janez Lipnik finds himself up a tree, shoeless, and lost in the Slovenian countryside. He makes his way to a house where he is taken in by a woman teacher who is waiting for her lover, a soldier. It becomes clear we are at the height of World War II. Soon after, we follow Lipnik […]
  • Kjell Askildsen, Selected Stories September 15, 2014
    Here, at the midpoint of his narrative, Bernhard, the affectless and purposeless protagonist of "The Unseen," experiences existential near-emancipation at dusk. This retreat toward obscurity in terse, direct language—thematic and stylistic markers of each work in the collection—comes immediately after Bernhard’s sister mentions her plans to enterta […]
  • Berlin Now by Peter Schneider September 15, 2014
    In his new book of essays, Berlin Now, Peter Schneider reveals himself as a gnarled Cold Warrior who has been stricken with many of the maladies common to his generation. With the specter of Communism exorcized, his new enemy is Islam. The book is a collection of short interlocking pieces introducing Anglophone readers to Berlin; it is not being published in […]
  • Paris by Marcos Giralt Torrente September 15, 2014
    In 1999, Marcos Giralt Torrente’s debut novel, Paris, was awarded the XVII Premio Herralde de Novela prize. Despite his success, it took fourteen years for Giralt’s work to appear in English, with the story collection The End of Love arriving in 2013. Now, this year sees the publication of two more books by Giralt: Paris, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, a […]
  • 10:04 by Ben Lerner September 15, 2014
    “It seemed that the [New Yorker] story—which was in part the result of my dealing with the reception of my novel—had been much more widely received than the novel itself,” says the narrator of Ben Lerner’s second novel, 10:04. Perhaps this narrator is Lerner himself—at one point he describes 10:04, within its own pages, as “neither fiction nor nonfiction but […]
  • Theories of Forgetting by Lance Olsen September 15, 2014
    Lance Olsen’s Theories of Forgetting is a masterful work structured around Robert Smithson’s earthwork “The Spiral Jetty.” Olsen’s novel is comprised of three narrations, written each by a separate member of a family. The husband’s and wife’s texts progress in opposite directions across the book, with each page divided among these two inverted texts; though […]
  • An Interview with Lance Olsen September 15, 2014
    The most substantial may be that innovative fiction knows what it is, that someone like me could define it in any productive way, that innovative fiction might somehow be one thing, or somehow consistent through time and space. None of these is the case. That’s exactly what I find most exciting about writing it, reading it, thinking about it. Innovative fict […]
  • The Ants by Sawako Nakayasu September 15, 2014
    In The Ants, we receive a study of existence through ants. That is, there are ants everywhere, ants substituted in every segment of the landscape, yet their behavior seems to reveal something altogether human. Too human. The ants are crushed and disappointed. They are warm and many. They are involved in gang wars and live inside carrot cake. The unique quali […]

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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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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