If E.L. James is the most important person in publishing, then Psy is the greatest composer of all time.

A few months ago, my husband and I were at a barbecue with a number of his work friends and their respective others. My husband works in tech, and conversations with computer engineers and software developers and other mythical animals is refreshingly different from writers’ shop-talk. I may not understand half of their technical conversations at all, but they’re never dull.

So there we were, eating and drinking and hanging around, and everyone was talking about his or her dedicated e-reader. I tried to keep my nose out of that discussion, because I have my little views on Amazon and its Kindle, and on ebooks in general. I just stuffed my face with cheese and crackers and kept out of it. But when the discussion turned to specific books, I couldn’t help myself.

One of my husband’s coworkers was giving a panegyric about the greatness of Michael Crichton, declaring him greater than, say, Herman Melville. I couldn’t let that stand. Now, I’ll be the first to say that Michael Crichton was great at commercial fiction. And commercial fiction is important. But is he our cultural heritage? Is that what we leave our children? This man’s argument was that Crichton was the best writer, and Jurassic Park the greatest book, because of popularity. Millions of readers can’t be wrong, can they? He rolled his eyes at me when I tried to talk about quality and an enduring message.

Just yesterday, I was having a moment of confusion over Publisher’s Weekly having named E.L. James its person of the year, and an old college classmate gave me the “you’re just jealous” treatment, and claimed that there’s no harm it writing or reading or selling pulp as long as people like it. She couldn’t understand why I felt so many other people in publishing (editors, agents, publishers) were doing more important, enduring work than popularizing badly written erotica.

I am discouraged by how hard it is to persuade people that quality matters. If we judged value by sheer popularity and commercial gain, then it should also hold true that:

1. “Gangnam Style” is the greatest musical composition of all time.

2. McDonald’s is the pinnacle of Western cuisine.

3. Transformers is a more important film than Citizen Kane.

4. The University of Phoenix is a more important educational institution than Columbia University.

5. The sweatpants rack at Wal-Mart is a greater contribution to fashion than anything Alexander McQueen ever created.

6. The insertion of breast implants and collagen is the highest and best use of a medical education.

7. Angry Birds is the finest application of modern technology.

I could go on like this all day.

I don’t think any reasonable person would agree that the above statements hold water. But people seem ready to believe that their literary equivalents are totally reasonable. Much of this has to be our own fault as writers; if we cast ourselves as somehow separate from everyday life–as highly sensitive artists who just can’t be understood by the masses–then we send the message that we’re okay with literature’s marginal position in society. As a poet, I’m particularly chagrined by how accepting many of us bookish types are of the fact that poetry’s public space today seems to extend no farther than some butchered Robert Frost quotations in high school graduation speeches.

Now what to do about it? Maybe we writers need to spend less time talking shop with one another and more time thinking about that elusive audience out there. How do we get and keep their attention?

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4 thoughts on “If E.L. James is the most important person in publishing, then Psy is the greatest composer of all time.

  1. With all due respect to your husband’s coworker (which isn’t much), it’s virtually impossible for someone who’s most likely been raised in an educational system and culture that ignores great art and literature (and music and languages and philosophy, etc. etc.) and who’s almost had no exposure to classic culture to even begin to appreciate the value of someone like Melville. You’re right about writers needing to spread the word beyond their clans, but I see an underlying issue here, that will be more difficult to address, and that’s our culture’s belief that sales trumps everything.

  2. You are absolutely right that the educational system has a big role in this sad situation. Case in point: a kid who came to me for some writing tutoring a few years ago told me, “our school doesn’t really do English. We just focus on academic subjects.” Yikes.

  3. Kelly, this is just coincidental that I was invited to see a production by Performers Under Stress, a local theater troupe. Their latest show is called You Need to Read Poetry and it addresses a number of the things you mention, including the elitism and the myth that poetry is “too hard” to read. I plan to see it next weekend. Here’s an interview with the show’s director:

    http://www.sfweekly.com/2012-11-28/culture/performers-under-stress-interview-you-need-to-read-poetry/

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