Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Are you ashamed of what you read?

by Sandra Parshall

Sometimes I come across articles about writing, reading, and publishing that seem to be referring to an alternate book world that I’ve never experienced. My reaction is: Huh? Where did that idea come from?

Take, for example, a recent article on the Wired magazine website that examined the “surprising” popularity of genre fiction like sci-fi, fantasy, mystery and romance in e-book form. These forms of storytelling, according to the article, “have traditionally lagged behind literary fiction in terms of sales.”

Huh? Where did that idea come from?

A Publishers Weekly/Bowker study a couple years ago showed literary fiction had 20% of the digital market share, outselling any particular genre. But those sales included classics – the e-books that are dirt cheap (and sometimes free) for downloading. How many owners of new Kindles have bought War and Peace or every Jane Austen novel during an initial downloading spree, then never found time to read them as planned?

When it comes to traditional print publishing, can any of us recall a time when genre fiction didn’t dominate bestseller lists? When James Patterson, John Grisham, Nora Roberts and other genre stars didn’t regularly stomp all over literary fiction? The annual Publishers Weekly report on the bestselling books of the previous year confirm that genre rules. The surprising thing isn’t that genre sells well but that there’s any room at all for litfic.

The Wired article names some all-digital genre lines created recently by major publishers – Hydra (SF/fantasy), Alibi (mystery), Flirt (“new adult”), Loveswept (romance) from Random House and Witness (mystery) from Harper Collins – and says the focus on genre fiction “might seem counter-intuitive according to traditional print publishing sales.”

But it’s not at all counter-intuitive. Genre books, particularly romance and crime fiction in all their many varieties, are big sellers in print, so it makes sense to assume they’ll sell well as e-books. And they do. Some genre books sell more digital copies than print.

Why? Some sensible reasons are advanced in the article, but the first one mentioned is this: If it’s an e-book, you won’t be embarrassed by other people being able to see what you’re reading. That sounds an awful lot like: Nobody can see you’re reading trash.

Antonia Storer, a columnist for The Guardian, is quoted as saying she’s more comfortable reading “downmarket” fiction in secrecy on an e-reader and “keeping shelf space for books that proclaim my cleverness.” In a column last year Storer wrote, “The reading public in private is lazy and smutty. E-readers hide the material.” After you stop rolling your eyes, go read the rest of the column. It’s quite entertaining.

Put a cover on your e-reader to make sure nobody can see what kind of trash you're reading!
The Wired article does make some valid points. Liate Stehlik, senior vice president at HarperCollins, is quoted as saying that genre fans read a lot of books and “the audience that gravitated to e-books first really was that voracious reader, reading for entertainment, reading multiple books in a month across multiple genres.” She's not the first to point out that e-books are replacing mass market paperbacks. Anyone who follows market news is well aware of that.

Digital-first publishing allows publishers to take more chances on new authors and work that might not make a profit in print. Novellas, for example, have more chance of being published profitably (or published at all) as e-books. As Stehlik says, e-books have liberated publishers from the profit/loss limits of print – and they have freed writers and readers as well.

But it appears we still have a long way to go to free ourselves of prejudice against genre fiction. I’m not ashamed of what I read. I’m not ashamed of what I write. If you see me reading on my tablet, it’s not because I’m hiding something. It just happens to be a convenient way to carry around a ton of books so I always something to choose from.


Steve Liskow said...

I find this "prejudice" both hypocritical and silly.

Why are the following (all of which I assigned when I taught English) considered "classics" but not genre fiction:
Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Johnny Got His Gun, Cry the Beloved Country, The Return of the Native, Jane Eyre, The House of the 7 Gables, Huckleberry Finn, Brave New World, 1984, All The King's Men, Sister Carrie, Oedipus Rex,To Kill A Mockingbird, The Awakening, Beloved, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Pride & Prejudice, The Stranger, The Ox-Bow Incident, Ethan Frome, The Grapes of Wrath...

I could keep going. All great stories concern love and/or death, and genre certainly fits in there. If people want to be ashamed of their taste, that's their problem, but I won't apologize for writing the stuff they want to read.

For what it's worth, one reviewer admitted to hiding the suggestive cover of my novel about teen prostitution, which she gave a good review anyway.

Patty said...

I got over this "be ashamed of what you read" thing when I was very young. I started with Harlequin Romances and advanced to more adult style romances and read them almost exclusively for many, many years (about 12-early 20's). Then I discovered good mysteries (Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Rex Stout, to name a few) and have now almost exclusively changed to mysteries as my drug of choice. I prefer the traditional or cozy but have read thriller, serial killer and police procedural. My parents gave me the ability to make up my own mind about what I want to read (Jaws, Godfather and The Exorcist all before I got out of the 8th grade) and I'm not giving that right up to someone who thinks that "literary" fiction is better than any other. I don't dislike literary fiction, mostly I don't have time to read it because it doesn't hold my attention as well as the mysteries I love.

Harvee @ Book Dilettante said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Harvee @ Book Dilettante said...

How can anyone be ashamed of reading, any kind of reading. I find reading the classics is work, especially after slaving over text, context, and meaning at university. I can't pick up a classic without feeling I should have to write a paper about it afterwards.

Now I revel in cozy mysteries, humorous romances, travel, adventure...

Linda Rodriguez said...

I agree, Sandra, but also note that a lot of these media types read 50 Shades, and I've seen some of them admit they had to read it on e-reader so no one would know what they were reading. That may be what they're equating to genre. Or it may be that they're so invested in a "hipster lit" image that they dare not be seen reading anything else. I know some like that.

I write and publish award-winning poetry, as well as crime fiction. I have a much longer history in the literary community than in the crime fiction community (where everyone has been lovely to me, thank you very much). Still, I don't hide my genre reading. I've always read mysteries and thrillers, sf and fantasy, urban fantasy, and more. In fact, I usually try to persuade my lit friends to try some of the best mystery and fantasy out there today. But then, I don't have a "hipster lit" image to keep up. :-)

Mark Baker said...

I gave up being embarassed by anything when I started reviewing. I was never ashamed of the fact that I read cozy mysteries, but when you review High School Musical and VeggieTales positively, that kind of removes any shame you might have left about anything.

And, to be honest, I find many classics boring. I did my time with assigned reading. Now reading is a hobby I use to relax and escape the day. I'll do that however I please, thank you very much.

Cindy Carroll said...

I've never been ashamed of what I read or write. In my early 20s I read almost exclusively in the romance genre. Romantic suspense, historical and hotter romances. Now I read more crime fiction than I used to but that's always been there too. And it tends to be what I write. But I also write erotica under a pen name (which all my family and friends know anyway).

I don't read on an e-reader. Still prefer the physical book to electronic and I read them with pride when I'm out in public no matter what book it happens to be.

Chrystle Fiedler said...

Wow! Sounds like elitist nonsense coming from Wired. Maybe erotica needs a Kindle cover if you are out and about but cozy mysteries? I think not!

Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Sandra,
A slightly different comment here: Your post reminded me of an old one of mine, "Worst Books in the English Language" (complete post is in my blog category "Bad Books," complete with comments from people you might know from our FB encounters). I'll list them (hopefully Steve Liskow will bear with me--I know I'm being politically incorrect here): George Eliot's Silas Marner; Melville's Moby Dick; Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged; ANY Jane Austen novel; Little Women, Men, Children, Whatever, by Concord's #1 novelist; and Thoreau's Walden. I find all of these ponderous and boring. Most were assigned by HS English teachers. (Note that I don't include War and Peace or other verbose Russian works, because they're Russian!) I already knew by then that there was better stuff to read out there and didn't mind telling the teacher so.
Needless to say, not one of these books is on my shelves and I would never, never put one on my Kindle!
Reading is such a personal activity that no one should be ashamed or even care what other people think about our reading material. It's quite a bit like that other popular human activity.