Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Call Me Dulcinea

I think I read 3 or 4 blog posts just yesterday all reacting to an article by Jonathon Karp in the Washington Post titled "Turning the Page on The Disposable Book". In it, he complains about how mass-marketing of books, and the sheer volume of books published today amounts to junk. That's my rephrasing of his words anyway:
Books of this ilk have always existed. But in the past, they've been balanced by
substantive books...

It's interesting to note that he is editor-in-chief of a publishing house called Twelve that exists to publish and promote only 12 titles per year. The idea is to promote "quality" over "quantity". It's an interesting concept, though I respectfully disagree with him over his classification of "substantive" vs. not. He is clearly not a fan of "genre fiction", as shown in one of his personal predictions of the changing book marketplace:

Readers of old-fashioned genre fiction will die off... The novelists who are truly novel will thrive; the rest will struggle.

I have long been annoyed by the very phrase "genre fiction." It is meant to designate all of the common classifications of books you would find in a typical bookstore: young adult, romance, mystery, etc. The phrase is frequently uttered by proponents of "literary fiction", a genre that is itself typically excluded from the umbrell of "genre fiction", with same sort of pursed-lipped distaste that folks once uttered the words "colored people".

Mr. Karp is entitled to his hopes for the future death of my beloved romances. I am entitled as well. I believe that he is wrong. Not his opnions (as I cannot declare his opnions wrong, unless he were to reveal that he lied in penning them). But I do not--will not--believe that the desire for a Happily Ever After will fall by the wayside.

Popular fiction changes as the ages change, but it does not go away. Karp has failed to learn the lesson of Miguel de Cervantes. In the late 1500's and early 1600's, Cervantes became so annoyed by his generation's pop lit, or genre fiction, depicting the dashing exploits of knights in armor galavanting about the countryside, jousting and winning the hearts of the ladies, that he wrote a satire. In it, he created a ridiculous old man who has read so many adventure novels that he loses his mind, dresses up in patchwork armor with a barber's bowl for a hat, and sets off on a misadventure of his own. Don Quixote failed to make his point: instead of shaming the adventure novel-reading fans that Cervantes was poking fun at, he won their admiration. Don Quxote is a world literature classic, still widely studied today.

Vampires, dragons, hyperspace, and Regency duchesses are today's knights and windmills, but they're not all that different. I truly believe that Karp and every other reader who snubs the paperback aisles in search of the superior read, are really missing out. While he is correct that many many books are doomed to be "mulched", and will be easily forgotten by the time next week's New York Times Bestseller List is printed, that doesn't mean that they lack substance or quality, or even novelty.

Sometimes you just have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your Prince Charming.

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