Thursday, March 25, 2010

2009 Bestsellers List: The Symbol of Lost Literary America?

If literary-loving aliens descended this week, and took a gander at Publisher Weekly's recently released list of the bestselling hardcover books of 2009 without knowing anything else about literary America, they'd probably draw some pretty embarrassing conclusions. We love our brainless mysteries, our bodice-ripping romances, and currently, our conservative punditry. The Lost Symbol sold more than 5.5 million hardcover copies last year (a pretty staggering number, but still less than The Da Vinci Code), James Patterson (or the team of sweat shop factory writers known as James Patterson) has five books in the Top 25, and more than 2.5 million people "went rogue" with Mrs. Palin.

If you'll excuse me for a minute, as I veer across three lanes of traffic to hurriedly make an exit from the high road: Wow, are our book tastes TERRIBLE. Where is the literary fiction? After The Help at No 3, there's not even another literary book in the top 30 — and no, I don't count Nicholas Sparks (especially after this utter buffoonery) or Pat Conroy. As I've mentioned, I'm all for the occasional mind-dumber, but who the heck is reading all these James Patterson's Ghost Writer novels? Does Janet Evanovich really deserve such a loyal following?  I will say, though, that I was heartened to see that John Irving's novel Last Night in Twisted River, which I thought was fantastic, did sell relatively well — more than 200,000 copies.

Regarding the nonfiction list... But, first, please don't confuse this next paragraph with any kind of political stance-taking. And PLEASE, don't comment about your passionate and beyond-reproach opinion of the health care law. There's enough of that on Facebook and the rest of the blogosphere. But isn't it interesting that whenever there's a Democrat in office, conservative authors sell very well, and vice versa? Three of the four top nonfiction bestsellers in 2009 were conservative tomes. And this CNN piece from last year explains why Ayn Rand (generally considered somewhat of a conservative hero) has experienced quite the resurgence in readership due to the recession and a Democrat in office. On the flip side: The nonfiction bestsellers lists during the Dubya years are peppered with liberal-authored books. Just a few better-known examples: Barack Obama's second book The Audacity of Hope was a bestseller in 2006 and Bill Clinton's memoir My Life topped the charts in 2004, followed closely by Jon Stewart's conservative-rankling America (The Book).

The only books on the 2009 lists (in the top 30, anyway) I read were Under the Dome and The Lost Symbol, both which I thought sucked. How about you? Which of 2009's bestsellers did you read? Any you particularly enjoyed? Loathed?  

One other note, according to Entertainment Weekly's blog about the bestsellers list, 2009 is the last year that e-books will NOT be counted in the bestselling tally. I don't know about you, but I was kind of surprised that they haven't been counted all along.

(Also, in case you missed it earlier this week, I'm giving away a copy of Lorrie Moore's novel A Gate at the Stairs. Details to enter are here.)


  1. When I look at lists like this, I have to remind myself that the vast majority of Americans read for recreational pleasure alone, and there's a difference between best-sellers and books that are actually noteworthy. (That said, however, I don't spend money on my recreational pleasure reading, so I don't understand how Dan Brown sold five-and-a-half million copies of his book. Doesn't everyone know that there's this great thing called a library, so you don't have to pay to read a book only once.)

    (Have you read Steve Hely's "How I Became A Famous Novelist"? It's pretty critical of the publishing industry and is hilarious.)

  2. During harsh times,escapist entertainment is at it's highest demand-a good example of that is the proliferation of Hollywood musicals during the Great Depression. I remember reading an article in the NY Times over a year how candy sales had risen,due to folks having to cut all kinds of financial corners but still wanting a sweet treat to help them ride things out.

    Literary merit can be in the eye of the beholder,with people puzzling over why anyone would want to read one of those "very serious"titles just as much you wonder why Dan Brown does so well on the charts. There's junk on either side of the book aisle but we all have our own particular taste buds to please here and as long as folks are still willing to read,there is always hope for the best to win out.

  3. @Lindsay - Yeah, I constantly have to remind myself I'm definitely in the minority of folks who read literary novels for recreation; and that really doesn't make me any worse or better than people who read James Patterson on the beach or Vince Flynn on an airplane or Dan Brown while they're sleeping. ;) More nerdy? Definitely. But not better.

    Also, thanks for the recommendation on Hely's book - I love publishing insider gossip!

    @lady t - Literary APPEAL may be in the eye of the beholder, because after all, there's no accounting for taste, but I'd say that it would be hard to argue that Janet Evanovich has more literary MERIT than, John Irving or Colson Whitehead or Arthur Phillips, or many of the other novelists who published literary novels last year. But, yes, I do understand and appreciate why people like the mysteries and thrillers - and why they'll always be more popular than "serious" titles.

  4. Great post! It sort of makes me sad that our literary tastes are so declining. And then it makes me even sadder that I'm certainly no help at all lately when it comes to that. I feel like I've been reading nothing but sugar lately.
    Although I also only read 2 of the books in the top 30 fiction (6 if you count the others). And I think there are 5 more or so that I want to read (the Help being one of them).
    I really can't believe that Going Rogue was the NUMBER 1 nonfiction bestseller.
    I think it's funny the reverse correlation between party in office and type of books sold.

    Anyhow, I can't help but wonder if this more says something about the people reading or about the quality of literary fiction today. Of course, I haven't read enough (::hides head in shame::) lately to really have an opinion.

  5. Remember, bestseller lists are just popularity contests. I would never ever consider Sparks as literary. Urgh. Or Dan Brown.

    The Times (perhaps) last year published the 'Best 101 book of the decade' or something similar, which spanned both American and British books. Twilight got a mention. HOW? HOW?! It's an outrage when some wonderful literary reads don't even get a look in.

    Generally I ignore these things because I always end up taking personal offense and getting upset at the world! Hee hee~

  6. I remember in high school perusing the mmpb displays in Barnes & Noble and there were actually some interesting titles in there. Now its all romance and paranormal and I avoid that section like the plague. Tastes have definitely changed but I think it goes in cycles too so maybe we'll see a resurgence of the more literary novels. I checked the list. Out of the whole fiction list I've read 1 of those but I own another 10 and just haven't read them yet :)

  7. @brizmus - Hey, this post is coming from someone whose immersed in his second Vince Flynn thriller in as many weeks - so I'm not throwing stones by any means. But, I think the bestsellers list containing mostly genre fiction is more an indication of taste than lack of good literary fiction - 'cause from where I'm standing, there's still PLENTY of that out there.

    @Bethany - Oh, man - I'm glad I somehow missed that Twilight book on the Best 101 Books of the Decade. I may've thrown up. Ha - I try so hard not take personal offense, but sometimes, it's inevitable, and I just have to vent! ;)

    @Holly - Yeah, you're right - it seems like the fiction landscape has drastically changed. Most of the '00s seem to have been dominated by genre fiction like John Grisham and Dan Brown, but let's hope it is cyclical - and people start buying literary novels en masse again!

  8. I'd like to think that our literary tastes are not declining. If they are, that's too bad. All I know is, there are still a handful of people that read books that are not in the bestseller list.

    I guess it is a bit sad, because people do tend to think that "oh, it's in the bestseller list, it's got to be good." I worked at a bookstore before, and I always wanted to burst their bubble. Of course, I had to remain calm and professional, haha :)
    Like most of your readers have already mentioned, the bestseller list is simply a popularity contest. Which book gets purchased the most? It does not at all speak of its quality. I wish more people knew that.

    By the way, I think the perfect example for this is truly Dan Brown. I used to respect this writer at least, for producing 'entertaining' novels. However, when I read The Lost Symbol, I completely lost faith. It seems as if he wrote and published this, because he has a contract to his editor/agent, etc or something! As you can tell, I was pretty frustrated about it, and his still-gaining popularity. All I know is, I'm never going to read a Dan Brown book again.

    This is a great post, and I agree with everything you said.

  9. Another thought--I know some claim that the number of people who read "serious" literature is declining (and point to the Victorian era as a kind of model of everyone reading Hardy and Eliot and Dickens), but it's also noteworthy that we have far higher literacy rates now, so even if the same "types" of people are reading "literature," we have more people overall reading, which is never a bad thing when compared with watching reality television.

    I hope that wasn't as awkward a segue as it now seems. It sounded better in my head.

  10. oh my! Out of that entire list I've only read 4 and I thought that 75% of them were not so hot. I read Lost Symbol, Under the Dome, The Strain (that's the 75%) and The Angel's Game which was decent. Personally, I think a lot of authors bank on their names for sales and they get them, and don't really care that their books aren't well liked.

    I was also appalled that Lost City of Z came in so low on the list...if ever a book deserved a high place, that one did. I plug that book whenever I can.

    I prefer literary fiction and really really well-written crime fiction, but sometimes my brain needs a rest and I go for the recreational stuff, which I prefer to think of as brain candy. But even there I'm picky.

  11. I've only read The Help on that list. I read Black Hills by Dan Simmons, not by Nora Roberts! But that is a 2010 release, I believe. Obviously, Americans like a LOT of mystery. I only really like historical mystery, so that isn't really my thing.

    However, I think there are people who really only read bestsellers. I call those "airport reads" because when you are stuck at an airport for a delayed flight... the bookstore really only usually has several copies of the bestsellers for you to buy! A bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  12. I worked as a lead bookseller at my local Barnes & Noble for a few years. There seem to be two kinds of readers: those who consume, and those who really read. I know this is a vast generalization, but the consumers are the folks who line up for the latest Sue Grafton, and more power to them. There are still thoughtful, intellectually engaged readers out there, and they are in the minority, but what do we expect. I remember when Sven Birkerts published The Gutenberg Elegies (1996)forecasting the death of literature; it didn't happen. It would be interesting to see what was on the bestseller list when some of our modern classics were published -- probably some drivel we've never heard of!

  13. I wouldn't count Nicolas Sparks as literary either. The interview you linked to from USA Today was absurd -- I read it earlier this week and couldn't believe he said one of his favorite books was is own (among other things). Good grief :)

  14. Wow, 5.5 million copies? I've never read a single James Patterson book. I only read one of the top 30 (Under the Dome) and I'm reading #31 right now (An Echo in the Bone). I have a few of the others that didn't make it to the top of the list but I'm surprised at a lot of these! Maybe I read mostly paperbacks last year. I specifically remember seeing a lot of these hardcovers in stores and passing right by them (usually after rolling my eyes or snorting loudly).

    I have an award for you!

  15. What a well written post! Popular vs. literary are two different things and as much as I would love to see people reading more literary and not just popular, in this age of TV on Ipods, Tivo etc, I am just glad people still read at all!

  16. @Jillian - Yeah, I tend to think the opposite of "oh, it's on the bestsellers list, it's gotta be good." I'm actually usually assume a bestseller is crap until someone tells me otherwise. :) And yes, Dan Brown is a total hack writer!

    @Lindsay - That's a good point. At my more magnanimous times, I'll step back and totally admit that Twilight and Harry Potter are good things, because the more people reading, the better. However, next step: Get them to read something good!

    @NancyO - Couldn't agree more - sometimes you're brain needs a break, so I won't ever feel guilty about slogging through a King or Vince Flynn.

    @Aarti - I thought it was funny that there is ANOTHER Black Hills - one I've never heard of - on the list. Yep, I think a sure sign you've arrived as a "writer for the masses" is when your book shows up in an airport.

    @bibliophiliac - I looked back as far as PW's list went - to the early '90s - and even then, still a lot of King, Grisham and Clancy. Still, I'd say those are slightly better than James Patterson and Nicholas Sparks! I bet the decline in literary bestsellers correlates almost directly with the rise of reality TV! ;)

    @Kim - Sparks needs a serious lesson in self-awareness!

    @fictionfanatic - I've never read James Patterson either. I wish I understood the allure. Hey, thanks for the award!

  17. @Booksnyc - Yeah, in a perfect world, popular and literary fiction would be one and the same. But I do agree with you, at some level, it is at least good that people are reading - even if reading some of those popular novels results in roving bands of conspiracy theorists who suddenly claim to be experts on Medieval Art and the untold stories of American history.

  18. and another point: the popular fiction sells, keeping open bookstores that also sell the less than popular literary fiction. For that I am eternally grateful.

  19. I saw that list yesterday, and wanted to claw my eyes out. It's just so, so sad that the worst writers (IMO) make the most money because people just don't seem to know any better.

    I can't get over how, in my library, I can't keep a James Patterson or a Nicholas Sparks or a Danielle Steel book in stock, but the books I consider to be great literary fiction (Many of which I've personally brought into the library because there just weren't enough of them) are just sitting there. Sad, sad and more sad.

  20. Great post, Greg! I looked at the list and have read exactly none of the top 30 books. I do own the Gathering Storm book, though. I just have to re-read the first 11 books in the series before I read that one (a bit of a refresher course, if you will). I struggle between looking down on America's reading habits - these bestsellers are certainly anything but the cream of the literary crop - and just being thankful that we still have bestseller lists. 5.5 million people bought the Lost Symbol: should we be happy that 5.5 million people bought A BOOK, any book, or despair because 5.5 million people bought THAT book? Can we do both?

  21. Wow, I've read exactly NONE of those books in the top 30. But I do own The Help and The Lost Symbol, though I'm only expecting great things from The Help. I don't know how I feel about the Top 30 being filled with books I consider crap. I don't understand the appeal of James Patterson, but at the same time, who am I to fault the reading public who have different tastes than I do? My dad is a great example of the reason the top 30 looks like it does -- he reads for the same reason he watches NCIS and House. He's in it for the escapist element and doesn't want to read something that's difficult or emotionally draining because it's about a release from his everyday life. To me, there isn't much difference between the popularity of these kinds of books over the literary fiction that often has a smaller audience, and the difference in big blockbuster movies over the artsy, indie movies that tend to be nominated for awards, but don't make a lot of noise at the box office. This year's Academy Awards are a prime example: The Hurt Locker was the lowest grossing movie to ever win Best Picture. Wolf Hall, which has won the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, isn't on the Top 30. It's not even on the list at all (unless skimmed too fast and missed it). Almost by definition, what's artistically superior is not appealing to the masses. It's unfortunate, but I think sadly book sales are about the lowest common denominator.

  22. I never seek out bestsellers to read so could care less which books are on the list. I understand where ya'll are coming from but I can't get too worked up about this issue since I'm a big reader of fluff--- but I'm a library girl so don't blame me for the list. ;)

    Having said that, I feared reading the list in case I'd read a ton of them--- but I've only read two of the top 30--- and three more of the rest of the list.

    I'm with Jillian on The Lost Symbol-- weak compared to the previous books. The personality of Robert Langdon even seemed different.

    The Gathering Storm I really enjoyed. Brandon Sanderson did a good job filling Jordan's shoes.

    Oh, I like what Lindsay said about the literacy rates being higher nowadays. More people can and do read but that doesn't mean they are all brainy sorts so authors that want to make a killing find a lucrative formula and write to the lowest common denominator. Are those authors selling out? Maybe some are but maybe some of them aren't particularly deep insighful thinkers either.


  23. @NancyO - Yeah, that is a good point. Similarly, these bestsellers allow publishers give chances to lesser-known writers - so, in some ways, the bestsellers are a case of the ends justifying the means.

    @Michelle - Yep, it is sad. You would think, especially at the libraries, the literary fiction would be in higher demand. Sad to hear that's not the case.

    @Kerry - Yeah, I think it's a little of both. I'd guess that many of those 5.5 million will only read that one book this whole year. The sad part is that many of those 5.5 million probably pass the book on to other readers, too, so even more people have read that book - and if you don't read often, you have no basis of comparison, so you actually think The Lost Symbol is good. Ugh.

    @home - But what about Slumdog Millionaire, also a low-budget indie, that scored $160 million at the box office and won Best Picture, too. Or, The Help - the one literary novel on this year's list. Yeah, I know, those are the exceptions. :) Wish there were more exceptions. And, yeah, I get that most people will always read only for escapism - just wish maybe they could step up their mental engines just a little bit so that literary books could do the same thing for them that Stephen King does.

    @Cozy Book Nook - Yeah, "weak" regarding the Lost Symbol is putting it mildly. :) And I also liked Lindsay point about literacy rates.

  24. I have read exactly zero of these books. But I have never been counted as one up on the times. I am still working through the Oscar winners from the 1960's, and finding many of them revelations. As for books, I tend toward the classics or the not so popular. I can enjoy a beach read with the rest of them, given the long enough layover in an airport.

  25. I totally hear what you're saying, Greg! I'm a complete self-confessed booksnob and get annoyed when the excellent contemporary literary fiction available today doesn't get the recognition and readership it deserves. I'm happy that people are still reading etc etc but I really wish people would branch out and test some deeper reading waters...

  26. This is a great post. I've only read The Help from that top 20 list - but the vast majority of my reading tends to be historical fiction, prize winners (or nominees) and literary fiction. Don't get me wrong - I enjoy a good chick lit book or compelling mystery or suspense-thriller too...but they don't usually make my top ten of the year. This was my top ten list for 2009...

    Unfortunately, I think the vast amount of US readers like mindless entertainment and so the mass published books appeal to them. Sadly, amazing literature (many published by smaller presses) gets ignored...

  27. @Leah - Agreed, beach reads have their time and place. But, apparently, "the rest of them" are reading beach reads ALL the time.

    @Kath - I try my best to hide my own booksnobbishness, but when news like this arrives, it's very hard. I wish people would branch out more, too - they might surprise themselves!

    @Wendy - Nice! Good to see Last Night in Twisted River on another Top 10 of the year lists. It was definitely on mine, too. Yeah, the appeal of mindless entertainment certainly explains the bestsellers list, as well as the glut of reality TV out there!