The longer I am in my MFA program, the more I notice a distinction between what my classmates and I are reading and what members of my extended family are reading. While I was finishing Lyn Hejinian’s My Life and Zak Smith’s memoir We Did Porn, my relatives finished the third book in the Twilight series and worked through Work Song by Ivan Doig. Admittedly, I was reading for a contemporary memoir class, but these are books similar to what other MFA students would be recommending.
To a lesser degree, I noticed this working at an independent bookstore. We had an Indie Next bestseller wall that featured the top ten fiction and nonfiction books in hardcover or paperback. The books shuffled their order each week, but it often reflected what was selling with the major publishing houses as well. In short, this wall was our bread and butter as a bookstore. “Steig Larson? Let me take you to the bestseller wall.” Many of the people who worked at the bookstore read and enjoyed these books, but they also loved other ones; books that didn’t make anyone’s bestseller list. We hand sold our favorite books to one customer at a time. “Many people are reading Tom Clancy, but let me tell you about the best legal mystery novel written in ten years…”
Is there a gap between what us “literary folk” and the common people are reading? Yes. A recent article in Slate.com addresses this divide at length. http://www.slate.com/id/2275733/ The headline asks “Which One Will Last?” I don’t think that the divide is so extreme. The world of literature won’t end up as either a Costco table or an experimental genre anthology. Journalism loves the term ‘culture war’ with or without an election happening.
My brother told me a joke this week, “How many indies does it take to screw in a light bulb?” The answer? “You probably haven’t heard of it. It’s an obscure number.” At times, the world of literature and academia can feel like that.
For Christmas, I got The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time by David Ulin. Clearly, someone who values books and literature is the intended audience. This essay probably won’t find a home in the home of those who own all of Tom Clancy’s novels in paperback. Ulin is preaching to the choir. I could give this book as a gift to my family and friends, but I wouldn’t expect most of them to read it, let alone have it change their reading habits.
We all know where a well-meaning gift book we have no interest in ends up.
I am a poet, but I don’t just read poetry. The books that kept me reading during my middle school years were epic fantasy novels. The books I read in-between my “important books” are urban fantasy, noir thrillers and X-Men graphic novels. I am reading in the gap between the next bestseller and a discourse on the modality of time in Shakespeare’s plays. I want to go to a poetry reading where there are bowls of CornNuts served with the glasses of cheap red wine.
I don’t know where the future of literature is headed, but I hope it continues to remain diverse and offer something for every reader.