Walking through Wal-Mart last night, I took a rare trip through the book department, nestled as it is between two checkout lines in the only part of the store less desirable than the restrooms. Location aside, as I waded through the rows and rows of what most of my friends snobbishly call trash fiction (I too, I must admit, hold similar opinions) I began to wonder if precisely what I was seeing was the reason book sales (and reading in general) are at such tremendously low rates.
What I saw:
Titles that looked less interesting than the latest cinema lineup. Those of you who know me know I am particularly critical of Hollywood. The simple fact that most movies coming out these days barely pass as enjoyable sends up a red flag for an industry in trouble. But, most of what I saw of the Wal-Mart selection paled in comparison to even the most trite movie setup. With reading demanding a much greater time commitment than film, there is no excuse for this. I mean, after all, why would you leaf through three hundred pages of fluff when you can watch it in 90 minutes? I understand that Wal-Mart is not Barnes & Noble, but that, in fact, makes it issue even more pressing. The majority of the American public visits Wal-Mart more often than church. Not so with even a minority of Barnes & Noble customers. No wonder the public seems to be losing interest in reading faster than they can spell illiterate. If there's no benefit to be gained there, why bother? That's a question I don't know how to answer.
What I'm wondering is, are we being selfish with our stories? The greatest writers of our time were nowhere to be found on the Wal-Mart shelves. But you can bet if they were writing stories people wanted to read, they would be. Wal-Mart doesn't give 2 pennies about the names on the books they sell. They only want them to sell, period. (Curiously, Catcher in the Rye was featured with a thick stack of paperbacks. What this means, I can only guess.) Why, then, are so many of our "greatest works" things that no one wants to read?
It seems to me the better (I know, dangerous word) writers are more interested in writing what they want to write rather than what readers want to read. There are certainly cases of excellent writers who happened to be interested in entertaining the public (and I'm not trying to insinuate that everything on those WM shelves was terrible), but that rarely happens. There is a reason, after all, we see the same names popping up again and again on bestseller lists. Sure, some of it is name recognition, but some of it is the fact that they actually deserve to be there.
This leads to less talented writers filling in the gaps. And while those gaps are technically filled, they are filled with substandard writing that, in many cases, needs and editor and executioner. No wonder most Americans think reading is boring and pointless. If they're going by what's on the Wal-Mart shelves, they're basically right. I think it is time to take a hard look at what the public is interested in being entertained by. This is what we must give them. Is that selling out? Only if you put half of your heart into it. Writers must decide whether they write for themselves or for the public. Selling books is an industry, and it's time we started acting like it.
Causes Jonathan Dozier-Ezell Supports
Literacy, literacy, literacy ... and world peace.