Friday, March 27, 2009

Where's the readership? Ask your agents.

Let it be said right now: The next assneck that proclaims the death of poetry is getting kicked directly in the spleen.

If you'd like to drown your eyes in that particular battery acid, please feel free:

Newsweek says that fiction readership is up, while poetry readership is down 16%. Without trying to sound too Harold Bloom-curmudgeonschmuck about the whole thing, I don't consider the meteoric rise of the Twilight series, Harry Potter, or The Da Vinci Code, as a spike in fiction readership. It IS a spike in a certain form of with possibilities for franchise rights, TV series, movies, and sequels.

When someone wants to talk "readership" in the literary world, what they really mean are BOOK SALES. And what drives book sales in the United States? The same shit that drives sales of Tickle Me Elmo. What's cooler than Harry Potter? (The shit was pretty enjoyable pablum, I must admit.) What's cooler than a book that turns your ideas on Jesus upside down, one that spawns all kinds of Discovery Channel documentaries?

Well. Of course it probably helps if the book can be turned into a movie, or make money elsewhere, or if it can be branded, or if it can be cross-promoted. Why is Miley Cyrus writing an autobiography at 16? Because she can sell it, that's why.

If we're going to get on our soap boxes and bemoan the loss of poetry to the dreaded Academy, then we need to save room in the grave for all literature in the age of The Notebook and A Night Without Armor. And I'm certainly not going to sound the victory bell just because Junot Diaz won the Pulitzer Prize. Not when you still have college kids shying away from reading Oscar Wao or Drown because the shit lacks a linear structure.

Where are the conversations in the American intellectual life (outside NPR) for literature of any sort? Oprah cannot save the book industry. At some point, people need to start reading literature for more reasons than getting his/her jollies on the nights when American Idol is off the air. I don't have answers, but I do have a lot of questions, and more than a little anger every time my friends call me with horror stories about their undergrads' reading and writing habits.

I think poets have deeper problems than their work not getting read. They have to worry about where the hell they're going to work, and what kinds of students and readers they're going to find when they get there.

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