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The Room for Debate forum on the New York Times website has presented a couple of interesting topics related to books recently.  First was a somewhat controversial discussion about the value or worthlessness (that was the controversial part) of reading young adult books.

This week, Room for Debate contributors discussed whether fiction might be taking a turn for the worse.  They were referring, of course, to popular and genre fiction books, sometimes known as “beach reading.”  The question seems to be whether the year-round popularity of these books is undermining so-called serious literature.

But really, isn’t this discussion as old as books themselves?  As long as popular fiction has been around, there’s always been someone who thinks it doesn’t belong in the same league with more “serious” works.  Henry James called Charles Dickens “the greatest of the superficial novelists.”  Mark Twain, a popular novelist himself, wrote that he wanted to beat Jane Austen over the head with her own shin-bone.  For years, the literary world has seemed to waffle between criticizing popular fiction for being too escapist and refusing to acknowledge its very existence.

I was struck that, throughout the discussion, there was no mention of e-books and the changes that e-reading has brought about in the book world.  The connection might seem remote but I don’t see any way that literary fiction could not be influenced (in ways both positive and negative) by the self-publishing revolution.

William Deresiewicz came closest to acknowledging e-books in his final paragraph:

Stunted attention spans, Internet cacophony, consolidation and collapse in the publishing industry, the professionalization of the arts and the questionable influence of the writing programs, the long shadow of the modernist greats: the novel’s surely facing headwinds, as it surely always has. This may not be the best of times for fiction, but it isn’t the worst, either. The forms will change, and the formats. New voices, new idioms will arise, and the finest will sound grating till we learn to hear their music. But as long as people use language, tell stories and want to know about themselves, they will read fiction. The novel is a sturdy old contraption that continues to outlive its mourners.

Curtains for the publishing industry, perhaps–at least in its current form.  But the novel is here to stay.


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