Monday, November 28, 2011

Too simple for words?

Interesting juxtaposition in today's Guardian.

First, there's a very interesting four-page interview with Umberto Eco by Stephen Moss. The great semiotician opines that ' "you [ie the author] are not responsible for perverse readings of your book" ' which might seem like poststructuralist orthodoxy - a text is what the reader/cultural context makes of it, etc - but it's obvious that he thinks his books are misunderstood by what he calls "weak readers". He feels that books are best judged 10 years after publication after reading and re-reading [my italics], an interesting comment in the light of our current quick-fix literary culture, and the way that books drop right out of the public consciousness if they don't have an instant hit. He isn't precious about the film of The Name of the Rose; he is tickled by the fact that a girl went into a bookshop and saw it and said "Oh, they have already made a book out of it [ie the film]." He has a iPad for travelling, but he doesn't think that printed books will die, and puts it nicely: "Not just Peter Pan but my Peter Pan". Above all, he explains the huge success of the erudite The Name of the Rose, which just goes on and on selling, by the fact that "It's only publishers and journalists who believe that people want simple things. People are tired of simple things. They want to be challenged."

Then there's a piece by Laura Barnett on the fact that this year the Christmas literary market is awash with 'women's fiction' about Christmas. As Barnett points out, Dickens wrote Christmas books, but one has to doubt that these books will still be being read, like A Christmas Carol, 170 years after publication (leave alone in Eco's 10-year time frame), since the quote from Hodder and Stoughton editor Isobel Akenhead makes pretty clear that the thematic push is intended as ephemeral, and the books are being sold as ephemeral commodities: "It makes sense to publish for Christmas – that's the one time of year that doesn't seem to have been affected by the general drop-off in sales of women's fiction. In supermarkets, these books cost little more than a Paperchase Christmas card; people often seem to buy two of them, one for themselves and one for their mother, sister or friend. That doesn't happen at any other time of year." So they're bought like Christmas cards, for the rituals of Christmas (which we all know can be a chore, but hey, we've got to do it), and like Christmas cards, they are a cause of brief delight before being thrown away.

Of course, there's nothing wrong whatsoever with reading purely for entertainment. But it's interesting that Isobel Akenhead says that sales of 'women's fiction' have dropped off generally. Are we simply talking comparative numbers in a market that is nevertheless a major source of income for publishers, or can Eco be right about people wanting other kinds of literature, too?
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