Tuesday, 12 November 2013

The Kite Runner: Comparing Bestsellers

Must Read: Rediscovering American Bestsellers: From Charlotte Temple to The Da Vinci Code, edited by Sarah Churchwell and Thomas Ruys Smith, seems a topical book for this blog right now. I do not yet have a copy, but I have been able to preview its introduction, written by Churchwell and Smith, on Amazon.

I found myself both congratulating myself on my standards and wincing at my weaknesses while reading these pages. Churchwell and Smith quote with approval (and I agree with) Jane Tompkins's statement "it is morally and politically objectionable, and intellectually obtuse, to have contempt for literary works that appeal to millions of people simply because they are popular." Wince.

At the same time, the editors draw attention to "the modernist exultation of the difficult" that likely has affected my own resistance to bestselling books. Wince. I have assumed that bestsellers are likely, though not necessarily, easy to read and thus not challenging. I need my books to challenge something, either in their content or their form.

The Eyes of the World: A Fiction and Literature Clasic By Harold Bell Wright! AAA+++
Bestseller of 1915
My bestseller for the week, The Kite Runner, is not a challenge in its form. It is narrated in the first person by the main character, Amir. This is a common point of view (Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight both use it.) Because the book describes the narrator's development as a person, it is a Bildungsroman. As well, the book's narrator becomes a writer, and in that sense the novel is also a Kunstlerroman.  The writing style is solidly in the realist vein too. Hosseini is not an experimental writer that way.

The book describes the lives of Afghan people during the terrible end of the 20th century. That part of the book is where the challenging material lies. The novel certainly has sympathy with the lives of ordinary people at the mercy of the warring factions who have tried to make Afghanistan into their own images, but the main Afghan character Amir is not exactly likeable. Only through the concerted efforts of people nobler than he (his father's friend, his wife, the well-meaning Afghan people he encounters in America and abroad) does the hero Amir return to his homeland to repair the damage he and his father have done to a family of ethnic minority Hazaras. Near the novel's end, Amir has enough self-knowledge to realize that his lifelong enemy Assef, now a Taliban, and not the loyal Hazara man Amir was raised with, is his double.

 The novel is mostly realist, though it does employ the strategies of other types of fiction. The appearance of Assef at the beginning and at the end of the novel constitutes the kind of circularity that fable often uses to emphasize the connectedness of the past and the present. Amir eventually acquires a scar on his lip that mirrors the scar on the lip of his childhood friend Hassan, cementing the essential ties between them. Such strategies may seem like clunky attempts at creating links between Amir and his roots, but the clunkiness is sign of its turn to myth and fable rather than realism.

The book's moralism is strong too, a temptation that even Dan Brown can't avoid using in his thriller. In Khosseini's book, however, these strategies are perhaps unnecessary appurtenances to a strong moral sensibility, when in Brown's book the moralism is simply there to give a reassuring ego stroke during an otherwise low-stakes stroll through a short-walled labyrinth.
Charlotte Temple: Bestseller

The Da Vinci Code, Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey were bestselling books. None of these books compare with The Kite Runner in terms of creativity, originality and tension. Yet they are all bestsellers.

Perhaps I am making a false comparison, however.  According to "Testing the Tastemakers: Children’s Literature, Bestseller Lists, and the “Harry Potter Effect”" by Rebekah Fitzsimmons, the "bestseller list" has served different purposes over time. In the United States, Harry Thurston Peck's 1895 invention of the bestseller list in The Bookman was a corollary to the 1891 Copyright Act, for this list connected specific titles and authors with specific publishers, thus cementing the idea that a book "belonged to" a writer and the writer's publisher. Before then, writers had to contend with publishers in other countries republishing books without giving the writers any royalties.

The bestseller list later became more than a record of books that sold well, Fitzsimmons argues. It became a way to give a certain kind of approval or notice. A bestselling book may or may not be a book worth reading. Fitzsimmons suggests that the idea of "middlebrow" and "highbrow" may reveal an attitude towards bestsellers. The middlebrow label applies to books that are popular (that is, that sell well), whereas the highbrow label applies to books that meet some critieria of quality irrespective of popularity. The  bestseller list became associated with popularity, that is, of middlebrow books.
The idea of a bestseller list was picked up by other publishers after The Bookman. Publisher's Weekly and The New York Times were two early compilers of bestsellers lists.

The creation, and hence the analysis, of a bestseller list is not easy, for tracking sales means cooperating with both publishers and booksellers. These lists derive from formulas, necessarily, considering the different ways books get distributed. Nowadays, The New York Times has several bestsellers lists (the "Harry Potter Effect" refers to a splitting off of children's literature from the fiction list), which means it needs different formulas for calculating what is a bestseller in different genres. Different list-makers offer varying degrees of clarity on how they calculate their sales. 

I am thinking of gathering up some data on the sales of the books on my humble list, but I am afraid of attempting this. Whose list do I use? I could use the New York Times or Publisher's Weekly; in Canada I can use Globe and Mail. These lists derive from data collected (somehow or other) from publishers or booksellers. Amazon and Barnes and Noble have bestsellers lists that reflect the sales of books that they sell (not what anyone else sells); in Canada I can use Chapters-Indigo. How about a list that covers world sales?
For this humble blog, my stakes were not that high, so I just poked around different lists to get my list; I mainly used Amazon.com. As for finding specific sales numbers, I don't know how to go about it.

Now I am confronting the beast behind my list: the idea of sales. I am reading these eight books because of their sales. This is a data set that may seem easily quantifiable but in the end is not. Sales figures derive from financial statements belonging to businesses who have good reason to want to present their numbers in a certain way. Popularity may seem quantifiable and thus may seem "value-free," but quantifiability is not equivalent to objectivity. What can sales figures tell me about a book, in the end? 

1 comment:

  1. The Kite Runner is a terrific book that tells us how a country’s fate can turn from bloom to gloom. People of the country in every right sense needs to take care of their emotional and cultural values. Too much bigotry is nothing but the second name of devastation. Your review is nice and informative.
    I also tried to review this book here: https://goo.gl/1JNdax