Saturday 3 December 2016

Literary titles are staying on the library shelf

Published 26/02/2011 | 05:00

Cultural advocates such as myself may argue the case for the virtues of the well-written literary novel, but thrillers and chick lit still dominate reading preferences, as a glance around all those bus and rail commuters who are lost in a book will readily testify.

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Indeed, the Guardian's end-of-year list of the top 100 bestsellers is all about such books, as is the list it's just published of the most borrowed books from public libraries.

Irish libraries don't furnish such tables, but I'd be surprised if the preferences are much different.

Of the 100 most borrowed books, almost two-thirds are thrillers, including the top 10, in which there are four thrillers from that writing factory known as James Patterson, who blithely lets hired hacks write much of his output. That's not writing, that's typing, as Truman Capote said of Jack Kerouac's On the Road.

When it comes to chick lit, however, Maeve Binchy remains the queen, with three books included (in 12th, 55th and 75th place), though Cathy Kelly, in 30th place, also makes the grade. But you'll look hard to find a recognisably literary novel, Sarah Waters's The Little Stranger and Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall being the lonely representatives.

Does that mean literary novels aren't worth reading? Of course it doesn't -- it just means that not enough people are taking the trouble to do so. Poetry's in the same fix, as is classical music.

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Political correctness is now about to affect the behaviour of writers, with the American arm of HarperCollins introducing a "morality clause" that gives it the right to terminate a contract if "an author's conduct evidences a lack of due regard for public conventions and morals or if such behaviour would materially damage the work's reputation or sales".

Sales are the bottom line as usual. But still, yikes. Such strictures would have abruptly ended the careers of Scott Fitzgerald, Dylan Thomas, Brendan Behan, Norman Mailer and other legendary literary hellraisers.

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