by Michael Dirda
TO START WITH, shouldn’t it be called the “better-seller list”? I suppose that doesn’t quite sing, but how can you have more than one best seller at a time?
However you refer to it, the list is a disaster for literary and general culture. This isn’t to say that good books don’t become best sellers. John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a superb combination of memoir, journalism, crime reporting, and cultural history, as well as one of the most popular nonfiction works of the past twenty years. Stephen King is an astonishing storyteller, as are, in their differing ways, J. K. Rowling and Elmore Leonard. Come bedtime on a workday, few of us are ready for an assault on the Mount Everests of literature, philosophy, and history. A Maisie Dobbs mystery by Jacqueline Winspear will do quite nicely, thank you.
No, my dislike of the list is directed entirely at the thing itself. I think it’s bad for readers, bad for publishing, and bad for culture. Above all, despite appearances, the best-seller list isn’t populist; it’s elitist. If there are a dozen slots, six are filled by the same old establishment names. For every James Patterson novel on the list, that’s one fewer novel by someone else. This is a tight little clubby world.
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