I’m not sure that I buy that 1980 is the pivotal year in the turn to corporatization in the publishing business, but Scott Esposito writes about a striking observation made by Nina Siegal in a post on sales and quality at Conversational Reading. The interesting thing here, though not surprising, is that the nature of literature to rise to award-winning stature has shifted.
From Henry Miller and John Steinbeck to Danielle Steele and Tom Clancy, the bestseller’s have moved from high-brow to, at best, mid-brow. But in most cases, I’d say it’s low-brow.
I have two observations, one of them is in common with Esposito himself. The shift correlates to some degree to the decline in moral values of American culture. But not just moral values, educational and intellectual levels as well.
The second observation is this, while poetry is not mentioned in the article, I’d bet that this shift in reading has correlated as well with interest in poetry as literature. In the 1950s, people read poetry on a generally broader scale than the U.S. population does now. That’s not to say that more poetry books were sold (probably not), but it speaks to who was reading poetry. As a percentage, I think more non-poets had an interest in reading poetry in 1950 than now.
I’m not inclined to go and do the research on this, at least not right now, but you can measure this by looking at how many poetry books were sold in 1950 versus how many were sold last year and by looking at where those books were sold. What percentage of poetry books sold were done so by university presses and bookstores? I’d conjecture that a fair amount of sales of poetry books in the 1990s were driven by the growing popularity of MFA programs, many of which didn’t exist in the 1950s. That’s a guess, but I’d say a pretty good guess.
I’d be interesting in hearing what insight you might have about this.