I must admit that I really quite like James Surowiecki's business column in the New Yorker--he's a highly cogent writer, getting across the broad outline of his subject, however complex, in two and a half columns. I'm not much interested in business, but it seems important to know about; so it's nice to have the subject channelled to me through the mind of a writer I like.
That said, my God, this week's column is depressing. It's about trying to predict who will buy what, using as a springboard Simon & Shuster's decision to partner with Media Predict, a marketing firm that claims to be able to learn, via online polling, which books will sell. It does this through the presentation of a proposal, excerpt, or brief bulleted description of the book, and of course a nice big photo of the author. In other words, online polling as a basis for deciding what gets published.
I don't think I have a single writer friend who considers his/her career to be doing terribly well right now, but if this works--that is, if it makes S&S money--it bodes awfully ill for anybody who'd like to write something odd, disturbing, oblique, difficult, challenging, or unlike what they've done before. Which means, of course, almost every writer friend I have. Not to mention every writer I like.
I am not one of those writers who thinks the reading public are a bunch of idiots who "don't understand me." I realize that I am not going to please everyone. All the same, I am always pleasantly surprised when I do please somebody, or when somebody turns out to like the same obscure writer I do. Those people are definitely out there. The problem is that online-book-poll participants are a self-selecting group--they are people who want to get what they want, instead of what they don't yet know they want. They're people who are not terribly interested in being surprised. These aren't the people who are going to like me much, or the writers I like. And personally, I have never really enjoyed a book that didn't surprise me. Everything I love is something I would never have imagined existed, until I read it.
Polling, in other words, is the opposite of what literature needs, at least as I choose to define it. I once heard a teenager being interviewed on NPR about the presidential election. He said, of the process, "It's not a popularity contest." The joke of course is that a popularity contest is precisely what it is--a president must try to please as much of America as he can.
A writer, by definition, should not be seeking popularity. She should be seeking to discover something about herself, and the world around her, and offer that up to whomever might want it. Which might be almost no one, and if so, more power to her.