Harry Chairman and the Half-Baked Theory

For the last week, mainstream media outlets such as The New York Times, The Guardian and The Sydney Morning Herald have been devoting precious space within their book sections to the release of J.K. Rowling’s latest book. Most of the articles are not so much about the book itself but the book as a retail and publicity event (the embargo! the leaks! the anticipated queues! the size of the print run! the price wars! the sales records!). Man Booker prize-panel chair Peter Stothard blames bloggers for harming literature and literary discussion but the narrow—and often shallow—focus of publishers and mainstream media outlets is doing real damage.

I’d like to make it clear that I’m not blaming the journalists or J.K. Rowling. I suspect that most of the journalists would rather be writing about a wider range of books, not just J.K. Rowling and the Prisoner of Success, but media owners demand ‘big’ news. I also suspect that Rowling would prefer people to be reading her new book, not talking about the logistics and hysteria of releasing it.

There’s more to literature and its discussion than new releases and the sales figures for Fifty Shades of Grey, Twilight, Harry Potter and their imitators, but that’s not the impression you get from the large publishing houses and the newspapers. A more diverse range of books is discussed on blogs and bloggers often cover neglected and classic works. Blogs usually focus on the book itself, not the commercial events surrounding it.

The commercial considerations of book publishers and newspaper owners create a self-perpetuating atmosphere of hype over substance. A book gathers momentum. Other book publishers rush to cash in on the trend (self-absorbed in Tuscany, say, or Cinderella in Manolo Blahniks). The press report on it. People who don’t read often feel compelled to follow the herd by buying the book for themselves or as a gift. Other books are crowded out of the discussion. Sales figures become the only measure of worth. Publishers, meanwhile, will tell you that they need the blockbuster authors so that they can nurture the less successful ones. (It’s funny how the publishing houses I worked for could afford a first-class international return plane ticket for a star, while begrudging a $5,000 advance to an author they considered worthy but less commercial.)

Peter Stothard no doubt welcomes accusations of elitism because he needs to reassert the Man Booker Prize’s serious credentials after last year’s claims that the judges were dumbing things down. The Man Booker Prize judges can afford to blame bloggers for the decline in literary debate, but they can’t afford to insult the journalists who will give the prize publicity or the publishers who ensure the authors are available for interviews. Kicking bloggers in the teeth is a good way to get mainstream and social media attention without upsetting the powerful. Harry Chairman and the Half-Baked Theory could always become Harry Chairman and the Publicity Juggernaut, if Stothard plays his cards right.

© JD Ellevsen

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