Welcome back to our Tuesday segment, where we’ll be revisiting some of our most popular posts from the last few years.  What’s stayed the same?  And what’s changed?  We’ll be updating you on the facts, and taking a new (and hopefully refreshing) angle on a few timeless classics of Self Publishing Advisor.

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[ Originally posted: August 19th, 2009 ]

I opened the Books section in yesterday’s New York Times “Urban Eye” to read the headline, “Why Literature Doesn’t Matter.” Really? How sad. It matters to me. It matters to my family, friends, and colleagues. It matters to the self-publishing authors I work with every day. Literature doesn’t matter… I wish someone would have told me.

According to “Urban Eye,” a recent Sunday Book Review article penned buy novelist Kurt Anderson was to fill me in. Anderson writes, “During the 1960s and ’70s…people who hadn’t read a word of a first-rate contemporary novel — no Cheever, no Bellow, no Salinger, Heller, Styron, Doctorow, Updike or Roth — nevertheless knew the novelists’ names… And then everything changed.”

But book sales in the US have remained strong, and are even growing over previous years in Europe. Despite the current recession effects, statistics show that readers are still buying books. Not matter? Anderson goes on to claim, “But irony of ironies, after literature was evicted from mass culture, pop culture itself began to fragment and lose its heretofore defining quality as the ubiqui­tous stuff that everybody consumed.”

Ah, I’m seeing to whom, or rather to what, Literature doesn’t matter to – pop culture. Wait, then this is a good thing for authors and readers. The fragmentation that Anderson talks about is the segmenting of consumers into smaller, more clearly defined profiles. What that means to self-publishing authors of fiction, non-fiction, etc., is not that your work doesn’t matter, that Literature doesn’t matter, but that it doesn’t matter to everyone. Perfect, now you can coordinate and focus your subject matter and marketing efforts to readers who will benefit from, and buy your books.

Talk to your self-publisher early on about your custom marketing plan.

– by Karl Schroeder

These days, when someone refers to “Literature,” most people think of only one thing:
third folio

But the Classics, I would argue, are not the sole proprietors of the word “Literature”–and they never have been.  And “Literature,” as defined by Merriam-Webster, can mean “written works (such as poems, plays, and novels) that are considered to be very good and to have lasting importance” or simply “books, articles, etc., about a particular subject.”  I know some of my professors in years past would argue that there’s a profound distinction between “literature” (with a lower-case “l”) and “Literature” (with an upper-case “L”)–but then we’re getting into that dreaded world of semantics, where words are bent to match whichever connotations the arguing parties need them to.

I think there are two primary reasons why books become classics:

  1. Someone in a position of power decides they’re worth preserving, and
  2. They continue to make a lasting impression on readers, across cultures and decades.

The first item explains why a great number of quality works (by women, or people of color, and so forth) have been excluded from what is considered “Canon Literature,” and which even today comprises a large part of every American schoolkid’s reading list.  And the second item explains the gaps in the first: many works that were not considered appropriate for lasting acclaim have survived through the centuries for seemingly no other reason than they still connect with people.  The first item is an exercise in the mind, and the second in the heart. I have a couple of examples in mind, but I don’t want to turn today’s post into an exercise in literary theory.  (As much as I love it!)

uncle tom's cabin

The fact of the matter is, books mean a lot to people.  Today.  In the here-and-now. The generation lauded as bringing about the “end of literature”–the generation that cut its teeth on supposedly un-literary books like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games–reads more than any generation prior.  And they not only read, they write.  That’s right–they have created a vast market for new stories, and they have stepped up to flood that market with material.  Best of all, they understand one simple and very important truth: a self-published book like The Martian or Wool or Eragon can move them in ways that “Canon Literature” sometimes can’t.  Stigma has lost its power over “kids these days,” and they’re proud to be voracious readers of books that mean something to them, not to the folks putting together SAT reading lists.

I can’t tell you the last time I cried over Vanity Fair or The Adventures of Tristram Shandy.  I appreciate a good dollop of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens and Shakespeare, but I haven’t wept over them recently.  I have wept over The Martian.  (I won’t even hint at my reaction to Harry Potter when I re-read the series this last winter.)  I don’t think there’s room to despair over the “Death of Literature,” or any more support for the argument that literature “doesn’t matter” today than there was when Karl wrote this post back in 2009.  Our definitions of literature have been too narrow, and our expectations of the current generations of readers have been wrong.  Literature is more diverse, more colorful, and more exciting than anyone ever gave it credit for–and it means more now than ever!

And … I’ve made this post run long.  Next week I’ll revisit it, because there’s one crucial component I’ve failed to address today: How literature’s continued “mattering” impacts you as an author, and how you can use it to your advantage!

Thanks for reading.  If you have any other ideas, I’d love to hear them.  Drop me a line in the comments section below and I’ll respond as quickly as I can.  ♠

KellyABOUT KELLY SCHUKNECHT: Kelly Schuknecht is the Executive Vice President of Outskirts Press. In addition to her contributions to the Outskirts Press blog at blog.outskirtspress.com, Kelly and a group of talented marketing experts offer book marketing services, support, and products to not only published Outskirts Press authors, but to all authors and professionals who are interested in marketing their books and/or careers. Learn more about Kelly on her blog, kellyschuknecht.com.

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