How Do We Get On The Same Page?

Tim Parks considers how the social function of novels has changed with the times:

How often have we been involved in conversations, at a party maybe, where four or five people ask what others think of this or that novel, only to find that no one else has read it? Even, or perhaps especially, among people who read a lot it is often difficult to find a single recently published book that we have all read. The conversation founders, literature fails to bring us together, no debate is provoked. Or to find a book to talk about we have turn to one of the blockbusters or media-hyped works of the day, something one almost feels authorized to talk about whether one has read it or not: Underworld, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Interview with a Vampire, My Struggle. Regardless of quality, regardless even of sales, since [Karl Ove] Knausgaard’s are nowhere near on a level with the others, these are books that have been as it were chosen for the conversation, perhaps precisely because it’s often embarrassingly difficult to find a book we’ve all read to settle on.

He goes on to speculate why people gravitate toward some titles over others:

The serialized novel has been replaced by serialized television fiction that has become so successful at generating discussion that those of us who didn’t follow The Sopranos or The Wire were often made to feel left out. Meantime, in the bookshops, readers choose from literally thousands of recently published titles. In the countries of western Europe a good 50 percent of those books will come from abroad; so people’s reading is not focused on the society they live in and the stories read are often set elsewhere.

In 2011 when I ran a little survey in a Dutch bookshop on the kind of novels people were reading, younger readers in particular said they often chose to read popular foreign, particularly American or English, authors—Dan Brown or Ian McEwan or Philip Roth or Zadie Smith—so that they would have a common subject of conversation when meeting other young people during their summer travels. Their choices seemed random and were taken regardless of quality. Rather than a situation where people are naturally finding themselves reading the same thing and then talking about it, some readers are responding to celebrity in the hope that what they read will enable them to join an international conversation.