Are indies elitist?

March 1st, 2014 by admin Leave a reply »

I know I’m a little late to the party, but the article Eleanor Catton wrote before Christmas about literary elitism has got me thinking.

In it she makes the argument that we tend now to read books as consumers rather than as critics, and that our responses are therefore guided by consumerist expectations. We are passive, we want to be entertained and we feel cheated when the ‘product’ demands that we bring something in order that it can be enjoyed:

‘Consumerism, requiring its products to be both endlessly desirable and endlessly disposable, cannot make sense of art, which is neither — not desirable, because an encounter already is, and not disposable, because an encounter exists relationally, in space and time.’

All good stuff.

It made me wonder, if this is true, what it means for bookselling. By virtue of economic necessity many bookshops are becoming more specialised. Many areas of the market – pop-fiction being a particularly good example – are dominated by Amazon and the supermarkets. I think it would be fair to say many readers see these books as consumer commodities: they are imminently interchangeable. Publishers understand this and have become very adept at advertising these books’ contents on the cover. See a solitary silhouetted figure walking down an empty road? You know you are getting an American thriller. It’s like how when you see that big yellow ‘M’, you can already taste the Big Mac in your mouth.

Because of this interchangeability price is high up the list of readers’ selection factors. Obviously indies aren’t going to be competing on price, we don’t have the buying economies blah blah yada yada.

So we specialise. In the case of our bookshop when it comes to fiction our focus is literary. We have a large photography section. These choices of course aren’t made purely on the basis of necessity; we also choose to sell these things because we like to sell them.

Which leads me to ask, does specialisation carry with it a whiff of elitism? And does the fact that bookshops are getting more specialised mean they are getting to be elitist?

Catton’s article carries a dictionary definition of elistism as ‘the advocacy or existence of an elite’. As she notes, pretty weak. By only picking books that we think are ‘better’ you could suppose that, within the definition, we are being elitist. And by rejecting these books the mass market is making the distinction that they are – if not better – at least not interchangeable.

Now, you’re going to tell me that’s not an answer to the question. And you’d be right. I’m not entirely sure what I think. Elitism is too emotive a word, I cannot separate it from its sociological freight. But I do think it’s a question worth asking.

Whadda y’all think?

SF

Bookseller of Silicon Roundabout

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