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« Just What The Doctor Ordered | Main | Bush's Exit Strategy: Goodman and Good Sense #6 »

September 13, 2007


Bravo, Ruchira! "So what?" puts it exactly right. At a lecture I attended several years ago, Stanley Fish made the remark more pointedly--"So f---ing what?!"--in reference to the hypothetical risk of censorship (on account of anti-Semitic stereotyping) precluding our access to Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice.

Look, I'm a librarian, and I think we grant far too much power to books and literature. We mistakenly equate the power of artillery with rhetorical power. The cliché retort, "Sticks and stones...," contains a certain truth. The beauty of literature, for me, is precisely its quietistic allure. Despite the proclamations of J.L. Austin, John Searle, and Catharine MacKinnon, words accomplish nothing. They are impotent. That is the very basis for their value.

I nearly wrote what Stanley Fish said.

Publishers' readers are not generally given the brief of identifying great works of literature; they are not given the brief of identifying books that will change readers' lives. Their brief is to determine whether a book is one readers would want to buy. The point at issue is not whether the 30+ million readers of Diary of a Young Girl were right to want to read the book, but whether the publishers who rejected the book were right in thinking no one would want to read it.

These readers' reports have been quoted in isolation. If we had more data on the recommendations of specific readers we could tell whether readers with good track records had made an uncharacteristic error of judgment, or whether the sensibility which did not warm to Anne Frank led to a pattern of missed opportunities. The sales of the book, however, do make clear that in this particular instance a large number of publishers were out of touch with the public to whom they hoped to sell books. The other books mentioned show a similar gap between readers' preferences and publishers' perception of those preferences.

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