?Taste has no system and no proofs,? wrote Susan Sontag. She may have been right in theory, but the reality is that the system for controlling popular taste has been happily chugging along for decades now. Whether It’s major studios green-lighting film scripts or music execs choosing the next big thing, books, movies, and songs come to you through a meticulous filter of market research, committees, and sales projections. Now, that system’s being turned on its head?and pop culture might never look the same again.
Take The New York Times bestseller lists, for example. They’ve long defined the popular literary landscape and, because they’re based on sales, readers definitely shape those lists. But who gets to decide which books make it onto bookstore shelves?and into those readers? hands at the cash register?
A striking similarity between the bestseller lists of 1955 and 2011 holds the answer. Titles have changed, authors are different, but almost without exception the hits arrive via major publishing houses. Today, It’s Knopf, Bantam, Putnam, Doubleday, Hachette Group. Half a century ago, the lists were heavy with names like Doubleday, Houghton Mifflin, and Prentice-Hall.
For better or worse, having venture capital meant that publishers controlled who got inside the literary gates and onto the shelves. Readers had plenty of options, but those options were ultimately restricted to the books that editors (and their accountants) deemed worthy of hitting the presses. For every masterpiece that made it through the vagaries of the system, It’s certain that others missed out by a whisker.
But now, as technology allows anyone become a publisher, the question is what will those bestseller lists look like in 2055? Never mind the image of a kid in a candy store. we’re agog at the threshold of the entire mall, marvelling that we get to pick anything we want. If popular culture reflects a nation’s character, what will we choose to say about ourselves now that the gates have been flung wide?
It isn’t a question of genre or even of quality. A lot (okay, most) self-published books could stand a few good rounds with a dictionary and The Elements of Style. But we’re talking purely about taste here, not technical or even artistic merit.
That’s not to say readers haven’t held the reins in the past. Classics like The Joy of Cooking, Spartacus, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover got their start thanks to readers, not publishing houses. But before the digital revolution, few authors had the cash (or the storage space) to self-publish, so readers still relied mainly on publishers? opinions when it came to choice.
Now, that choice is ours. E-books and print-on-demand mean that any writer can make her work available. Personal websites, social networks, and sites like YouTube let everyone from indie filmmakers to musicians to comics find an audience.
Perhaps, as the bestseller lists and top music downloads evolve, we’ll be horrified at the picture they’ll paint. Maybe the truth is that our collective tastes run more to mac-and-cheese than fine dining. But oh, isn’t it glorious to have the choice?