Monday, November 19, 2007

Geography and Literature for $400, Alex

An AP story by Hillel Italie appearing in today's Washington Times notes that three giants of American fiction-writing died in the past year -- most recently Norman Mailer, but also William Styron and Kurt Vonnegut.

The story reports that sales of Vonnegut's books far outpace those of the other two authors -- sometimes by a factor of 50 to 1 or more:

According to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 70 percent of industry sales, Mr. Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five" has sold about 280,000 copies since 2006, more than four times the combined pace of six of the most talked about books of the past 60 years: Mr. Mailer's "The Naked and the Dead," "The Armies of the Night" and "The Executioner's Song," and Mr. Styron's "The Confessions of Nat Turner," "Sophie's Choice" and "Darkness Visible."

While Mr. Vonnegut's death in April led to a significant jump in sales for his books, the change was far smaller for the works of Mr. Mailer and Mr. Styron, both of whom, unlike Mr. Vonnegut, won Pulitzer Prizes. Books by all three writers are still used in classrooms, but Mr. Vonnegut's are read more both on and off campus.

"I think it has something to do with the fact that Vonnegut has more of a word-of-mouth following. He's a little more pulpy and countercultural," says Keith McEvoy, general manager of Shakespeare & Co. Booksellers in downtown Manhattan. "We had a huge spike after Vonnegut died, but I didn't see anything like that for Mailer or Styron."

Other books by Mr. Vonnegut are also strongly outselling his contemporaries. "Cat's Cradle" has sold nearly 130,000 copies since 2006, according to Nielsen BookScan, and "Breakfast of Champions" totals 74,000. Meanwhile, Mr. Styron's "The Confessions of Nat Turner," winner of the Pulitzer in 1968, has sold less than 2,000 since 2006, while Mr. Mailer's "The Armies of the Night," a Pulitzer winner in 1969, sold just 3,000.
All that is interesting and noteworthy, but there is a curious remark early in this story and it goes unchallenged:
"Vonnegut was the American Mark Twain. He even looked liked him. Everybody loved Vonnegut, whereas Norman was a much more controversial figure," says J. Michael Lennon, the literary executor for Mr. Mailer, who died Nov. 10 at 84.
Now, I've enjoyed the works of Kurt Vonnegut as much as anyone -- Breakfast of Champions was passed from hand to hand in my high school like a sacred text, and I read Cat's Cradle, Welcome to the Monkey House, and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater at about that same time -- but Lennon's attempt at praise struck me as strange, to say the least.

Call me parochial, but wouldn't "the American Mark Twain" be, ummm, Mark Twain?

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