Let’s come out of the Kindle closet and reveal what we’re really reading - Bidisha - Comment is free - The GuardianWill e-books be the death of Lit, capital L? The Luddites love to complain that even E Ink displays aren’t the equal of paper.

But could the Luds be right for another reason—namely, that typical e-book readers and tablets do not display covers, so that you can read disreputable works with impunity?

Across the Pond, Anita Singh, the arts and entertainment editor of the Telegraph, checked out the e-bestsellers so far this year at Amazon.co.uk, then compared them to the top performers in an old-fashioned book store chain. A Guardian contributor named Bidisha followed up, writing:

“The British reading public are a bunch of hypocrites. A recent list of Waterstones top-selling paper books of 2015, compared with the top 20 ebooks purchased from Amazon in the same period, has revealed the gulf between what we are seen to be reading and what we’re really reading. The real book versus ebook list is like seeing Dorian Grey’s public face right up against his portrait.

"While on paper we dole out our wages to prop up the careers of Colm Tóíbin, Ian McEwan and Richard Flanagan, what we read on our Kindles is very different. We’re like American winos, hiding our cheap, nasty, yet oh-so-satisfying liquor in brown paper bags—or the dead grey plastic of a Kindle. We sip fine literary wine in public and neck any old drain-clearing hooch when we’re left to our own (e-reading) devices: harrowing first-person accounts of abuse, marshmallowy love stories, gritty killings, true crime, contemporary commuting-based psychodramas with ‘girl’ and ‘train’ in the title."

Hmm. Eighteen of the 20 top authors on the Amazon list were women. Men, by contrast, dominated the Waterstone’s list of staider, far more literary works.

Perhaps in the end this is not just about E vs. P but about the sexism in the literary world.


  1. There be something to the brown paper bag theory of ereaders, but low rent fiction has always out sold the “literary” books – or it did when I was a bookseller in the late 80s and early 90s.

    That said, I do think that ebook readers are more attracted to low rent fiction in general, especially among the self-published. For example, there was a link by an “author” who wined that she wasn’t treated as a “real” writer by the establishment. When I checked out her works on Amazon I found novels described as “x-men at the circus” which sounds about as low rent as a book can get. Of course, there are “real” writers like Warren Murphy who pounded out the very low rent Destoyer series.

    I’ve read my share of low rent fiction from time to time – giant Gila monsters anybody? – but it can’t sustain my interest in reading books for very long, and if the low rent fiction did ever supplant literary fiction or non-fiction, I would probably cease reading or stick to the old paper bound books.

    The book cover issue may be a misdirection. How often are readers in public when a cover can be view? Even so, I used to commute on the train and saw more romance, mystery, and science fiction than literature.

  2. @Greg: Thanks for your insights. My own theory is that the junk/lit ratio has changed, and that the absence of publicly viewable e-covers may be one factor – not a full explanation. Books are commonly regarded as “social objects.” But in many cases, people would rather that they be “private” ones.

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