Defining Popular -- Not What You Think It Means

05/29/2015 03:54 pm ET | Updated May 29, 2016

Defining Popular--Not What You Think It Means

by guest blogger Renee James, humorist and blogger

Today's vocab words:


  • as in "popular" author: untalented
  • as in "popular" fiction: talentless
  • as in "pop" icon: super talented!
and literary
  • as in "literary" author: brilliant
  • as in "literary" fiction: brilliantly crafted storytelling.

Stepping away from my typical brooding and introspection--such as it is--about my own life, I find myself incrankulous (incredulous + cranky) about the latest news to sweep the publishing industry. I'll assume that nearly every adult drawing breath in the Western world has seen or heard about Selfish, the book of "selfies" "written" by first-time "author" Kim Kardashian. (I promise to stop using derisive quotation marks for the rest of this post.)

If you know me, or even if you read my posts once in a while, it won't surprise you to learn that this particular moment in publishing has captured my interest. What might surprise you is the reason. For that, a little trip down memory lane...

In 2003, I had the great good fortune to attend the National Book Awards ceremony in New York. That evening, the National Book Foundation awarded its annual medal for distinguished contribution to American letters to Stephen King. At the time, this was met with quite the publishing outcry, which ranged from disappointment to outrage from those both inside and outside the Foundation. I didn't understand it then, and I don't understand it now. In a ballroom full of publishing professionals, I was the only one at our table of 10 who had ever read a Stephen King book. But that didn't stop everyone from expressing an opinion about his work and whether or not his oeuvre qualified him for this honor.

According to the follow-up Times article, "some in the literary world responded with laughter and dismay." Talking of the committee's selection of King, one critic said, "That they could believe that there is any literary value there or any aesthetic accomplishment or signs of an inventive human intelligence is simply a testimony to their own idiocy."

Another publishing executive responded with "I am startled every time you say it." He added, "You put him in the company of a lot of great writers, and the one has nothing to do with the other. He sells a lot of books. But is it literature? No."

To some publishers, the critical dismissal of King and his work was largely because of his commercial success. These publishers and the board encouraged the Foundation to try a new direction and give him this prestigious honor. Fortunately, for unapologetic fans like me, the Foundation did just that.

And as it turns out, Mr. King personifies the mission of the Foundation quite well in terms of his own efforts to promote literacy: His writing has turned millions of people, including children, into readers; he runs his own foundations and makes donations that help libraries; he habitually promotes less-established writers, and, by the way, planned to return the $10,000 prize.

The thing is it's not that complicated. Having authors like Stephen King write books that sell by the millions gives publishers the resources (read: money) to publish books that will sell far fewer copies and reach a smaller but no less dedicated audience. If I were one of those literary authors with a tiny but passionate fan base, I'd write thank-you notes to Stephen King, John Grisham, James Patterson, Nora Roberts, and Adrianna Trigiani on an annual basis for keeping the lights on while my editor and I had lunch to discuss "literary fiction."

So let's get back to Kim. Before I go any further, let me make this clear: I'm not in favor of censorship. Anyone can publish whatever they want, and it will find an audience or it won't. And God knows anything with "Kardashian" connected to it will be a moneymaker.

So help me understand something. Where is the uproar over Kim Kardashian's "popular" contributions to literature? True, she's not getting an award (yet), so there's nothing for publishers to do but celebrate her success and disguise their dismay. Industry outrage seems to appear only when a popular writer those in the industry dislike earns "unwarranted" accolades. Otherwise, the same publishing industry that despised honoring King for churning out decades of popular writing that earned untold millions of dollars seems perfectly comfortable publishing and promoting pop icon Kim Kardashian's book of photos of herself. And before that, it seemed delighted to publish several "books" (oops, I did it again) from Paris Hilton. And before that, Madonna's children's book. Or her Sex book, for that matter.

I think I have it. Highbrow costs money. Lowbrow makes money. Got it.

Renee-JamesRenee A. James works at Rodale Inc. and wrote an award-winning op-ed column for The Morning Call, the Allentown, Pennsylvania, newspaper, for almost 10 years. Her essays were included in the humor anthology, 101 Damnations: A Humorists' Tour of Personal Hells (Thomas Dunne Books, 2002), and are also found online at Jewish World Review and The Daily Caller. She invites you to Like her Facebook page, where she celebrates--and broods about--life on a regular basis, mostly as a voice in the crowd that shouts, "Really? You're kidding me, right?" (or wants to, anyway), and she welcomes your suggestions, comments, and feedback to the mix.

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