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Friday, 30 September 2011
No Laughing Matter
Any reader in Britain, of serious literature, might be disheartened to learn that sales of the recently short-listed Booker novels are, for the most part, in the low thousands (one of them has sold around two thousand copies); meanwhile, most poetry collections sell less than a thousand copies. However - and this is the funny part - memoirs by comedians sell tens of thousands, making millions of pounds. Apparently, this year's Christmas season, which began in publishing on September 29, features a number of comedy books, which sellers hope will hit the jackpot. This may be fun on Christmas Day. It is not good for culture, however popular. The truth is, poetry has a particularly hard-sell in a culture, like Britain's, where the default setting is a guffaw, or chortle. Poetry can never compete with stand-up, for even when it is light and witty, it is not Comedy; nor is poetry sex, drugs or rock and roll - the other obsessions of the marketers who peddle to us. Comedy is a UK obsession, and, kept in its place, it is harmless good fun. But Comedy has infected the British psyche. Double-entendres, snickers, and cheap shots perforate and proliferate the fabric of our days. Lewd puns and madcap stunts riddle our evenings. With all the belly-aching jolly good fun, where is the time to sit quietly, and read (on Kindle or paper) a thoughtful work, that might demand actually having to feel deeper emotions, such as fear, loss, love, or empathy? Let us stop pretending that Poetry is popular. You measure the popular by how much it sells. The books that sell in the UK are by comedians.