Too Many Books About Nirvana

The title paraphrases the most common reason I received for rejection by publishers over the course of 2012 when I submitted Dark Slivers. It’s actually a not unreasonable position to take given the pressures the literary sector is under.

Providing a similar perspective, here’s a quick look at my ‘Nirvana Shelf’, this doesn’t include general volumes on grunge, punk or alternative, also a couple of tab books are elsewhere:

Nirvana Books

Now, I was told in my youth that Napoleon Bonaparte is the most written about individual who has ever lived with several thousand volumes between his rise to power and the present day. I’m also aware that historians and other trustworthy professionals have come to accept that each generation emphasises and focuses upon different aspects of a subject thus reflecting the social mores and interests of whenever the present day happens to be. While this opens the door to saying that some topics have a universal and continuous relevance, it doesn’t mean that there’s an infinite amount that is worth saying on any topic.

As a personal choice, naturally I’ll continue to buy Nirvana books as they emerge — Gillan G. Gaar and Charles Cross are guarantees of quality reads. There’s no way I could have written Dark Slivers without the work done by these two, plus Michael Azerrad and others, in pinning down the story of Nirvana so thoroughly. I also relied on the work done at the Internet Nirvana Fan Club, LiveNirvana and the Nirvana Live Guide. Having absorbed all these volumes over the years I was focused, while writing, on trying to create something that had something different to say — hopefully you can tell from the blog.

What I want to look at here and find interesting is the publishing phenomenon that was Nirvana. The peak of the era has long since passed but if we examine by date:


Books Published 1992-2012

It’s wonderful how clear the pattern is. Until Kurt Cobain’s death Nirvana are simply another popular band hitting it big, with barely enough time for anyone to begin writing the tale. His death (and canonization as a fully fledged musical saint) leads to a flurry of publication between mid-1994 and 1998. The peak in 1997 is deceptive incidentally given three of those publications are James Adler’s slim volumes on the Nirvana studio albums. Things tail off until the greatest hits release in 2002 then With the Lights Out in 2004 spark things up again. Having product emerging around which one could tag a publication seems to have become a motivating factor for publishers to take a chance on an author over the past ten years.

I excluded more general studies of grunge from the graph just to give it a focus. It’s intriguing that it’s only from 2007, at twenty years distance, that grunge becomes a book subject with six published in the four years to end of 2011. I’d theorize that the release/imminent release of the twentieth anniversary edition of Bleach, then of Nevermind, sparked the refocus upon grunge given two volumes came out that year then a further three in 2011.

After the pause in 2005 the rest of the calendar belongs to a small set of trusted authors. Gillian G. Gaar alone releases four of the nine volumes singlehanded. Everett True took time for releases in both 2006 and 2007. Charles Cross returns for a single volume and Mat Snow edited compilation of press articles arrives in 2011. It’s still Gillian, however, who rules the roost with releases in 2006, 2009, 2011 and 2012.

Having convinced publishers there was a definite market it seems it was just a case of having the hook or angle. The result, if we look at ‘type’, ends up as band bios, Kurt Cobain bios, song studies, essay/article compilations, photo studies, album studies and then the volume on legacy (which I admit I don’t recommend.) I’m sure there are more possibilities. It’s a shame so many have been repeats. Of course, with this quantity, it’s hard to argue for more.

Whether you, as a reader, find value in the idea of yet more Nirvana works depends on whether you feel that reading about Nirvana (or indeed any topic) is simply about establishing the facts then closing the book, or whether you feel that reading is just as much about the act of thinking and exploring in real-time, the reader’s experience, as it is about the subject under discussion.


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