In response to your "whole indie scene" point: To me this is the problem, not the solution. There was once in this country--let's say the 60's for shorthand--a thriving Highish Midbrow Culture.
This is a culture where Roth and Updike made the bestseller list; where Bob Dylan's "Blonde on Blonde" charted; where Francis Ford Coppola made a studio movie called The Godfather; and where Michael Herr published his Vietnam War Dispatches in Esquire. I think this culture mattered--not just to the artists who created these works, but to the lived texture of life in middle-class America. I think this culture mattered to as many middle-class Americans as it did because these works were produced and dispensed and promoted by mainstream businesses, who knew how to reach them. I think these mainstream businesses produced, dispensed and promoted these products not because there were hard numbers because some individual in some office at these places believed in the artists and their products.
Now we have a vapid Blockbuster Culture and a fringy Indie Culture and a fragile Highish Midbrow Culture that ever more depends, like the High Culture world of museums and opera houses long has, on the largesse of angels--think of Si Newhouse...or, closer to home, Bill Gates. Hold your Bookscan, please. I'll take the rumpled editor who takes a bet on a Lorrie Moore and sticks with her until the breakout book--and maybe buys the time by signing up a decent cookbook.
I don't know. I think you're letting nostalgia cloud your vision. Then as now, there was infinitely more cheese-topping on the great cultural pizza than there was pepperoni, even if you lower the brow-level on the pepperoni. What about that hit sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies? (Beverly Hills 90210 is merely a few blocks over and up from that.) Or that musical wonder Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, the pseudo-mariachi band that graced its albums with photos of beautiful brown-skinned women covered with whipped cream? We're talking cornball kitsch that couldn't even get an audience at a hip coffee bar today. For books, bestselling titles like The Greening of America and Coffee, Tea, or Me float to mind.
Conversely, I don't think the current music scene is half as bad as you make it out to be. Last time I logged onto the Billboard Top 200 site, Lauryn Hill's new CD was #2. You can't tell me her serious fusion of hip hop and rap--or, say, the razzle-dazzle poetics of the Wu-Tang Clan--doesn't speak to some people today the way "Blonde on Blonde" did to its generation. Same with Pulp Fiction , the Godfather of its era. Or Don Delillo'sUnderworld, which I personally couldn't stand but which spoke truth to many and lingered on the bestseller list for weeks. Wecould go on all day, each jockeying to out-brow the other, high and low, which would be enormously fun for us but boring, I'm afraid, for our readers.
On another front, I have to insist that better, clearer, more rigorous numbers would help books more than they'd hurt them. For instance, if the New York Times Bestseller List didn't fiddle with the numbers so much--only looking at certain bookstores and going so far as to seed the process by sending out a list of books it's interested in tracking, as my colleague Eliza Truittreported inSlatea little while ago--certain regional bestsellers, such as Cold Mountain, wouldn't take so long to come to national attention. I know the conventional thinking is that the NYT Bestseller List is good for mid-list books, because it refuses to track crap, but if the NYT Bestseller List were based on firm and comprehensive numbers, rather than guesstimates, why couldn't the Times still refuse to track crap? It would just have to be more upfront about how it slices the stats and then it would do much a better job of following the serious books throughout the country, not just at selected stores.