Reading and Rubbish


"[A]s a general rule," writes British novelist DJ Taylor in The Guardian, "whenever a participant is offered more 'choices', whether in the number of book outlets, TV channels or radio stations, the end result will be to depress the overall quality of the available material."

How's that for "a general rule"? Taylor is led to this black conclusion by the spectacle of big UK retailers offering popular books—by the likes of Dan Brown and Patricia Cornwell—at discounted prices. Every deal struck between publishers and retailers to sell such titles is "terrifically bad for serious novelists" who will never see their books offered "next to the barbecue displays and newspaper racks of the checkout." Publishers may prattle on about cultural democratization, writes Taylor, but such "'democracy', alas, is not much more than a synonym for cheap rubbish."

There's nothing like a stale apocalypse, and this one—the end of literature—has been rushing toward us since Gutenberg. Taylor thinks the wrong kind of people are now selling books. There were similar complaints in the 18th century. The British reaction to Grub Street hacking, for example, was that authors really shouldn't be writing for money at all. Money would turn literature into a commodity, and ruin it. A French version was that every duodecimo edition of hackwork sold to provincials reduced the potential readership for the serious octavo works that appealed to discerning Parisians.

The most honest version of this complaint emerged in the 19th century. Then, the roots of cultural catastrophe lay not in who sold books, but in who read them. The spread of literacy, made possible in Britain by educational reforms, created an unprecedented market for "cheap rubbish." Critics argued then that the common sort of people should be dissuaded from reading novels at all. Popular fiction was bad for its readers, they held, and it was certainly bad for "serious novelists." This particular version of apocalypse didn't die out until the 1930s, though revised versions have since focused on paperbacks and on Wal-Mart.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., "A study announced Tuesday estimates that a record 195,000 new works came out in 2004, a 14 percent jump over the previous year and 72 percent higher than in 1995." There was a big increase in the number of adult-fiction titles published, though "education, history and science releases declined," evidence for some, no doubt, that publishers are putting out the wrong kind of books.

Thanks to ArtsJournal.