Reading and Rubbish

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"[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.

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  1. “education, history and science releases declined,”

    As a %, I presume. In my little world, it seems like science and history releases are at a pace.

    Just look at the Military History Book Club, for example. All kinds of neat new titles . . .

  2. Pedants like Taylor are missing out on the real story of literature in the 20th century, which is that many of the best works are written by “genre” writers under the radar screens of literary critics and wanker “serious” writers like Taylor.

    Think about it, if it weren’t for changes in the publishing industry and the introduction of the paperback, there probably wouldn’t have been much science fiction written in the last 50 years. Sure, 99% of it is total useless crap, but the same is probably doubly true for the output of Taylor and his buddies.

  3. I seem to remember that Mark Twain was one of the non “serious” writers whose books were sold on the cheap to the masses back in his day.

  4. 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.

    Everytime the content industry thinks of something new the government shouldn’t let me do with media on my computer, I wonder if we’d really be so bad off with no copyright laws at all.

  5. Maybe Taylor should check out Barnes and Nobles, where excellent editions of classics are available in paperback, mostly for under 9 dollars. I just picked up new copies of Moby Dick, Dracula, and Grimm’s Tales for about 20 bucks. I don’t think those books qualify as “hack” work.

  6. Sounds like DJ is having a hard time accepting the fact that no one wants to read what he rights.

    He’s too smart for the public, you see. Just too, too smart. And sensitive. Very, very sensitive.

    I’m sure.

  7. Military History Book Club

    anything about killing is flouishing, i suspect. didn’t the history channel recently become the murder channel?

    the problem mr taylor addresses — and, be honest, unless you like shit lit, it is a problem — he goes at from the wrong end, imo. the end of criticism, of a critical establishment, has been the death not only of a recognizable literature but of art generally.

    i’m sure great works are still written. trying to find one in the morass of what is critically praised is all but impossible, however.

    and that is a problem. since the cubists, art criticism became first countercultural then completely individualistic. as the western world adopted the german romantic mindset, institutions, traditions and schools of art went into the toilet and we were left with individual artists and individual interpretations, each considering only themselves. art was left without a direction — aimless — and increasingly self-indugent, meaningless and fractured.

    to the artist, left without anything meaningful to rebel against, the point became increasingly to excite a reaction — to shock. that path is now well-worn, and we all are desensitized and cynical. wonderful, that.

    let’s face it. when the average person picks up dostoevsky, they do so not because they’re going to learn anything about the devolvement of society but because they are attracted by celebrity. new great novelists writing difficult books don’t have celebrity and don’t get read — simple, emotional stories like dan brown writes do.

    critics know it, and if a critic wants to build a reputation and fame, he recommends dan brown and j.k. rawlings. there’s no critical institution or tradition for him to answer to for doing so. individual interpretation is inviolate, and therefore easily abused. (read a roger ebert review, if you haven’t recently. vile shit with a neptune brothers soudtrack? three and a half stars.)

    joyce or proust would never arise in a democratic market; he’d have been buried under it. he was a product of critical institution, which offered him both something to rebel against and be recognized by, both reviled and (by a small minority) acclaimed.

    that indeed has been killed by “democratism” — more properly, individualism. and there’s something to regret there, i think.

  8. seriously — take a look at ebert. all the movies he reviewed in current release, not one less than three stars.

  9. Ok, since I’m an english major, I’m finally ready to make a worthwhile comment. Gaius, almost no great art makes it big in any system. Schlock prevails, no matter what. Even in the golden age of literature, very few works of enduring power and quality were written, and even when they were written they rarely experienced success in their author’s lifetime. Dickens was a hack, but he was popular. Orwell was great, but unpopular. Individual tastes and market forces are always the things that move people to stardom, whether it be in literature, music, or arts. It takes a long time to separate the wheat from the chaff. Even in the good old days of Rome and the Middle Ages, heaping volumes of horse shit were produced by “artists,” and mercifully time has whittled down the canon of great works to the point that when we think “Rome” we think “orations of Cicero,” rather than “101 ways to check your prostitute for the clap,” which I’m sure was rather popular at the time. So don’t get down on modern culture for relativism and lack of a cultural standard, just wait about 2000 years and it’ll all be sorted out.

  10. the problem mr taylor addresses — and, be honest, unless you like shit lit, it is a problem

    The “problem” is that 90 % of everything has always been crap. It’s just that no one remembers the crap, and they do remember the good stuff. So all the crappy writers who were around at the time of Shakespeare are never remembered, except by a tiny minority of English students. We remember Shakespeare, and Marlowe, and Vega, and some of their contemporaries, and we think, “Oh, why can’t modern art be like that?” In a hundred years, no one will remember Dan Brown, or Danielle Steele, or Mary Higgins Clark, or David Eddings, or John Grisham, or the guy who wrote Tuesdays with Morrie, or Tom Clancy; they’ll remember Steven King (IMO), and they’ll wonder why the level of writing has gone down in the last century.

    since the cubists, art criticism became first countercultural then completely individualistic.

    You know, you blame everything on individualism. If Western society is declining, then I’m sure that the causes are far, far more complex than individualism. To which you’ll say, “Of course, but individualism is the most important,” or something. Just remember, if your answer is simple and can explain just about everything, it’s probably wrong. Not necessarily, but more than likely.

    new great novelists writing difficult books don’t have celebrity and don’t get read

    Probably because they’re boring. Novelists, and artists in general, think that because they’re so brilliant, the audiences should come to them, rather than vice versa. The great artists know their audience, and will make their work entertaining as well as relevant. Look at Shakespeare; he had something for everyone. Fights for the groundlings, romance for the middle class, political intrigue for the upper class ? in other words, he didn’t just tell stories that were good, he entertained. I’m not going to sit down and read, say, Steinbeck for fun, because whatever he has to say that’s relevant isn’t worth slogging through all the crap. I’ll read J.K. Rowling instead, and get all the depth and be entertained.

    joyce or proust would never arise in a democratic market; he’d have been buried under it. he was a product of critical institution, which offered him both something to rebel against and be recognized by, both reviled and (by a small minority) acclaimed.

    Both Joyce and Proust would have arisen in a democratic market, and they would probably have found their niche: people who want to seem better than everyone else. People don’t read Joyce for his incredible insights into human nature (though he has plenty of those); they read Joyce because the hoi polloi aren’t. They can read Joyce and understand him, and then they can talk to their snooty buddies about him and laugh about how the masses just don’t get it.

    Let me set you straight on a few things: The past you’re always longing for sucked for the vast majority of people. The societies of the past were built to benefit a lucky few at the top of the ladder, and the rest knew their place and served them. Societies were geared to keep those people in their place. That all worked well for societies with limited wealth, where everyone was pretty poor, and even the wealthy had pretty miserable lives.

    We don’t live in that world. We live in a world where advancements in technology offer unlimited wealth for all practical purposes. There is no longer any reason to restrict culture to the elite. We’re still dealing with the consequences of that, but the answer isn’t to go back to some restrictive society where critics tell us what we should read according to systems developed by other critics. The answer is to just let things develop as they will. The systems that you go on and on about, the societal restrictions and critical institutions and such, developed over time as a response to their environment; the same thing will happen. Rather than bemoaning a lost past that wasn’t really all that good, look forward to the future and celebrate all the good things that will come. There will be bad things, too, sure, but the best is yet to come. Mark my words.

  11. Grylliade, my sentiments exactly, and put in much clearer terms. Damn it, it’s hard to comment well at work.

  12. Even in the good old days of Rome and the Middle Ages, heaping volumes of horse shit were produced by “artists,” and mercifully time has whittled down the canon of great works to the point that when we think “Rome” we think “orations of Cicero,” rather than “101 ways to check your prostitute for the clap,” which I’m sure was rather popular at the time.

    lol, mr carter. i agree that great art is now produced. i’m simply saying that we really cannot know it now, thanks to the loss of criticism — i agree with you, a healthy critical process decades (centuries?) from now will have to revisit this ‘schlock’ in the future to sort it out at best it can from what survives.

    at least, in the 17th-18th-19th c, there was a possibility of recognition. contemporary criticism (whn healthy) isn’t random, would you agree? movements were recognized. trends were identified. expressions were understood. and even rejection of great art can include commentary noting intelligence and meaning which perpetuates its reputation.

  13. Gaius,
    Maybe the times seem different simply because of the sheer volume of “art” that’s created now. As you’ve said in other posts, “everyone’s an artist” today. However, within the worlds of literature and fine art, there is still a great deal of criticism and discernment going on. Things are declared good and bad on an ongoing basis. Many of the founding works of modern/postmodern art like Duchampe’s “Fountain,” and some of Warhol’s works are now being panned as dead-ends, and there is a movement within the literary world to stop the downward spiral of inflated, self-important prose a la Dave Eggers. Perhaps since culture has been so democratized, serious criticism isn’t as visible as it once was, but it is still taking place where it matters.

  14. “101 ways to check your prostitute for the clap,”

    I’m immensely curious about our newfound ability to read works found on rotten papyri (sp?). I heard we now have the ability to finally figure out what people were actually reading in Alexandria 2k+ years ago based on a huge pile of works found in an ancient junk heap.

    Randolph, your document may yet see the light of day.

  15. Probably because they’re boring. Novelists, and artists in general, think that because they’re so brilliant, the audiences should come to them, rather than vice versa.

    Spot on, grylliade… My mother is an aspiring painter, and recently came to LA to scout out galleries. She said that the biggest problem most artists have is that they’re not willing to get out and pound the pavement to promote themselves; they just wait for the accolades to come in. As a result, a gallery owner who needs to fill space might wind up taking on crap, while something great sits undiscovered in another artist’s studio.

    Most of us “commoners” these days buy a particular piece of art/book/music because it resonates with us for whatever reason, not because a critic said it was great and that we should have it. Increased distribution and availability only increases the odds that we’ll find something that we really like.

  16. You know, you blame everything on individualism.

    i seek out topics where its distortion is most apparent. πŸ™‚ but, yes, i take your warning. the romantic impulse is a huge and very complex framework in explaining the course of philosophy and society. it is based primarily on the rejection of the material and objective for the introspective and subjective, and it doesn’t really do it justice to just say “individualism”.

    in other words, he didn’t just tell stories that were good, he entertained.

    is there more to art than entertainment? i think so. i mean, i understand, necessary but not sufficient — but the idea of entertaining is subjective. sending meaningful and powerfully insightful messages about society and the human condition (which shakespeare excelled at, as did william blake) is the more difficult standard for great art. i look for it. and i didn’t see it in harry potter, i fear. (did i miss it?) πŸ™‚

    There will be bad things, too, sure, but the best is yet to come.

    thanks for that, mr grylliade, but i suspect the better future is going to look remarkably like the past you berate. neither did the past universally “suck” — one need reach for the elizabethans to understand how joyful it could be. and neither is the modern western condition, for all its extravagance and techne, universally appealing — anyone who wrote what you just did is intimately familiar with the aimlessness, disengagement and anxiety of postmodern life, i suspect. populist politics and a flight from the past does little to improve that — in fact, i submit, is part and parcel to its root cause.

    anyway, what am i but one who tries to understand the world on its terms? if i see the world as individualistic, isn’t that because it commands us all to? people who do not do their own will are looked on as fools, are they not? would you not compare this age to any age past and say that we are emancipated and obsessed with emancipation?

    and do you believe that to be a sustainable method of healthy society — each of us following no will but what we choose? or do you imagine, as i do, that such unchecked freedom builds a society of spoiled children who cannot achieve for lack of compromise and understanding?

  17. “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.”

    What utter claptrap. The state of literature isn’t suffering because people can buy discounted books at the grocery store. Publishers may be able to sell more of a particular title or kind of title there, but that doesn’t mean they have stopped producing serious literature. And the increasing number of book outlets, especially online, has been an untrammeled good for the consumer. Out-of-print books that used to be impossible to find are now more readily available. Readers who enjoyed (or hated) a particular book can discuss it online with others instead of having to rely on forcing the book upon family and friends. It’s easier than ever to find books that I want to read, and I read maybe two hundred books a year. Yeah, there’s a lot crap, but what I consider garbage may be just the thing for someone else. Publishers and authors just have to be savvier about finding their marketing niche

  18. “or do you imagine, as i do, that such unchecked freedom builds a society of spoiled children who cannot achieve for lack of compromise and understanding?”

    Blech. Human beings will eventually do what works for them. We can achieve plenty, and without having to overcome monumental obstacles erected in the name of a good society whose shape is dictated to us. Pervasive common culture on the scale of 300 million Americans is a lie. If people enjoyed it in the past, it was because they didn’t recognize its stifiling character to large minority view holders. In an age of individualism, we seek out the culture we want, and gather with those whose values and cultural elements we share. Rumor has it there is this place on the internet where a bunch of libertarians, a few conservatives, and some guy named joe hang out and blab about politics and culture they find interesting. Almost like a micro culture, voluntarily entered into by individualists. Uniformity does not speak to quality.

  19. all the movies he reviewed in current release, not one less than three stars.

    That’s not fair to Ebert. His reviews have always been about more than star ratings or the position of his thumb (and he’s quite public about the fact that he dislikes having to offer both of those things for market purposes). He does talk about quality, and about how well a movie accomplishes what it sets out to do, and concentrates greatly on one of his maxims, “What a movie is about is less important than how it is about it.” He’s willing to rate highly a genre movie that’s a superlative or inventive example of its genre, and willing to trash a high-toned, ambitious piece of shit if it doesn’t break any ground.

  20. is there more to art than entertainment? i think so. i mean, i understand, necessary but not sufficient — but the idea of entertaining is subjective.

    Yes, there is more to art then entertainment. But I think that people are demanding today that their art be entertainment. I think it’s a lot like Virginia Postrel’s style vs. substance argument ? previous generations often had to choose: style, substance, or both at tremendous cost. We can now have both style and substance relatively cheaply, and people are starting to demand that. It’s not enough to have a nice looking couch, or a couch that will stand up to family life; we want both, and we can get both. In art, we want both entertainment and art, and we’re starting to get both. I would put Tad Williams’ writing up against almost any writer out there, and he’s a fantasy writer. The same with a few others; even genre literature is getting good. And I expect that trend to continue.

    sending meaningful and powerfully insightful messages about society and the human condition (which shakespeare excelled at, as did william blake) is the more difficult standard for great art. i look for it. and i didn’t see it in harry potter, i fear. (did i miss it?) πŸ™‚

    I don’t think that J.K. Rowlings is there yet, but every book has been closer than the last. The seventh book, or whatever she does after Harry Potter (if anything), I think will be great art. I might be wrong. I certainly would put Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the category of great art, or at least its first three or four seasons. And that was a hell of an entertaining show.

    but i suspect the better future is going to look remarkably like the past you berate.

    If it does, it won’t be a better future. Most cultures before the twentieth century were stifling to most of their members. We’re finding a way to live in an individualistic culture, where more people can be happy than ever before. It’s not always pretty, and there are often missteps that need to be done away with, but that’s what happens in something that’s alive. A future that goes back to old modes of functioning, that forces members to meet society’s needs rather than meeting their needs, is the worst possible outcome. How many people in traditionial Muslim cultures are happy? How many of them that are happy are so solely because they don’t know of any alternatives? People have always been happy, because they never realized how good their lives can be. We’re unhappy, because we’ve gotten a glimpse of what our lives could be like, and we’re not there yet. Which is better? A deaf man who is content, because he has never heard music, or a hearing man who has heard music, but wants to make better?

    neither did the past universally “suck” — one need reach for the elizabethans to understand how joyful it could be.

    Once again, for an elite. A larger elite than had existed in previous times, but still an elite. The trend of Western civilization since the Renaissance has been towards greater participation in culture by more members of society, and a blending of popular and high art. More people are materially comfortable today than ever before, and more people are reading and participating in culture than ever before. They don’t always learn the “correct” way to interpret literature in school, despite their teachers’ best efforts, and they don’t always approach high art with the reverence that art and English majors think it is due. Often they look at or read the art these elites laud and can’t see why it’s good, even if generations of critics have said it is. And this is a good thing overall.

    Why? Because it’s creative destruction. You don’t think that this will lead to a new standard? Or, more accurately, to new standards, because people will find what they like and follow it. There are standards in fantasy fiction; they aren’t the same as in “literary” fiction, but they’re there. We don’t all have to be on the same page; we just have to be tolerant enough to live together.

    and do you believe that to be a sustainable method of healthy society — each of us following no will but what we choose? or do you imagine, as i do, that such unchecked freedom builds a society of spoiled children who cannot achieve for lack of compromise and understanding?

    I don’t think that each of us follows nothing but their own will. We are still shaped by society, and society still has its ways of affecting us. Try being gay in a small town in the Midwest, or a fundamentalist at an Ivy League university ? I rather suspect that these people don’t think they have “unchecked freedom.”

    I am often bothered by the culture that we are headed towards. I am not one who thinks that “anything goes” is the best possible ethic. Conflict often produces the greatest art, and people who live in trying times develop great virtues ? witness the “Greatest Generation,” who, even with all the canonization they’ve gone through by the Boomers, still have developed many virtues that I admire. But . . . even with my personal misgivings, I’d rather be alive now. I’d rather live in a society where people can live and be happy, and where they have a hope that their children will be able to do the same, and where billions of people in the Third World will have the same kind of life, then in a society that produces “great art” but where most of the people are unhappy. So even if I’m wrong, and such a society can’t produce great art, it’s a small price to pay for the happiness of billions.

  21. “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.”

    It’s true — NOBODY can sneer like a Brit.

  22. And on this whole “elites vs peons” thing:

    The other day I saw one of the cleverest little quips in a crass, lowbrow newspaper comic strip. A teacher has written QUESTION AUTHORITY on the blackboard, and a kid has folded his arms and replied “Suppose I don’t feel like it?”

    The teacher, appropriately, is impressed.

  23. Don’t underestimate the economics underpinning all this, not to go all determinist on everybody. The UK has, or used to have, a Net Pricing Agreement that prevented stores from discounting books. This was in large part pure protectionism for traditional booksellers against encroachment on their turf by other retailers, who would enjoy offering merely the most popular books at reduced prices, either because they could make ?s that way, or could build traffic with this loss leader. My guess is that Taylor, besides being grumpy that Tesco’s sells The Da Vinci Code and not his latest, has friends and colleagues who work in traditional bookselling, and doesn’t like seeing them lose market share.

    Things said upthread I heartily agree with:

    ? Taylor needs to get acquainted with Sturgeon’s Law.

    ? gaius should beware of reductionism. (Though what is his refusal to use capital letters than unchecked individualism?)

    I close with these borrowed words of wisdom:

    Don’t question authority. What makes you think they know anything? – Danny Low in rec.arts.sf.written

    Kevin

  24. So even if I’m wrong, and such a society can’t produce great art, it’s a small price to pay for the happiness of billions.

    what i fear most, mr grylliade, is that this happiness — to the extent that it exists — is being bought on the futures of those yet to be born. this euphoria of individualism has been seen before — plato got sick enough of it to condemn it, as he watched city-states endlessly impale themselves with populism, decadence, chaos and tyranny.

    of course, it is wonderful to live without responsibility. the question is, on a longer timeframe, at what price? i think that stating just how high the price is is the message of many epics and myths — not just the bible, but certainly inclusive of it.

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