It has come to my attention on several occasions of late that the history of the decline and fall of American literature to its current moribund state is as little known as Mendelssohn’s revised version of his Italian Symphony. Thus I feel it incumbent upon me to explain why the once great literary tradition of our collapsing democracy done collapsed.
In the beginning, circa 1800-1950, American publishing was a largely unprofitable endeavor and therefore the purview of wealthy men who made their profits elsewhere and plowed some of those profits into the cultural life of the country. Most of these fellows—Knopf, Doubleday, Scribner, etc.—held court in New York City, with Little and Brown making their stand in Boston. The literary arms of their publishing houses were staffed with bright, well-educated men and women intent on finding and supporting promising writers who might one day fulfill their promise on the larger literary stage. The unspoken rule that stood in every great publishing house until the 1960’s was that an author’s first two novels might not show a profit, but her third should pay for itself, and her fourth would begin to pay back the investment of the publisher. Books were kept in print for years in those days, which allowed time for new authors to gain an audience.
Thus the development of literary talent was a primary mission of these great publishers, and that mission inspired some of the most eccentric and original thinking people to give their lives in service to the art of editing, a highly advance skill requiring years of practice to attain. The greatness of American literature was inseparable from the greatness of her editors, which point cannot be overstated.
Because publishing did not show much if any profit, the publishing houses were of no interest to larger corporations looking for profitable entities to consume. This is another essential point, for it was only when publishing became profitable that the terrible decline in our literary culture began.
So how did publishing, so long a break-even endeavor at best, suddenly begin to turn a profit? The surprising answer is one of the most fascinating parts of the decline and fall, for it illustrates both the fabulous potential of socialism and the terrible shortcomings of capitalism.
The fighting of World War II required the government of the United States to draft millions and millions of men into military service, and when these men came home from the war, the nation felt a great obligation to them. Because the socialist ethos of the Roosevelt era was still largely in play, the GI Bill was passed, and this bill made it possible for millions of men and women to go to college absolutely free. These millions were people who, without this socialist program, would never have been able to attend college.
It is crucial to note that the private universities could only accommodate a small fraction of the former soldiers who wanted to take advantage of the government’s educational largesse, and a good argument can be made that our state and community college systems came into full being as a direct result of the GI Bill, which systems educated not only the former warriors but millions of other people who had previously been precluded from higher education for lack of sufficient money.
Thus tens of millions of people became educated, literate, and hungry for good books. The response of publishers, both established houses and a host of new houses, was to reprint thousands of classic novels and short stories and poems and plays and histories and other non-fiction works, but not as hardbacks, which would have been prohibitively expensive to produce and transport. Instead, the publishers gifted the world with a vast treasure trove of paperbacks that were cheap to print, easy to ship, took up much less space in bookstores, were wonderfully affordable, and…drum roll, please, were profitable for the publishers.
And because the paperback revolution made publishers profitable, this amazing literary renaissance (which more than a few historians credit with igniting the cultural revolution known as “the Sixties”) would be tragically short-lived. For once the publishers became profitable, they first became the prey of each other, then the prey of large American corporations, and finally the prey of enormous multinational corporations.
Now if there is one rule that supersedes all others in the corporate manifesto, it is that any item manufactured by the corporation must be immediately profitable or quickly discontinued. By the mid-1970’s, this rule was the supreme law in every American publishing house, and nevermore would a publisher support a promising writer for two or three books without showing a profit. When I published my first novel with Doubleday in 1978, every poetry department in every major publishing house in America had been closed. And had my first novel not (miraculously) shown a profit, I might never have published another novel.
By the early 1980’s the last of the “old school” of creative and dedicated editors, many of them middle-aged and older, had been replaced by legions of young women (21-27) who, to this day, are the “acquisition editors” for all the major houses, and who themselves last only a few years in their drudge jobs of buying books that fit the extremely limited parameters of acceptable corporate media. Books that are not essentially supportive of the status quo and instantly successful are promptly taken out of print, i.e. remaindered.
What’s more, the many literary agents who acted as field scouts for those bygone literature-loving editors were swiftly eclipsed by the variety of agent prevalent today, marketeers who know nothing of and care nothing for literature.
There are, of course, several parallel plots to this tragedy, among them the advent of chain bookstores, the demise of independent bookstores, the conquest of the population by television, the collapse of our educational system, and the advent of the personal computer and the Internet, all of which contributed mightily to the demise of literature.
Today, two inconceivably huge multinational corporations control all mainstream publishing in America. Don’t be fooled by the names Knopf, Doubleday, Little Brown, Random House, etc. on the books you see in the bookstore, if you still have a bookstore to go to. These in-name-only entities reside in the same propaganda arms of two massive and politically conservative corporations, which should clarify why you can’t find much good to read these days.
In the absence of the cultivation of writing talent, the books published by these monsters are, with only the rare accidental exception, uniformly awful. As a consequence, the once large audience for literary fiction is gone. The bestseller lists—which, by the way, no longer reflect sales but are merely marketing devices used to hoodwink consumers—are filled with pulp murder mysteries, food-based pseudo-novels, junky espionage thrillers, and the occasional offering from one of the few surviving authors developed by an interesting editor way back when.
Ironically, were these publishing entities with the names of former actual publishers set free to stand on their own, not one would be profitable because so few people today read new books. And who can blame them given what there is to choose from?
Sadly, two new generations have grown up since the onset of literary rigor mortis, and the vast majority of these younger people wouldn’t know a proper sentence or paragraph or a decent turn of phrase if it hit them between the eyes. They have been programmed since birth to be visualists, addicted to a constant flow of rapidly shifting imagery. They skim rather than read, if they look at words at all.
But what about Harry Potter, you say? About that franchise I will reserve my deeper sentiment for close friends and say only that children who read/watch Harry Potter do not, in general, become readers of other books unless the books are Harry Potter-like and marketed as such, with requisite marketing and media hype to support the Potterness of the latest fantasy word widget.
Lastly, I must comment on the bizarre phenomenon, born with the personal computer, of millions of people attempting to write novels and their memoirs without first learning to write a coherent story. If someone told you they were writing a symphony, though they had only just learned a few things about notes, and had yet to write a song, you would think them mad. Yet the comparison is approximate to writing a novel without first developing at least a crude mastery of the component parts.
But perhaps the abominable quality of the corporate guck masquerading as books today makes everyone think, “Hey, I can totally do that. Who couldn’t?”
(This article originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser in September 2009)