So much of the writing advice we get comes from a set of assumptions that are no longer true. I’m not sure if they were ever true. But that’s for another blog post. (Or maybe I’ve written that post already.)
Anyway, the assumption is that our culture is monolithic, that we all read the same books, and we’re all influenced by the same writers.
Maybe most of us were once. In the 1950s (before I was born), my father used to teach an adult education course called The Great Books, and it had a set curriculum. If you were going to thrive in the monoculture, then you needed to read these books.
The course was developed in the 1920s, taught around the country, and included books from the Western tradition only. The books included things like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (which I can’t imagine my father teaching) and Bertrand Russell’s Principles of Mathematics (which I can).
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[W]hat passed for U.S. culture for most of the 20th century believed that there was a list of “great books” which we all had to read to be educated.
The intelligentsia could augment that foundation with other prescribed books. Those books came into our house regularly—or at least the flyers for them did—usually promulgated by The Saturday Review, The New York Times Book Review, the Quality Paperback Book Club (yes, there was such a thing), and the Book of The Month Club.
Underlying all of these notions was the idea of “good books” and “bad books.” Books that could destroy your mind, books that were the equivalent of potato chips (unhealthy, but occasionally enjoyable), and books that would make you a better person.
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In his tome, An Experiment in Criticism, (published in 1961), C.S. Lewis writes, “The best safeguard against bad literature is a full experience of good….” That attitude is precisely the attitude most of us grew up with. The assumption that we could actually harm ourselves by reading the wrong things.
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A lot of the books we consider classics now were considered “bad” in their day. Worse, those books never appeared from “regular” publishers, but from presses that had terrible reputations.
Right now, I’m reading a badly designed, badly printed book from 1993, about the publishing industry in England in the Postwar period. The Mushroom Jungle: A History of Postwar Paperback Publishing by Steve Holland is, as far as I can tell, out of print itself. But it’s a fascinating read about publishers that grew in the dark—mushroom publishers—which published everything from what passed as porn back in the day (now we’d barely call it erotica) to science fiction, hard-boiled mystery novels, and other disreputable fiction.
Brian Stableford’s foreword reminded me of the C.S. Lewis book, which I had tried to choke down when I was in high school—after I had read The Chronicles of Narnia. I tried to work my way through Lewis’s oeuvre, only to discover that most of what he wrote was so not to my taste that I stopped trying.
In that old book of criticism, Lewis was justifying the fiction that he wrote. He didn’t like the terms “highbrow” and “lowbrow” fiction, choosing instead to label readers “unliterary” or “literary” depending on the kind of attention they pay to the texts in front of them. (If the reader read solely for pleasure, and did not reread books, they were generally unliterary.)
This snobbishness permeated the industry. The snobbishness went all the way into business practices and marketing, in contracts and in expectations. Paperbacks were considered disposable. Hardbacks were not. The returns system in the U.S. was predicated on that. Hardbacks required full copy returns, and if the books were damaged, then they would not count against a bookstore’s bill. Paperbacks were mutilated, the covers returned only, so that the book could be thrown away.
Contracts and deals reflected the perceived ephemeral nature of the material, and writers often fell prey to it. They signed deals that would be ludicrous if anyone had thought more than two years head.
The attitude was that nothing good could come from disposable products, even though the paper books often outsold hardcovers by literary (and accepted) writers by ten to one (and sometimes by 100 to one).
Here’s the thing, though: the only way to become a remembered author who survives the test of time is to influence a lot of readers. If a “good” novel has a 5,000 copy print run and sells out, and a “bad” novel has a 50,000 copy print run and sells out, guess which one has the better chance of being remembered? The one with tens of thousands of readers, not the one with only 5,000.
But those are yesterday’s economics.
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[W]hile traditional publishing keeps repeating that there’s a tsunami of crap in indie (or self) published books, traditional publishers can’t really cite the same examples. Because no one is reading the same books any more.
That influential book, the one that changes minds and hearts, has to cut a swath through an accepted culture, and we don’t have one any more. Yes, every now and then, a book rises above, but it’s becoming rarer and rarer.
So how come I’m writing about the past yet again?
Because, as I read The Mushroom Jungle, replete with the judgments of critics and tastemakers long dead, I see the same phrases used against the mushroom publishers that I see used against indie publishers now. Phrases like:
- The books are not very good (unliterary). The books have no redeeming value. The books aren’t memorable. They can be read in a single night. They’re not worth a reread.
- They’re only read for entertainment. They’re not curated, not vetted, not approved by the literary powers that be.
- How do you know if the books are any good, if there’s no consensus on what’s good and what’s not?
- Yes, they’re all right to while away the time, but you (or your children or your sick aunt) would be better off reading something of quality, something worth spending your limited time on.
Have I raised your hackles yet?
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Books with a lot of readers tend not to be the critical darlings of the day. They tend to be the books that get the most word of mouth, books that are passed from hand to hand to hand or written up the most in blogs or discussed by savvy readers everywhere.
How do you become one of those writers?
Well, I don’t think you do it by setting out to write Art. As Holland notes on the next page of The Mushroom Jungle:
I very much doubt if any of the novels quoted in this book were written with any intention other than to put food on the table of the author, but like so much that is thought by the literary establishment to be ephemeral or unworthy, they stick in the memory of the reading public….
The thing is…the books that often stick in the memory of the reading public are books that surprise in some way or counter expectations or make the reader lose a few hours of sleep because the reader can’t put the book down.
Those books aren’t manufactured and fussed over and edited to death. They weren’t written to be judged, as literary novels often are. Those books weren’t written to impress. They were written because they had to be, or because the author needed to eat. The author wrote it, someone published it, and then both moved on—even though the readers didn’t.
Indie writers are doing the same thing right now. They’re writing what they love. A few are still writing what they think will sell, although that trend seems to be moving past us now. (Thank God). Most writers are simply trying to put food on the table so they don’t have to go back to the day job.
Traditional publishers, whose sales are continuing to decline and whose revenue is spiraling downward, keep trying to justify their curation services. Want to know if your book is any good? The traditional publishers say. We’ll let you know that—forgetting, of course, that readers decide what’s good and what’s not.