Saturday, November 27, 2010

Good literature is not disappearing

I've discussed this in the past, but there's this myth in publishing (and in the literary world in general) that there was once a literary golden age and that we are now far away from it, in a world where literature is allegedly disappearing and that quality means nothing, all that matters is sales and profits. When I want to shoot this claim down, I always find myself lacking concrete ways to explain myself. Then I found this quote:
"That view [that books must stand or fall on its own merit] is as extinct as the post-chaise and the packet-ship--it belongs to the time when people read books. Nobody does that now; the reviewer was the first to set the example, and the public were only too thankful to follow it. At first they read the reviews; now they read only the publishers' extracts from them. Even these are rapidly being replaced by paragraphs borrowed from the vocabulary of commerce. I often have to look twice before I am sure if I am reading a department-store advertisement or the announcement of a new batch of literature."
Modern complaint? No, this would be from "Expiation" by Edith Wharton (a gracious tip of my hat to Levi Stahl of Ivebeenreadinglately for posting this). There are two fascinating points in the entire quoted passage Levi Stahl chooses to highlight. The first is what I have displayed above - the so-called golden age of literature and lovers of literature - and the other is the matter of publishing crap. Both stem from the same general idea that there was once this wonderful age for literature, where people read only the very best books and publishing was a glorious industry that fulfilled the wishes of its noble customers and that's how the greatest books ever were published. And they lived happily ever after.

Except when you start to think about it a little more in depth, it makes no sense. Not that such a golden age could exist, but rather the realization that it hasn't. Not yet, at least. Or maybe it's been going on all around us. Or something like that.

My favorite example of this is  in Of Human Bondage. Philip laments how Mildred reads trashy books. Based on the publication date of Of Human Bondage and Wharton's own time, I'd have to guess that she's referencing the bygone days that are sadly mentioned in Of Human Bondage. Not proof against a golden age, perhaps, but evidence. Hints. A nice reference point.

So generations of authors and readers have felt that an age of quality literature was coming to an end. Today we see the dawning of an eReader age and mark that as the doom of literature as we know it. I don't just mean books, I mean literature. I have read many a blog posts about how technology is ruining our ability to enjoy quality literature, how soon all books are going to be gimmicky or "enhanced eBooks", distracting us further with extras that aren't actually books. Who knows - maybe these fears are founded. But I for one doubt that quality literature will cease to exist (just as I don't believe that print books will ever disappear).

Is good literature getting hard to find? Maybe. Does that mean it no longer exists? Absolutely not. I may not read many new excellent super-hyped novels these days, but I have read several excellent new novels from around the globe in a variety of genres, regardless the praise and attention they've received. A reader just needs to know how to look. Just as we find numerous excellent books from the time Wharton complained about the death of quality literature, the next generations will find our gems. We need not stress so much.


  1. Great essay! I agree with you entirely.

    I'll add another example: I am reading a biography of Marie Antoinette. Apparently, she loved to read trashy romance novels and was criticized for not reading good literature. Her taste in books was roundly condemned at the time (the late 1700s) and used as evidence that she was stupid and a bad queen.

  2. Not stressing so much sounds like a great plan! I was interested to learn (I think it was in Matthew Battle's Library) about the poor reputation that readers of fiction had in the early 20thC, how lending libraries and public libraries were discouraging patrons from reading what we would now consider "quality literature": interesting how much perspectives change over time and to identify bookish patterns.


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