Our Collective Memory of Books
An enterprising journalist in England typed out a chapter from V.S. Naipaul’s novel A Free State (ranked 309,000 on Amazon) and from Stanley Middleton’s Holiday (ranked 1,768, 662) and submitted them under different names to 20 editors and agents. Of the submissions, he received rejections from all agents and editors but one. The results of this “test” were published on 1st January in The Times.
The literary biosphere has been gnashing teeth and gums since on the meaning of these results. Both the rejected books were published in the 1970s and won the authors a Booker Prize. No one recognized the submissions as the writings of Naipaul or Middleton. It was as if they no longer existed in the collective memory of those working the coal face of publishing. Vanished into thin air. If you look at the amazon rankings it is apparent the books sell very poorly. That has to say something about current taste.
As thirty-five years has passed since the novels were published, V.S. Naipaul’s observation that time has passed on may be a good explanation. We like to think that fine writing like fine wine gets better with age. The reality is that most fiction dates quickly and is forgotten. The best fiction writers are able to channel the cultural and social air streams that define their age. They express the truths, biases, frustrations, trends, and values that define a generation. The recognition of an award demonstrates that the judges believe the novelist successfully captured something that others have not. The award is not a guarantee of longevity. Go back to the list of Booker nominees and winners, and ask how many of those books remain in print? My guess is many are no longer available. Why this should come as a shock or surprise to anyone is a mystery.
Each generation produces authors, painters, musicians that define their era. From F. Scott Fitzgerald to Bob Dylan, in the cultural arena, buyers of books, art and music wish to discover images and visions and interpretations that are relevant to their life. When Tom Wolfe writes a novel I am Charlotte Simmons set on a college campus there is a large wince factor. The observations come from an outsider looking in rather than an insider reporting out.
What is being published and read (becoming increasingly two largely disconnected events) in 2006 will not be the same as in 1971. What will appear immediate, clever, well-written, and poignant in 2006 will likely have no or little audience in 2056. There is an assumption that fine or good writing transcends time and like ancient folklore is handed down from generation-to-generation. When a reader buys a book fifty years from now it won’t be on the basis that it won a Booker Prize in 2006. He or she will buy the book (I am assuming books will be in the same form as today and that is a big assumption) because it reflects the hot buttons of that time, places our emotions in a larger context, and makes the map of our existence more accessible as the right has marked the paths, roads, canals and sign posted the hazards.
Who is being published and who is publishing is also vastly different in 2006 than in 1971. Go back and look at the number of publishers in London and New York and ask how many of them are still organized in the same fashion as opposed to being swallowed up by one of the large media companies. The POD (print on demand) technology is changing the face of publishing. With many more thousands of people finding a means to write their novel.
On The Edge many thinkers have been asked to answer this question: What is your dangerous idea.
My dangerous idea is that the overwhelming number of novels will never (and should never) survive the generation in which they are published. It would be outright dangerous if all of these books did survive. No one has time to read what was published in 2005. Imagine hundreds of years of books in your bookstores and libraries. Like cemeteries the dead would soon overtake the living.
Novels are for the living. At least the living who would have time to read. Each year that is a smaller group.
The few novels that do manage to sell generations later, is some evidence that the rare author finds a niche in his or her time and underneath the thin layer of the present, a universal theme and language communicates to a story that transcends any one time and has the capacity to touch lives of future generations. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t read and read widely what is being published.
Though Darwin would suggest that in literature as in all kingdoms, extinction is the ultimate fate unless the species can adapt to new, and different environments. Whether novels adapt to an Internet filled with millions of books, letters, notes, memoirs, and digital images and sounds unfolding in a future culture that we can only see the vague outlines or go the way of the Dodo bird, no one can be sure.