At present, for example, it’s hard not to feel that we are in an era of massive overproduction. Just when we were already overwhelmed with paper books, often setting them aside after only a few pages in anxious search of something more satisfying, along came the Internet and the e-book so that, wonderfully, we now have access to hundreds of thousands of contemporary novels and poems from this very space into which I am writing.
Inevitably, this tends to diminish the seriousness with which I approach any particular book. Certainly the notion that these works could ever be arranged in any satisfactory order, or that any credible canon will ever emerge, is gone forever. I’m disoriented and don’t expect things to be otherwise any time soon.
So would it be provocatively reductive to say that in the end our experience of literature might be crucially influenced by the mere supply and availability of the materials necessary for its production? If there hadn’t been all that paper, if printing costs had been higher, if the computer and Internet hadn’t opened up endless oceans of space on which to write, would we take our books more seriously? Would we find our way around more easily?
The idea is hardly new. In the Dunciad, 1742, responding to what he already saw as a deafening chorus of incompetent poets, Alexander Pope spoke of “snows of paper” providing space for the ever more widespread publication of the “uncreating word.” A century later, with paper mills and printing presses ever more mechanized and publishers rapidly expanding the number of titles, Thomas Carlyle has this passage in his satire Sartor Resartus (1835)—remember that at this point paper was still being made from recycled rags:
If such supply of printed Paper should rise so far as to choke up the highways and public thoroughfares, new means must of necessity be had recourse to.… In the mean while, is it not beautiful to see five million quintals of Rags picked annually from the Laystall; and annually, after being macerated, hot-pressed, printed on, and sold,—returned thither; filling so many hungry mouths by the way?
To sort out the serious from the superficial in the mounting snowdrifts of paper, critics were needed. Johnson had been an early example. But critics rarely agree, and they themselves are under pressure from the market, from employers, from literary friends, and perhaps from the publishers with whom they themselves publish novels. In his excellent book White Magic, an account of the history of paper, Lothar Müller has a lengthy section on Balzac’s trilogy Illusions perdues, where the crucial illusion lost is that a writing career could genuinely remain serious in a philistine world. And one of the reasons for this was the conditions under which critics worked, the high fees paid for apparently authoritative criticism that would make or break books and hence have a direct influence on sales. The critic feels impelled to create a new celebrity or destroy an old one, something all too evident today in the writing of even the most respected critics we have. The resulting rhetoric often borders on the grotesque: Knausgaard’s My Struggle, a Guardian reviewer writes, “has strong claim to be the great literary event of the 21st century.” As a reluctant afterthought, he adds “—so far.”
Needless to say, it wasn’t always like this. Anyone who has studied English literature in college will remember observing that in courses on early medieval literature or Old English there are really very few texts to choose from. In the pre-modern era social conditions were vastly different but, crucially, paper itself was scarce and text reproduction was difficult. With little writing around there was little reason for most people to be literate. For those who could read and write each text was more likely to be precious and important. It was easy to get your bearings.
True, in the early 1300s, with the establishment of the first partially mechanized paper mills in Italy, a more generous supply of paper began to circulate and the number of people able to write rapidly increased. All the same, the only way to have more than one copy of what you’d written was to write it out again on another piece of paper, or pay someone else to do that for you. These limitations naturally encouraged people to keep things short and to invest the act of writing with a certain solemnity.
For centuries, if what you had written was going to be shown to others, it would have to be placed in a library, usually a church library. And since the only way anyone would know that a new piece of literature had been written was if the writer personally put the word around, there would usually be some kind of social connection between writer and readers. At best, then, you could appeal to a literate elite, sharing the same written language—Latin—that was inaccessible to the masses. Perhaps the offspring of these elite would also read you. In fact it was easier to imagine a reputation in centuries to come than widespread diffusion in one’s own time. The perception was that the essential quality of writing was its separation of mental material from mortal grey matter. Word and idea were disembodied and stabilized in order to travel through time, not to be infinitely multiplied in the present.
In general, then, the conditions for supporting the independent professional writer who makes a living from his work just weren’t there. At most, one could hope to come under the patronage of a king, or a city-state, or the church. You could be commissioned to write a treatise or a history. These were not circumstances where it would be easy to write things your patrons didn’t agree with. Or you might attach yourself to a theater company, where actors would repeat things you had written, though not necessarily word for word. Now your writing might travel a little if the theater company traveled. But most likely it wouldn’t. Traveling companies would not be performing elaborately scripted plays until the sixteenth century.
With the arrival of print in the late fifteenth century, it was suddenly possible to start thinking of a mass audience; 20 million books had been printed in Europe by 1500. Yet it was the printing shops—often more than one if a book was popular—rather than the authors, who made the money. You might write out of a passion to get your ideas around, or out of megalomania—never a condition to be underestimated where writers are concerned—but there was still no steady money to be had producing writing of whatever kind. In economic terms, it was hardly worth insisting you were the author of a text, hence the anonymous book was rather more common than it is today.
Meantime, with this new possibility of printing so many books it made sense to start thinking of all those people who didn’t know Latin. The switch to writing in the vernacular had begun; this meant that, though more copies were being sold, most books were now trapped inside their language community. There were scholars capable of translating of course, and a book that made a big impression in one country would eventually be translated into another. But it took time, and it wouldn’t happen if a book didn’t impress in its original language. Nor for the most part were these translators under contract with publishers. Initially, they were simply scholars who translated what they were interested in and what they believed was worth disseminating. Think of that.
In 1710, Britain’s Queen Anne introduced the first of a series of laws recognizing an author’s right to control the copying of his work. Suddenly, it made economic sense to address yourself to everybody who could afford to pay for a book, rather than to your peer group; much better to write one book that sold in huge quantities than many books that were of interest only to a chosen few. And if the work could be sold in another country it was now worth paying a translator to translate, even if he or she, but usually at this point he, was not especially interested in the work, or perhaps actively disliked it. Writing, translating, and publishing were all becoming jobs.
It was really at this point—when one could imagine pursuing literature as a source of income, and, thanks to copyright, dream of making a lifetime’s fortune from a single book (I have frequently dreamed this dream)—that we became preoccupied with the decline of serious writing. In 1750 Samuel Johnson was already remarking of the novels of the previous generation that the typical author “had no further care than to retire to his closet, let loose his invention, and heat his mind with incredibilities; a book was thus produced without fear of criticism, without the toil of study, without knowledge of nature, or acquaintance with life.”
Two and a half centuries later, the abundance and daunting multiplication of possible reading material, combined with a feeling that some of it at least ought to be tremendously serious and even spiritually enlightening, has created an exasperated, delusive determination to establish prominent landmarks. The literary prize, needless to say, is part of the phenomenon, each sponsor eager to be able to claim to having crowned the new king or queen of the now global empire of literature and spared the reader the disorientation of the teeming market place. But anyone who has sat on the jury for a literary prize knows how arbitrary the final verdict often is, dependent on the meshing and conflict of the people who happen to be on the jury. And even if prizes were a reliable way of establishing that one book is better than others, there are now so many literary prizes that it is simply impossible to read all the winners, never mind those shortlisted.
How to respond, then, to this now permanent condition of overproduction? With cheerful skepticism. With gratitude for those rare occasions when we come across a book that speaks to us personally. With forgiveness for those critics and publishers who induce us to waste our time with some literary flavor of the day. Absolutely without indignation, since none of this is anyone’s particular “fault.” Above all with a sense of wonder and curiosity at the general and implacable human determination (mine included) to fill endless space with dubious mental material when life is short and there are so many other things to be done.