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Forever

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I’ve been having such awful luck with the Internet today, I’m reluctant to start this post. 

And, in fact, the start didn’t go all that well, as I typed all of the above while the cursor moved but no words appeared, then had to wait 15 seconds before they showed up.

So keep your fingers crossed.

For those of you who are interested, Greg’s surgery seems to have gone great.  Before it, I checked with a number of people, and although the vast majority said they could see wonderfully right away, a few others said to took days and, in one case, a couple of weeks.  Greg was in the see better right away category, and I’m going to have to take the DS away from him before it fuses to his fingers.

In the meantime, I’ve been having an e-mail discussion with a friend about why and how books last over time, and I think maybe that’s a good place to start today.

There is a rule of thumb in publishing that goes like this:  the literary merit of a novel has no effect whatsoever on how many copies it sells.

The literary merit in the above means whether or not the books is “well written,” starting with grammatical and clear and going all the way to elegant prose.

It’s not true that people do not buy and read well written books or that they prefer badly written ones.

The truth is that most people just don’t care one way or the other.  They like the books they like and buy the books they want to buy.  Some of them surely do it for the story, which is what some of you prefer.  Some of them surely do it for characters, which explains more books than we’d any of us like to admit to.

Some of them are probably like me, and go for a sense of place.

But whatever it is that readers do go for, it isn’t the sheer quality of the prose.  They’ll reject well written books and they’ll reject badly written books.  They’ll read well written books and they’ll read badly written books.

But that doesn’t get us very far.  Anybody who knows anything at all about fiction knows that there are literally mountains of old best sellers that slipped out of sight after a few years, never to be heard from again,  and a decent stack of “flops” that built audience over decades, and sometimes even centuries, to become “classics” familiar to anybody who’s gotten past the tenth grade.

And it seems to me that a number of different things are at work here, on a number of different levels.

The first is the playing field.

In 1776, a college or university could demand that a student read the sum total of the world’s acknowledged literary classics and get away with it.  There weren’t that many of them. 

I have no idea if there were dozens of other poets writing when Homer did, or when the writer of Gilgamesh did,  but if there were, they have disappeared into the mists.

We’d do better looking at the time of Vergil, who set out to write an epic to define the Roman people and to do it on purpose, and what we find is that there really weren’t all that many people in competition. 

In a world where most people were dirt poor in a way that couldn’t be equalled today except by Yanamomo Indians and aborigines in the Australian outback without the sense to come in from the rain, there also weren’t many people with the education to know how to write the stuff and the wherewithall to afford the materials. 

And then, once the thing had been written, you had to find people willing to copy it.

With the advent of the printing press, of course, the field got a lot more crowded. 

But it didn’t get very crowded, in spite of Hawthorne’s despair at the damned crowd of scribbling women. 

For crowded, you have to come to the 20th Century, and for very, very crowded, you have to come nearly to now.

And that brings up the first thing:  it’s possible that the qualities and circumstances that made it possible for a book to “last” three hundred years ago are different from the qualities and purposes that make it possible for a book to last now.

It may, in fact, be a lot easier for a book to last now than it has ever  been before, because I think the bottom line in “lasting” is a core group of dedicated people who love it.

And that core group has to have a critical mass, but the critical mass does not necessarily have to be huge.

Certainly a book like Gone With The Wind, or Atlas Shrugged, with hundreds of thousands of dedicated readers right from the start, has a better shot at reaching critical mass than a book with very few readers at the start. 

But, as I pointed out before, lots of readers at the start doesn’t necessarily guarantee anything lasting.

Still, the fact that the Internet can bring together the 5000 people that really passionately love Dance to the Band when It Roars, or whatever, and give them a cheap space to proselytize other readers around the globe, means more books have a chance to find their critical mass than they ever did before. 

The good news about that is that fewer good books will sink into oblivion without an audience.  The bad thing about that is so will fewer bad ones, including evilly bad ones.  Mein Kampf is a big best seller on the Internet.  So is The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. 

And NAMBLA isn’t exactly an infrequently visited site, even among people who are not agents from the FBI.

There’s more bad news, too.  In an era when maybe a hundred books were published every year, maybe half of them novels, readers could know what they all were and even read them all if they wanted to.

These days, some of the category romance lines put up 180 titles a year,  and the total number of mysteries–even restricting mysteries to straightforward detective novels and not thrillers or serial killer books–runs into three hundred or so a year.

I get sent a lot of these books, and if you’re ever on an Edgar award committee, you’ll be sent even more.  The simple fact is that I couldn’t keep up with all of them even if I wanted to. 

I know I am missing books I would admire.  I know that I am reading things that I wouldn’t read if I knew what was in them before I started.

But along with the death of the reviewer whose job it was to “form the taste” of the public has come the death of any functional sorting system whatsoever.

If I lived in Augustine’s Rome, I would know what books to read because I would hear the people around me discussing them–all of them. 

These days, I most likely won’t know that most published books have ever been published at all.  And the venues that provide reviews are…how do I put it tactfully?

Mostly on a different planet than I am.

But then we have the other problem–just because I love a book passionately doesn’t mean people ten years from now will. 

The decline of general education means that many of the allusions even in popular books—and movies and songs and television shows, for that matter–go right over the heads of the contemporary audience.  Give them an audience a good fifty years down the road, and they’ll be largely incomprehensible.

A book can’t last if it becomes impossible to read it.

My students seem to think that everything in the world was invented the day before yesterday, and if it wasn’t it couldn’t be of any interest.

And they live in a world that is sufficiently different from what came before it, even fifty years ago, that I find myself struggling to get them to understand.

How do they read Chandler or Agatha Christie when they don’t know it was ever the case that you could be arrested for booking into a hotel room with a lady not your wife?  How do they read George Eliot or even Faith Baldwin if they don’t know that children born out of wedlock once had no right to support from their biological fathers, or even recognition from them, and were often barred from other things, like entering a convent or being admitted to certain colleges and universities?

A book does not last unless it can speak to new generations of readers.  It doesn’t have to say the same things to those new generations as it said to the generation into which it was first published, but it has to say something. 

Maybe we’re looking at a world where all the old books will fall away, not because they’re not “good stories” but because the good stories are rooted in a civilizational actuality that no longer exists, and that in the world of these new readers has never existed.

Ah, well, that’s sufficiently garbled.

In case you want to know what brought on the mood:  we started A Doll’s House today.

I had to explain that a married woman who wanted a divorce at that time and place would automatically lose her children, and could not claim alimony or support of any kind, and would no longer be received by her friends.

And then I had to explain what “received” meant.

Sigh.

Written by janeh

April 11th, 2011 at 3:45 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Forever'

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  1. You know, what your students probably think of as a bug, I think of as a feature. I like books set in times and places I’ve never known (real and imaginary, actually) as long as they’re written a a good level, which must me a nice trick. I mean, I don’t want something as didactic as something intended for a five-year-old, not least because if it’s set in the past of my civilization I have a fighting chance of knowing the basics, but partly because I don’t mind figuring out what I didn’t know. Everyone’s all worked up about a divorce? Well, maybe divorce meant something different then and there.

    That sort of thing makes books interesting and engage your mind.

    Common references are changing fast. I used to think the literature professors who set up courses in ‘the Bible as literature’ were exaggerating the problem of the lack of something taken so much for granted as Biblical literacy when trying to read older books, but as I’m sure you know, they were right. And then there are all the political and social references…

    Some of it has to be down to a basic lack of curiosity, though. I just finished the season with one of the choirs I belong to – it’s a stretch for me, because although it’s open to a wide range of people and no audition is needed, most of the members are university-level music students. A LOT of choral music has religious references. The choir director asked at the end of one practice about one piece, to totally blank looks. I was startled not only because none of them spotted the probably origin of the references in the song – but none had read the little blurb in the front of the leaflet explaining that this was probably originally a folk song about two lovers which had been adapted by some Calvinists in the 17th century into a version with a well-known Christian theme….

    No curiosity, that’s the problem!

    Cheryl

    11 Apr 11 at 7:30 pm

  2. Hmmm. That description of “literary merit” is what I would have called “prose style.” And I suspect received wisdom is right on that score. It probably doesn’t move a lot of copies if it’s good, and it has to be pretty bad to hurt sales. (I’m skipping for simplicity’s sake my customary argument over matching style to audience.)

    But if someone had just button-holed me on the street and said “what is literary merit?” I’d have included the construction of the story–where and how it begins and ends, what is emphasized and what skipped over, and the order in which it’s told. These things, I think, have a very serious effect on sales, and some of the authors I’ve heard trashed for prose style are very good at putting a story together.

    Finding the books I’ll like best is a flood of books is surely a better problem to have then having literally read them all? I dialed down my anxiety meter a bit when I found a new hardcover author, and then realized I’d already read her in category romance–and I don’t read much category romance. Maybe not so many of the big ones are getting away as I had once feared. But I agree we need better scouting systems. Amazon is, I think on the right track. The more the sales computer knows about what books I’ve bought, or am not interested in, the better the recommendations seem to be.

    Endurance. It’s easier than ever to find a fellowship of book-lovers. Technolgically, it’s easier than ever to print up small batches of books for small groups of booklovers. But legally, it’s gotten borderline impossible, so that complicates the picture.

    Reference is also complicated. Some well-written books, we’ll just lose because they’re so deeply embedded in the context. (I recommend Poyntz Tyler once more–but only to people 55 and up.) But it’s also worth noting that a strong story carries context forward. How many people understand monarchy from Shakespeare, or entail from Austen? I understand things about interwar Britain because I read Golden Age detective fiction. Some things the stories gave me. Some references nagged at me until I tracked them down. Richard Powell’s WHOM THE GODS WOULD DESTROY led to a shelf of reading on Troy, including Homer, and Sutcliff’s SWORD AT SUNSET to another shelf on Dark Age Britain–and Mallory, and Tennyson.

    Tolkien wrote about how dangerous the road was–that the road outside your door could take you to Rivendell–or Mordor. Books are like that too. Dangerous things, books–and all interconnected.

    Don’t give up on the Freshmen. Get them to reading almost anything, and in four or five years they’ll know all sorts of context which is lost on them now.

    robert_piepenbrink

    11 Apr 11 at 7:40 pm

  3. Please do remember that you are working with a particular class of freshmen! My son and his friends do better, and at least have some curiousity about things. Have you read Watchmen, the graphic novel? My son recommended it to me, and we talked about it. I was able to share the poem Ozymandias with him, and he was able to share some visual tropes that had flown over my head.

    Cathy

    CAFiorello

    11 Apr 11 at 8:13 pm

  4. I think Jane may have it somewhat backwards.

    Familiarity with allusions and nuances isn’t a prerequisite for understanding what you’re reading…it’s reading that provides the path *to* those allusions and nuances. If, as Cheryl points out, you’re at all curious, and/or attentive.

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come up with some obscure fact of science, social milieu, or ancient times and people look at me funny and ask “how do you KNOW that???”

    And my only reply is “I read a lot.” And the more I read, and thought about what I read, the more connections I made between what must have been disjointed facts at the beginning, creating what is now a rich and deep resource inside my head.

    Even if much of what I was reading was science fiction, fantasy, mystery and other assorted “trash,” I was reading mass quantities from the time I was 8 and got my own library card.

    If your students are so incurious that they won’t ask the question, “Why the fuss about a divorce?” then you are up a creek. They’re dead from the neck up. But if the story does prompt them to ask, then the story itself provides the context AND the knowledge that they’ll carry forward. When they encounter the concept again, they’ll have a connection they can make.

    Every bit of knowledge is new at one time. It seems to me that what you’re lamenting that they are so old and putatively educated before they’ve first encountered these particular bits of context. You don’t have to know everything referenced in a work in order to appreciate it, you can learn it right on the spot.

    Or is that what you’re saying? That “proper” literary appreciation cannot take place unless you actually understand 87.2% or more of the internal references?

    Lymaree

    11 Apr 11 at 8:24 pm

  5. I’m with you, Lymaree. It all starts with curiosity and, with a sufficient amount of that, the allusions will look after themselves – shuttling backwards and forwards ad infinitum.

    Like Cheryl, I love to read books ‘set in times and places I’ve never known’. I read and reread Jane Austen at least once a year. I’m starting to read Sir Walter Scott, my grandmother’s favourite author whom I’ve somehow avoided for 60-odd years.

    The best explanation that I’ve ever seen of the 20th century decline of the British aristocracy and the rise of the middle and working classes was in a novel by Robert Henriques published shortly after WWII called “Through the Valley”. By comparison, none of the formal historical or economical explanations I’ve seen come close to adequately describing the process.

    And so on and so forth…

    Mique

    11 Apr 11 at 9:15 pm

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