In an earlier post, Yolette Garcia expressed her legitimate concerns about the supposed decline in reading. I’ve previously posted that I think some of the National Endowment for the Arts’ concerns have been overblown because their studies actually measured only a particular sort of reading (they didn’t include reading histories, biographies or science studies, for example). But Yolette cited the truly sobering New Yorker feature by Caleb Crain, which takes the loooong view. It’s remarkable, Crain argues, that considering our neural anatomy and the history of literacy, humans read at all. Partly as a result (and drawing from the current evidence he cites), he has an extremely gloomy take on the future: “More alarming are indications that Americans are losing not just the will to read but even the ability.” And “No effort of will is likely to make reading popular again.”
Now comes noted author Ursula K. LeGuin in the Feburary issue of Harper’s (unfortunately, a subscription is required to read the full text). Her essay doesn’t argue against Crain’s so much as complement it, although she does want “to question the assumption–whether gloomy or faintly gloating–that books are on the way out. I think they’re here to stay. It’s just that not all that many people ever did read them. Why should we think everybody ought to now?”
LeGuin has a more immediate, inside-the-industry critique than Crain, and it’s a familliar one (I’ve made similar points): Much of the current crisis — if we can call it that — comes from corporate media taking over the literature-arts publishing houses, which have rarely made substantial profits, and then cranking them up into money machines. When they fail or balk, the industry starts blowing a gasket:
To me, then, one of the most despicable things about corporate publishers and chain booksellers is their assumption that books are inherently worthless. If a title that was supposed to sell a lot doesn’t “perform” within a few weeks, it gets its covers torn off — it is trashed. The corporate mentality recognizes no success that is not immediate….
I keep hoping the corporations will wake up and realize that publishing is not, in fact, a normal business with a nice healthy relationship to capitalism. Elements of publishing are, or can be forced to be, successfully capitalistic: the textbook industry is all too clear a proof of that…. But inevitably some of what publishers publish is, or is partly, literature — art. And the relationship of art to capitalism is, to put it mildly, vexed. It has not been a happy marriage ….
So why don’t the corporations drop the literary publishing houses, or at least the literary departments of the publishers they bought, with amused contempt, as unprofitable? Why don’t they let them go back to muddling along making just enough, in a good year, to pay binders and editors, modest advances and crummy royalties, while plowing most of the profits back into taking chances on new writers?