Can Literature Survive An Image-Conscious America?
It used to be that I could go to a bookstore and, nearly at random, pick a book, buy it and take it home and enjoy it. I'd devour the novel in a few short days and end up back at the store picking up another and getting to know the store clerks on a first name basis. Since I'm only 40 years old, it doesn't seem like that long ago that I was doing this.
But how the times are a-changin'. How?
Let's look at the publishing industry for just a moment. Back in my getting-to-know-the-clerks-by-first-name days, the reason I found novels so appealing was how they were put together, how well they were edited, and the thought-provoking -- or at least very entertaining -- prose. The publishers took the time to nurse an author along if there were any structural problems and they had great editors and proofreaders who knew what "conjugating a verb" meant. But recently I had to ask myself when it was that I last read a book that didn't have at least a few editorial issues that could've easily been caught by someone with keen proofreading eyes. Is Simon & Schuster employing 8th graders to proof their authors' manuscripts? Does Random House employee an editorial staff with any knowledge of grammar?
So when (and where) did producing a quality product take a backseat in the publishing biz? I can't really say when or where this happened; perhaps it was a gradual tumble that turned into an avalanche (I suspect this is the case). But whenever and wherever it occurred, one thing is certain: there are no signs that the trend is reversing. Pretty sad.
The evidence for this can be directly attributed to several factors. First, and not surprising, is money. It's what drives the publishing industry; if they don't make money, they're out of business. I heard a rumor not long ago that stated the only reason the big publishers are still out there is because of a select few writers who's stories net tons of cash and make up for losses incurred by those books that don't sell as well. The "Big Three" were said to be J.K. Rowling (no surprise there), Dan Brown (THE DA VINCI CODE), and thrill-writer and veteran Stephen King. The rumor reports that between the three of them their net worth is over $150 million (see Forbes Magazine).
But even within these three towering examples of literary success' books, one can find a terrible level of editing and proofing (yes, even in the Harry Potter series). THE DA VINCI CODE has many, too. And, although King's horror books are pretty clean structurally, their content and the author's imaginative prose has seemed to suffer greatly as the years trundled by. I love Mr. King's early works -- IT freaked me out and so did THE SHINING -- but his latest works have been, well, let's just say, "less than engaging" (see THE COLORADO KID and FROM A BUICK 8 as prime examples).
I'm guessing, too, that there's probably a large turn-over rate in proofreaders at these publishing conglomerates, which would also be a factor in finding errors in the manuscript. If Mr. Hillbilly College-Graduate is looking for a job and will work for peanuts just to get his foot in the door, you'd better believe that John Q Publisher will hire him (again, it's all about the money).
The other and completely nauseating aspect that I see as a problem is the "dumbing down" of American culture (especially when it comes to literacy). Readers just don't seem to care about these fundamental flaws anymore or, more likely, don't pick up on them because of limited reading skills and a poor understanding of English. Instead they'd rather worry if their hair looks like Jennifer Aniston's, or have "racks" that come close to Pamela Anderson's. Have we become so materialistic and image-conscious that the basic structure of the written word no longer matters?
These are some tough issues that readers and the general populace need to be discussing. But I fear that will probably never come to pass as long as reruns of Friends are still on and the audience for Stacked continues to grow.
I'm not going to leave this blog on that sour note, though. There are beacons of hope that have been out there for some time and even a new arrival on the literary scene that breathed some fresh air into my battered reading sail. A great little book that's in its gazillionth printing is Strunck and Whites THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE. This little guide made its first appearance in 1957 and has been selling strong on college campuses ever since. Every serious writer should have a copy near-at-hand.
The other, newer shining light is EATS, SHOOTS & LEAVES by British-born writer, Lynne Truss. This amazing and funny book on punctuation actually made it to the NY Times Best Seller list, which makes me hold out a glimmer of hope that somewhere out there are readers and writers who still care about the finished product.