12 Winters Blog

The Loss of the Literary Voice and Its Consequences

Posted in July 2019, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on July 23, 2019

The following paper was presented at the MLA International Symposium in Lisbon, Portugal, July 23-25, on “Remembering Lost Voices.” The panel was titled “The Reading Public: Recovering Reader Experiences and Agency.” Other papers were “Recovering the Lost Voices of Nonprofessional Readers” by Tomas Oliver Beebee, Penn State; “Unplugged Reading: Digital Disconnect as a Form of Resistance” by Cátia Ferreira, Católica Portuguesa; and “Recovering Voices Lost: The Reader-Listener as Secondary Witness” by Eden Wales Freedman, Mount Mercy. Helen Groth, New South Wales, served as (impromptu) chair and discussant.


Be forewarned: This paper likely proposes more questions than it offers anything remotely resembling solutions. But as we know framing the proper questions, or framing the questions properly, is a necessary step in any process which hopes to advance some positive effect. Much of this paper is based on the writings and observations of American author William H. Gass (1924-2017), of whom I’ve been a devotee (some may say “disciple”) for a decade. In 1968, at the height of Vietnam War protests, Gass published the essay “The Artist and Society,” in which he states “[naturally] the artist is an enemy of the state . . . [who] is concerned with consciousness, and he makes his changes there.” He goes on to say that “[artful] books and buildings go off under everything—not once but a thousand times” (287, 288). Then Gass asks, “How often has Homer remade men’s minds?” That is, Gass seemed to believe that artists, including literary artists like himself, could have a profound impact on society, enough of an impact to sway governments from one policy position to another, through the sheer force of their art. Reading his words and others’, and taking in other forms of art, could, in fact, alter human consciousness.

Gass of course was hardly alone in this observation, and it may have been believable in 1968 when the Counterculture, led by the United States’ youth and the country’s intellectuals, were reshaping public opinion on the war in Southeast Asia. But changes were already afoot that would undercut the reformative powers of literature, and Gass’s optimism for that matter. In retrospect we can see that many such changes were afoot by the late sixties, but in this paper I want to concern myself chiefly with two: the corporate takeover of the publishing industry, and the coming of age of the Internet and, with it, social media.1

Gass at the podium

Indeed, Gass’s change of heart, from one of optimism to one of pessimism, can be seen in the preface he wrote in 1976 for the re-release of his seminal story collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968): “The public spends its money at the movies. It fills [sports] stadia with cheers; dances to organized noise; while books die quietly, and more rapidly than their authors. Mammon has no interest in their service” (xiii). He continues, “The contemporary American writer is in no way a part of the societal and political scene. He is therefore not muzzled, for no one fears his bite; nor is he called upon to compose” (xviii). So in less than a decade, Gass went from suggesting that literature could remake human consciousness and reform government policy, to believing that serious writing had no impact on society whatsoever.

What the heck happened?

One of the things that happened was the corporate takeover of the publishing industry. The process was largely undocumented when André Schiffrin wrote The Business of Books (2000). “In Europe and in America,” writes Schiffrin, “publishing has a long tradition as an intellectually and politically engaged profession. Publishers have always prided themselves on their ability to balance the imperative of making money with that of issuing worthwhile books” (5). However, in the turbulent sixties, large conglomerates began acquiring publishing houses. Schiffrin continues, “It is now increasingly the case that the owner’s only interest is in making money and as much as possible” (5, emphasis in original). Schiffrin’s study is wide-ranging and thorough, but he focuses particular attention on the demise of Pantheon, where he’d been managing director for a number of years when it was acquired by Random House, which in turn was purchased by media mogul S. I. Newhouse, who inevitably insisted on changes to try to increase profits, unreasonably and unrealistically so, according to Schiffrin: “As one publishing house after another has been taken over by conglomerates, the owners insist that their new book arm bring in the kind of revenue their newspapers, cable television networks, and films do. . . . New targets have therefore been set in the range of 12-15 percent, three to four times what publishing houses have made in the past” (118-19).

Andre Schiffin

Schiffrin documents in detail the mechanisms put in place to try to flog more profits out of the book business, but for our interests perhaps the most fundamental change was the expectation that every title must make a profit, and not just a modest profit. Before the corporate takeover of publishing, it was common practice for publishers to bring out authors’ first books, knowing they would likely lose money and that it may take years and several books before an author found enough of an audience to be profitable. In the meantime, other titles on a publisher’s list could subsidize the nurturing of a new(er) author. A good example is Cormac McCarthy, who is now a household name among readers of contemporary fiction. But McCarthy’s status as an award-winning and best-selling author was a longtime coming. As Daniel Robert King notes in Cormac McCarthy’s Literary Evolution (2016), “Random House took on [in 1965] and retained McCarthy as one of their authors despite unpromising sales over the first twenty years of his career” (23). In fact, McCarthy’s longevity at Random House was due to the loyalty and hardheadedness of his editor Albert Erskine, who insisted that McCarthy’s early titles stay in print in spite of their anemic sales, even in paperback (32-33).

Cormac McCarthy

But such loyalty would come to an end when corporations took over the industry, and editors were pitted against each other to reach ever-increasing profit expectations. Decisions about which titles to acquire, how large the print runs should be, and whether or not a contract should be offered for a second book from an author increasingly became the purview of the accounting and marketing departments, and not editorial. By 1990, corporate publishers only wanted to publish books that warranted 100,000 press runs. Anything less wasn’t worth the effort, according to Marty Asher, with the Book-of-the-Month Club and then Vintage (qtd. in Schiffrin 106). Obviously such bottom-line-minded expectations would make it foolhardy for an editor to take on a first book from just about any author, even a Cormac-McCarthy-to-be.

This emphasis on profit also impacted representations of ideology. By and large, corporations are run by conservatives (think Rupert Murdach), so it hasn’t just been new authors who have been silenced but any author writing from a liberal perspective. For a time, this corporate bias toward conservatism was somewhat offset by university and independent publishers, but they, too, have been impacted by changes in the publishing world, either due to acquisitions or universities which have had to be more money-minded to stay afloat. It is worth noting that André Schiffrin’s book on the demise of independent publishing is nearly twenty years old. On nearly every front things have gotten worse since 2000. Today there are essentially five commercial publishers remaining in the United States, according to Publisher’s Weekly, the so-called “Big Five”: Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette Book Group, and Macmillan (Scholastic is number-six, thanks in large part to their publishing the Harry Potter series) (Milliot). These publishers account for more than eighty percent of sales in the U.S.

All of this has led to a homogenization in publishing. It is fiscally safer to publish book after book by the same few dozen authors (James Patterson, Danielle Steele, Nora Roberts, Dan Brown, etc.) than take a chance on a new voice, or if it is a new author, it’s a new author whose book sounds very much like one that proved successful. The runaway success of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, for example, gave birth to a new genre: “teen paranormal romance,” essentially beautiful but troubled young women falling in love with vampires, werewolves, ghosts, sea monsters, etc.—Prince Charmings, with fangs, fur, chills or gills.

Meanwhile, along came the Internet. Towards the end of Schiffrin’s book on publishing, again, which came out in 2000, he was mildly optimistic that technological advances could be an avenue for worthwhile books to reach readers. In a sense, his optimism was well-founded. The rise of e-readers and print-on-demand books, in both hardcover and paperback, has made it possible for almost anyone to get their words into print. For example, in 2012 I established Twelve Winters Press, a print-on-demand and digital publisher, to produce my own books as well as other worthy books whose authors were frustrated in finding outlets for their work. We’ve averaged four to six titles per year, mainly fiction, but also poetry and children’s books. Our books are available globally and are reasonably priced. Titles have won awards, and one of our books recently won best cover design in the category of fiction.

We’re only missing one element to be considered a rousing success in independent publishing: readers, also known as book sales. Practically no one will read our books. It is extremely difficult to get our books reviewed—and literally impossible to get them reviewed by major reviewers—and when they are reviewed, reviewers seem duty-bound to moderate their praise with some bit of negative criticism. But it probably wouldn’t matter. Even glowing book reviews have little to no impact on sales. Nearly all of the prestigious book competitions are off limits to small, independent publishers. Either their entry fees are too high, or they require a minimum print run that small presses can’t attain. We’ve had some success in indie competitions, but even they are expensive by small-press standards, and, again, success doesn’t translate to sales. We advertise our books and authors through social media, and for the last couple of years we’ve spent $2,000 to $3,000 annually on traditional advertising, including ads in The New York Review of Books. Practically nada, almost literally nothing. I may as well have shoveled all that cash into an incinerator.

The problem is that a smaller and smaller percentage of Americans are readers, and those who are readers are not interested in well-written, challenging texts. Data on how little Americans read, in every age group, are readily available. What is difficult to discern in the numbers is how little literature is being read. Surveys and studies tend to identify how frequently novels are being read, but it would seem that the vast majority of those books are mysteries, thrillers and other light genres. Perhaps one way of getting some idea of how much literature is being read is to compare it to poetry. According to Statista, eleven percent of Americans claim to read poetry on a regular basis. The reliability of these numbers is suspect, of course, but it may give us some sense of the situation.

One difficulty is answering the question, How does one define literature? William Gass seemed to have a working definition at least, one that he shared in a 1981 interview when he said, “Readers don’t want difficult works—not just mine—anybody’s. The reward for the time, effort, agony of getting into some of things is always problematic” (Castro 71). Nearly a decade before, Gass compared writing serious fiction to writing poetry, as far as reception was concerned:

I think fiction is going the way of poetry. It’s getting increasingly technical, increasingly aimed at a small audience, and so forth. And this is what happened to poetry—over a long period of time. And now fiction, which I suppose was once a leading popular art form, certainly isn’t any more. And serious fiction does not even hope for it. (Mullinax 14)

If not serious fiction, then, what is being published, especially by the Big Five commercial publishers? According to Gass, in 1976, “[a] lot of modern writers . . . are writing for the fast mind that speeds over the text like those noisy bastards in motor boats. . . .  They stand to literature as fast food to food” (LeClair 25). Indeed, in the early 1970s Gass saw the trend developing of a negative correlation between the quality of the writing (the seriousness of it) and its likelihood for being published at all. Regarding his eventual novel The Tunnel, Gass said that if he achieved his goal “perhaps it will be such a good book no one will want to publish it” (McCauley 12). It was published eventually, in 1995, after nearly thirty years of literary labor. By then Gass claimed that he “expected to be ignored. . . . There were some [critics] who were quite enthusiastic, but by and large it was the usual: just shrugs and nobody paid much attention” (Abowitz 145).

In essence, then, our culture—really, Western culture—has lost the literary voice: today’s Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, Lawrence, Gass, and so on. It’s an uphill struggle to find a publisher, and once found an even steeper struggle to find readers. Who today would publish Ulysses, leave be Finnegans Wake? If published, perhaps self-published, who would read it?

My time for this presentation grows short, so let me shift gears to the issue of What does it matter that less and less literature is being read? For one thing, I see the rise of Trump and Trumpism, which is synonymous with racism, White Nationalism, xenophobia, misogyny, and a host of other evils, as being related to the loss of the literary voice. This topic is clearly complex, and I can only barely begin to introduce it here, but we know that Trump supporters are in the minority in the United States, perhaps thirty to forty percent of the population, and we know that most of those Trump supporters live in non-urban areas—places where the demographic of white, Christian, heterosexual, patriarchal folks reside in insulated enclaves. They are fed their news and their views from conservative outlets and from Trump himself via Twitter, Fox News, Breitbart, etc. Meanwhile, we know that reading increases awareness of others—let’s say capital “O” Others—and study after study has shown that reading about those not like ourselves also fosters empathy.

Interwoven here is the subject of censorship, which I want to touch on briefly. In The Business of Books, Schiffrin discusses how right-leaning conglomerates overlook left-leaning authors, but beyond that editors in dog-eat-dog corporate publishing houses reject material for fear of its unpopularity, which would in turn adversely affect their pay and job security. Another disturbing trend is self-censorship among readers. It seems that the rising tide of conservatism is creating readers who won’t allow themselves to read material they deem immoral. A couple of anecdotes. In January I attended the MLA National Convention in Chicago, and one of the panels I went to was on Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint turning fifty. Two of three Roth scholars were from Midwestern universities, and they said they hadn’t actually taught Portnoy’s for years because their graduate students are too squeamish to discuss the book in class. The third Roth person was a professor at Princeton, and he was nonplussed. Apparently he teaches his Ivy Leaguers Portnoy’s every other semester.

I had a similar experience just last quarter. For our final reading I had assigned William Gass’s novella Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife. I had one grad student refuse to read it when he discovered it contained “raunchy” language. A couple of other students read it but were put off by its language and sexual subject matter. I’ve been thinking that a fascist society hardly needs to bother imprisoning writers and burning books in the square if they can create a culture where most people don’t like to read and even budding “intellectuals” censor themselves on moral or religious grounds.

Speaking of Gass, long before the deleterious effects of the Internet and cable news could be known, he saw the handwriting on the wall. In his commencement address to the Washington University (St. Louis) Class of 1979, Gass cautioned the grads: “We are expected to get on with our life, to pass over it so swiftly we needn’t notice its lack of quality, the mismatch of theory with thing, the gap between program and practice. . . .  We’ve grown accustomed to the slum our consciousness has become” (“On Reading to Oneself” 222) The cure Gass advised is the reading of great books, “for reading is reasoning, figuring things out through thoughts, making arrangements out of arrangements until we’ve understood a text so fully it is nothing but feeling and pure response” (227). Elsewhere Gass emphasized that “the removal of bad belief [is] as important to a mind as a cancer’s excision [is] to the body it imperil[s]. To have a head full of nonsense is far worse that having a nose full of flu . . .” (“Retrospection” 51). He went on to recommend rigorous self-skepticism regarding one’s own ideas, “theorizing” about errors in thinking: “Skepticism,” he said, “was my rod, my staff, my exercise, and from fixes, my escape.”

We must make those who are prone to bigotry, who believe brown-skinned migrants deserve to be tossed in cages or left to perish in rivers and at sea, who are anxious to accept any fraudulent information that supports their worldview, who deny the threat of climate change in spite of the data, who believe healthcare is a privilege—we must make them self-skeptical, as Gass advised. We must get them in the habit of questioning their own beliefs. We must get them reading again. Or as Laurie Champion describes it, in her article on Thoreau and Bobbie Ann Mason, we must get people in “a transcendental state of mind that involves intellectual and spiritual searches that lead to clear sight” (57).

Doing that, no matter how difficult, must be our mission.

Note

I realize of course that I’m not the first person to lament the sorry state of serious writing in their time. Just a few examples: Emerson, Margaret Fuller and other Transcendentalists founded The Dial in 1840 due in large part to the dearth of decent reading material in spite of their periodical-rich time period. Victorian and Edwardian editor and critic Edward Garnett frequently clashed with the publishers for whom he worked because he felt they didn’t do enough to cultivate a more cosmopolitan appetite among England’s overly conservative and insulated readers. James Joyce famously exiled himself to the Continent mainly due to the sad state of Irish letters. A key difference perhaps, between these thens and now, is that there were a lot of people reading a lot of material, whereas today fewer and fewer people are reading, anything, period.

Works Cited

Abowitz, Richard. “Still Digging: A William Gass Interview.” Ammon, pp. 142-148.

Ammon, Theodore G., editor. Conversations with William H. Gass. UP of Mississippi, 2003.

Castro, Jan Garden. “An Interview with William Gass.” Ammon, pp. 71-80.

Champion, Laurie. “‘I Keep Looking Back to See Where I’ve Been’: Bobbie Ann Mason’s Clear Springs and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.” Southern Literary Journal, vol. 36, no. 2, 2004, pp. 47-58.

Gass, William H. “The Artist and Society.” Fiction and the Figures of Life, Knopf, 1970, pp. 276-288.

—. “On Reading to Oneself.” Habitations of the Word, Simon & Schuster, 1985, pp. 217-228.

—. Preface. In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, by Gass. 1968. Godine, 1981, pp. xiii-xlvi.

—. “Retrospection.” Life Sentences. Knopf, 2012, pp. 36-55.

King, Daniel Robert. Cormac McCarthy’s Literary Evolution: Editors, Agents, and the Crafting of a Prolific American Author. The U of Tennessee P, 2016.

LeClair, Thomas. “William Gass: The Art of Fiction LXV.” Ammon, pp. 17-38.

McCauley, Carole Spearin. “William H. Gass.” Ammon, pp. 3-12.

Milliot, Jim. “Ranking America’s Largest Publishers.” Publisher’s Weekly, 24 Feb. 2017, https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/72889-ranking-america-s-largest-publishers.html. Accessed 14 April 2019.

Mullinax, Gary. “An Interview with William Gass.” Ammon, pp. 13-16.

Schiffrin, André. The Business of Books. Verso, 2000.