Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Future of the Literary Past

Rumors abound that backlists have seen their day, paralleled by diminishing influence in the professoriat. If that is true, the future will mean fewer classics, read mainly by mandarins, oddballs and nerds, and the canon will ossify even more than it has. I doubt this will be the case. Digital downloads (despite DRM; see yesterday’s post) and on-demand printing will ensure consistent availability. DVDs of films made from Jane Austen’s work will furnish a clever marketing tool (viz, Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road). Classic authors are as much “brands” as contemporary best-selling authors.

However, the number of authors and works from the retreating past for the most part decreases as the dates grow distant. Imagine a funnel turned on its side and seen in profile. Who reads Epictetus, for example (despite its importance to Philip Lopate’s recent novella “The Stoic’s Marriage” from Two Marriages), even though he was a schoolboy staple in the late nineteenth century? There is no room for him now that we have Bourdieu, Foucault, and Derrida. At the same time, the mandarins, oddballs and nerds keep re-discovering and printing, hoping against hope that even 1,000 people will read such wonderful works as The Gallery by John Horne Burns.

Perhaps this is where the famous—and now discredited—long tail will have an effect, where not only the famous, but the eccentric (e.g., James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner) will find a readership of a couple of hundred a year.

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