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.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Who Will Own American Literature?

Change has come rapidly to the business of American literature in the past thirty years: conglomerization, new delivery methods, the declining influence of the literature professor, restrictive copyright laws, etc. Of course, literature has always experienced external control over who reads what and why. Government censorship, commercial cost, the exigencies of marketing, the outrage of parents, the clergy, and the community continue in various forms around the world.

This creates a panorama one could call the American Republic of Letters (not in the nineteenth century sense of an exchange of correspondence). Portals of access have disappeared, while others have developed. Newspaper reviewers are ignored. Literary critics are invisible. Graphic novels, which are 95% image, are taking an increasing segment of the traditional “book” market, especially among the next generation to come of age. The publication of literary works drifts from large to small presses, which have significantly less power to publicize and market, at least for now. The bookstore wars have ended (for the most part), at least between the large and small bricks-and-mortar stores. In ten short years, sales have shifted to a struggle between distant and local purchasing. Government is unable to keep books away from almost anyone with a credit card. Copyright is becoming permanent, leading to angry exchanges between publishers and scholars. There is a real question whether public lending libraries will survive, not because they are not needed, but because book-lending will no longer be needed by enough people to make them a community priority. DRM (digital rights management, a code that may allow a copyrighted work to open only on the device for which it was purchased or solely to the user who purchased it) threatens one of the great grass-roots traditions in reading: the enthusiastic passing of books from one reader to another.

All this will affect the whys and wherefores of literary reading in the United States. It always has. What has also endured is the political wrangling that created reading opportunities. The small press "movement" is one. A backlash against American arrogance and insularity manifested in the lack of literary translation in the United States is another. The NEA's "The Big Read" is a third. Ownership rights.