Tim Parks* wrote an intriguing essay in the New York Review of Books last week with that title. My first thought on seeing it was to wonder if one can ever have too many books. But of course, Parks – an author himself – is looking at the bigger picture, not the ever-growing collection that clutters my bookshelves and litters my house. He asks:
Is there a relationship between the quantity of books available to us, the ease with which they can be written and published, and our reading experience?
I worked in book publishing as both an editor and a sales rep for many years, and before that, I worked in bookstores and even owned a bookstore. I understand reasonably well the business and the economics of publishing, and of retail. Because of that experience, I have often wondered these past few years as I wander around in bookstores, how the industry can sustain such output. How many more books on the frivolous gluten-free fad, or cookie-cutter teen-vampire tales, or vapid talk-with-angels books can we add to the shelf before the diminishing return on such investment discourages publishers?
There are more books being published than ever before, and with the internet and e-readers, more ways to access those books; but is that always a good thing? Can we be overwhelmed by the volume of material to the point where we turn away from many – if not all – books?
Can we have too many choices so that we cannot discern the wheat from the chaff?
Yes, of course: all these books cannot be great books; some have to be poorly written, researched or plotted. Chaff exists. A multitude of voices can be a cacophony as well as a choir.
Parks himself asked, in another NYRB piece:
Is there any consistent relationship between a book’s quality and its sales? Or again between the press and critics’ response to a work and its sales? Are these relationships stable over time or do they change?
(In nonfiction, publication has long offered a patina of credibility, so that fringe notions, pseudoscience, fads and conspiracy theories have garnered gullible followers who associate print with fact and believability; a problem that currently dogs the internet, but that that’s another topic…)
Parks calls ours an age of “massive overproduction” and I share his concern whether this publishing trend is sustainable – which, for publishers and retaillers, also means profitable. And for the writers themselves – few and far between are those who can actually earn their living at the craft and as the market widens, so their income flattens. This has been compounded by discount online sellers like Amazon – having access to that market means publishers have to discount prices, which means they pay lower royalties. And ebook royalties are even lower.
One can argue that the same question of glut holds true with other areas, such as music and art. Surely with all the new access to platforms from which to present and market your music, and the number of tools easily available to consumers for production which allows almost everyone to make music, the music industry is equally torn between quantity and quality.
And there seems to be more photographers today; having online display platforms and inexpensive digital cameras and editing software turned everyone into a photographer.
(But does it? We tend in our language to blur the distinction between what is actually a hobby or pastime, with our profession. People label themselves artists, musicians, photographers and even writers with no actual education in those skills aside from the whisperings of their personal muse. Again, another discussion…)
And there is equally a glut of TV series and of movies. Like with all the other forms of expression, quantity and quality are not related. And success does not always correlate with any form of artistic quality.
To sort out the serious from the superficial in the mounting snowdrifts of paper, critics were needed. Johnson had been an early example. But critics rarely agree, and they themselves are under pressure from the market, from employers, from literary friends, and perhaps from the publishers with whom they themselves publish novels. In his excellent book White Magic, an account of the history of paper, Lothar Müller has a lengthy section on Balzac’s trilogy Illusions perdues, where the crucial illusion lost is that a writing career could genuinely remain serious in a philistine world.
But of course entertainment doesn’t have to be great art. Edgar Rice Burroughs was not a great artist, but during his day he was the world’s best-selling author and his Tarzan character arguably the most recognized literary character of all time. He entertained – and continues to entertain – millions. Like Freud’s cigar, sometimes a story is just a story.
(And in publishing houses, those sales of such highly popular works usually funds the publication of more serious but less commercially successful works.)
And to that point, Parks wrote in another NYRB piece:
I can only encourage others (and myself, for I’m by no means immune) to hold on to the idea that what matters about a book for the reader is our experience reading it, not the number of copies it has sold.
Most people read for such experience; for our instinctive need to be told stories. Any parent knows that from reading to children at bedtime. Is entertainment really that philistine? Or is it more of a biological drive?
Before we invented writing, humans were telling stories to one another as far back as language goes, tens of thousands of years. We evolved to tell and to hear stories. The earliest writing includes the Epic of Gilgamesh – an adventure story more than 4,000 years old, one which can still be read and enjoyed today. It can still entertain regardless of whether we consider it high art or not.
Cody Delistraty, in The Psychology of Storytelling in The Atlantic in late 2014, noted,
Stories can be a way for humans to feel that we have control over the world. They allow people to see patterns where there is chaos, meaning where there is randomness. Humans are inclined to see narratives where there are none because it can afford meaning to our lives—a form of existential problem-solving.
Few of us are critics who mutter our judgmental mene, mene, teqel, upharsin on the books we read. We simply want to be entertained by stories. And we read because stories in print engage us and activate our brains; reading processes the story in ways that reach deep into us, where TV and movies simply skim the surface.
Stories can also inform people’s emotional lives. Storytelling, especially in novels, allows people to peek into someone’s conscience to see how other people think. This can affirm our own beliefs and perceptions, but more often, it challenges them. Psychology researcher Dan Johnson recently published a study in Basic and Applied Social Psychology that found reading fiction significantly increased empathy towards others, especially people the readers initially perceived as “outsiders” (e.g. foreigners, people of a different race, skin color, or religion).
Interestingly, the more absorbed in the story the readers were, the more empathetic they behaved in real life.
And he also throws in another aspect: that no matter how many stories we tell, no matter how many books are published, each one basically retells some variation on the same seven plots:
Humans have been telling the same stories for millennia. Author Christopher Booker** claims there are only seven basic plots, which are repeated over and over in film, in television, and in novels with just slight tweaks. There is the “overcoming the monster” plot (Beowulf, War of the Worlds); “rags to riches” (Cinderella, Jane Eyre); “the quest” (Illiad, The Lord of the Rings); “voyage and return” (Odyssey, Alice in Wonderland); “rebirth” (Sleeping Beauty, A Christmas Carol); “comedy” (ends in marriage); and “tragedy” (ends in death).
This opens the question, too: can we ever run out of tales on any theme? After several millennia of spinning those seven themes into yarns, one has to wonder how much longer we can continue to do so with any sense or originality. It seems, however, that the ingenuity of authors to turn the literary kaleidoscope one more time knows no bounds.
Too many books? I can argue there have long been too many books on some topics – ghosts, astrology, UFOs, gluten-free and other diet fads and other claptrap – but overall? No – and it’s up to the publishers to determine for themselves if their output is sustainable.
Charles Simic, in the New York Review of Books, describes a scenario I know all too well:
One of the compensations of being an insomniac in a snowbound house full of books is that I can always find something to read and distract myself from whatever mood I’m in. When it gets real bad, I roam the dark house with a flashlight like Hamlet’s father’s ghost, pull books off the shelves, open them at random or thumb the pages until I find something of interest, and after reading it, either go back to bed happy or grope for another book.
Every night I settle into bed with a pile of books at the bedside, a cat or two beside me, and I read as long into the night as my age and energy will allow; usually at least an hour. Like Simic, I am peripatetic in my reading; picking up one and reading a chapter, then another, and another. I always have a dozen books on the go: fiction, history, science, philosophy, biography, poetry and whatever else grabbed my attention. But without the overabundance of modern publishing, I might be limited in my selection to a mere handful of titles. I might find myself like Simic, wandering the halls, Diogenes-like, looking for a suitable work to tell me my bedtime stories.
Perhaps I will end up like Alonso Quixano, of whom Cervantes wrote,
He read all night from sundown to dawn, and all day from sunup to dusk, until with virtually no sleep and so much reading he dried out his brain and went completely out of his mind…
…a gripping work, and a gripping translation. Parks allows certain modern linguistic resonances: I am not sure how closely that “reduce the place to rubble” above reflects the Italian original, but it has the whiff of the air raid, of shock and awe…
** I will come back to Booker’s claim in a subsequent post… I just started reading his book last month, in parallel with some related titles about plots, writing and storytelling. It’s not entirely new – it relates to Joseph’s Campbell’s hero cycle. But let’s save that for later.