An enterprising journalist in England typed out a chapter from V.S. Naipaul’s
novel A Free State (ranked 309,000 on Amazon) and from
Stanley Middleton’s Holiday (ranked 1,768, 662) and submitted them under
different names to 20 editors and agents. Of the submissions, he received
rejections from all agents and editors but one. The results of this “test” were
published on 1st January in The Times.
The literary biosphere has been
gnashing teeth and gums since on the meaning of these results. Both the rejected
books were published in the 1970s and won the authors a Booker Prize. No one
recognized the submissions as the writings of Naipaul or Middleton. It was as if
they no longer existed in the collective memory of those working the coal face
of publishing. Vanished into thin air. If you look at the amazon rankings it is
apparent the books sell very poorly. That has to say something about current
As thirty-five years has passed since the novels were published,
V.S. Naipaul’s observation that time has passed on may be a good explanation. We
like to think that fine writing like fine wine gets better with age. The reality
is that most fiction dates quickly and is forgotten. The best fiction writers
are able to channel the cultural and social air streams that define their age.
They express the truths, biases, frustrations, trends, and values that define a
generation. The recognition of an award demonstrates that the judges believe the
novelist successfully captured something that others have not. The award is not
a guarantee of longevity. Go back to the list of Booker nominees and winners,
and ask how many of those books remain in print? My guess is many are no longer
available. Why this should come as a shock or surprise to anyone is a mystery.
Each generation produces authors, painters, musicians that define their
era. From F. Scott Fitzgerald to Bob Dylan, in the cultural arena, buyers of
books, art and music wish to discover images and visions and interpretations
that are relevant to their life. When Tom Wolfe writes a novel I am Charlotte Simmons set on a college campus there is
a large wince factor. The observations come from an outsider looking in rather
than an insider reporting out.
What is being published and read
(becoming increasingly two largely disconnected events) in 2006 will not be the
same as in 1971. What will appear immediate, clever, well-written, and poignant
in 2006 will likely have no or little audience in 2056. There is an assumption
that fine or good writing transcends time and like ancient folklore is handed
down from generation-to-generation. When a reader buys a book fifty years from
now it won’t be on the basis that it won a Booker Prize in 2006. He or she will
buy the book (I am assuming books will be in the same form as today and that is
a big assumption) because it reflects the hot buttons of that time, places our
emotions in a larger context, and makes the map of our existence more accessible
as the right has marked the paths, roads, canals and sign posted the hazards.
Who is being published and who is publishing is also vastly different in
2006 than in 1971. Go back and look at the number of publishers in London and
New York and ask how many of them are still organized in the same fashion as
opposed to being swallowed up by one of the large media companies. The POD
(print on demand) technology is changing the face of publishing. With many more
thousands of people finding a means to write their novel.
On The Edge many
thinkers have been asked to answer this question: What is your dangerous idea.
My dangerous idea is that the overwhelming number of novels will never
(and should never) survive the generation in which they are published. It would
be outright dangerous if all of these books did survive. No one has time to read
what was published in 2005. Imagine hundreds of years of books in your
bookstores and libraries. Like cemeteries the dead would soon overtake the
Novels are for the living. At least the living who would have
time to read. Each year that is a smaller group.
The few novels that do
manage to sell generations later, is some evidence that the rare author finds a
niche in his or her time and underneath the thin layer of the present, a
universal theme and language communicates to a story that transcends any one
time and has the capacity to touch lives of future generations. This doesn’t
mean that we shouldn’t read and read widely what is being published.
Though Darwin would suggest that in literature as in all kingdoms,
extinction is the ultimate fate unless the species can adapt to new, and
different environments. Whether novels adapt to an Internet filled with millions
of books, letters, notes, memoirs, and digital images and sounds unfolding in a
future culture that we can only see the vague outlines or go the way of the Dodo
bird, no one can be sure.