Gutenberg Eulogies?

April 28, 2008 | 2 books mentioned 6 3 min read

Is there a “crisis in reading?” Last quarter’s Barnes & Noble conference call; the well-publicized demise of certain book review supplements and independent bookstores; the gripes of our editor friends; and a whiff of desperation around the marketing of literary fiction (typically referred to as “so tough” or “a hard sell”) would seem to confirm the encroachment of electronic reading matter – email, Facebook feeds, blogs – on the territory of print. Many of my students, ten years younger than I am, do not read books for pleasure. Sometimes, they don’t even read for school.

On the other hand, a literary author, Jhumpa Lahiri, last week stood athwart the New York Times bestseller list. And huge chain bookstores apparently find it profitable to operate in towns like the one I grew up in, where previously you bought what K-Mart was selling, or you got bupkis.

A recent study conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts raised some alarms. “Fewer than half of all American adults now [read] literature,” the NEA reported. But, as many among the commentariat were quick to point out, the NEA was methodologically hamstrung by its insistence on defining literature as fiction and poetry; does our weekly New Yorker binge count for nothing? And so the “Death of Reading” metanarrative receded, for a time, into the murk that birthed it.

Receded, that is, until Ursula K. Le Guin insisted on rousing it, via an essay in the February issue of Harper’s Magazine. The thrust of Le Guin’s argument was that readers weren’t the problem, exactly; that pessimism about reading can be blamed on the conglomerates that have, in the last two decades, swallowed most of New York’s most esteemed publishing houses. With its modest margins and arcane payment schedules, book publishing is more a labor of love than a maximizer of shareholder value, Le Guin pointed out; for every Da Vinci Code or Harry Potter, a thousand midlist authors languish in the wings. To the News Corps of the world, she posed the question, “Why don’t you just get out of it, dump the ungrateful little pikers, and get on with the real business of business, ruling the world?”

But responses to Le Guin’s piece have inadvertently suggested an alternative explanation for the angst about the health of reading: the publishing world’s formidable self-regard. The editors whose letters grace Harper’s April issue are talented and admirable people (without them, some of my favorite books would not have found me), but none of them seem able to see in Le Guin’s essay anything other than a reflection of their own personal accomplishments.

On one hand, Andre Schiffrin, founder of The New Press and a vociferous critic of the publishing conglomerates, pronounces Le Guin “right on.” After describing how his quondam employer, Bertelesmann-controlled Random House purged staff and backlists, “leaving only a hollowed-out label that can be affixed to any new book the group acquires,” Schiffrin declares, “Literary publishing is insufficiently profitable to meet corporate expectations…. One solution to this problem,” he suggests, “is to create not-for-profit firms as we did in starting The New Press.”

On the other hand, Lorin Stein, Senior Editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, finds Le Guin’s essay “so depressing, in its knee-jerk snobbery and thoughtlessness, one hardly knows where to start.” Le Guin’s heroic readers of yore, he argues, “were part of a mass market, created by ‘moneymaking entities’ in the business of selling books.” Without profit-motivated publishers (such as Holtzbrinck-backed FSG), writing becomes

a pastime for the few who can afford to write for nothing, with no prospect of fame or glory beyond the cozy ring of ‘our own people.’ Fewer readers means lower stakes, lower standards, and more crap getting passed off as the real thing.

Barbara Epler, Editor-in-Chief of the independent press New Directions, quite naturally defines the stakes more modestly. “Readers will always be here,” she writes, agreeing with one of Le Guin’s propositions. “That’s how writers like W.G. Sebald and Roberto Bolaño [both published by New Directions] catch on like wildfire. There have never been so many thriving, struggling, astonishingly nimble small literary presses busy making beautiful books.”

And, of course, a reader affiliated with Columbia University sees an industrial strategy to rule the world through publishing – which is even more whimsical in its premises than Mr. Stein’s notion that writers under the current dispensation aren’t already people who more or less “write for nothing, with no prospect of fame or glory.” (Or his parallel conceit that the nature of the book business remains substantially unchanged from the era of the “Ivanhoe-reading cowboy.”)

Is there a crisis in reading? Impossible to say, when “our own people,” the arbiters of literary culture, decline one of its most valuable functions: self-criticism. To be fair to the editors quoted above, their enthusiasm on behalf of their respective projects is evidence of a laudable commitment to the culture of the book; as Lorin Stein puts it, “This is a business I believe in passionately.” And if we are to blame someone for changing the subject from the state of reading to the state of publishing, it should be Le Guin herself. Still, in aggregate, these responses work to confound, rather than to clarify. Their diagnostic power is that of the Rorschach blot.

is the author of City on Fire and A Field Guide to the North American Family. In 2017, he was named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists.


  1. Oh lord. Let's stop blaming the editors (as they love to do at Literary Rejections on Display) for the decline of reading.

    I guess because I read and I'm surrounded by readers, I feel pretty positive about the state of the literary world.

  2. Edan, you are saying you disagree with LROD about what is going on with commercial magazines? Do you think short story writers have it good these days? If so, please explain. I have a full-time job to make ends meet and I do not get paid for my short fiction. Also, I know that most editors, the vast majority, seem to favor sexually explcit and/or crude material in fiction. I know that it wasn't always this way.

  3. Jonathan, I can't speak for Edan, but… really? Short fiction works just like anything else – supply and demand. Not everyone can get paid for writing it because the market isn't big enough to support that. As for editors favoring "crude" material, I can't even imagine what that opinion might be based on. There's no evidence that fiction was once prudish (and therefore more popular?) and is now crass. TV is crude, movies are crude; short fiction of the kind that pays (The NYer, et al) is anything but. The themes may be "adult" at times, but such has been the way of fiction since the times of Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Chaucer, not to mention the Greeks and Romans.

    I think Garth's point, which I do not really equate with the LROD point of view, is not that editors are somehow acting unfairly to writers, it's that they are all looking at and acknowledging this (alleged) crisis in reading and saying "It's not my fault, we do terrific work" – which is a pretty churlish stance for these folks to be taking.

  4. That was sort of my point, Max, although "churlish" may even be too strong a word for it. In the Harper's letters (which don't benefit from being juxtaposed with each other), we see three editors going, "Even if there is a problem, my work and my business model are above reproach." In particular, Stein and Schiffrin come across as intractably locked inside their own respective interests. This short-circuits honest exchange about both whether the state of reading and publishing merits concern, and what the remedies might be. From where I'm sitting, neither further conglomeration (were such a thing possible) nor a completely non-profit model seem desirable.

    In bulk, these letters to the editor also suggest that pessimism about the state of reading might be connected to insiders' inflated sense of their own importance to the culture. Ability to imagine the world without yourself in it is sometimes a good place to start, analytically. This isn't at all to "blame editors" for the poor state of literature; I happen to think the state of literature is mixed, as it always has been.

    Editors often do a great job championing writers. That doesn't mean they get a free pass on lousy rhetoric when they venture into the territory of cultural diagnosticians. (And none of this is meant to give Le Guin a free pass, either, though her essay was pretty transparently meant as polemic. Capitalism doesn't seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.)

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