by Matthew Thrasher
The intellectual anxiety of our age is that no one reads anymore. Television and the Internet have murdered the book, skinned it, and now wear its mask throughout outer and cyber space—sleeping in its bed, living its life, and laying claim to its nexus of imagined benefits. Better than murder, this is identity theft; we haven’t left Crusoe in the library, we’ve put him on Broadway. But are we convinced that the imaginative sprawl of Starcraft II can match that of The Odyssey? How does watching Ray Winstone slay the Grendel in IMAX 3D compare to reading Beowulf? Don’t our pedagogues still believe they know a cross-dresser when they see one?
New media has a knack for mimicry. Because of this, the death of the book is not the end of meaningful mass culture; instead, it is a problem of postures. No one reads, but the more terrifying development may be that no one curls up. The cozy, cognitive relation between book and reader has mutated into the unflinching, passive gaze of the surfing couch potato and the Internet troll—Dante’s Inferno for X-Box notwithstanding. We’ve created a monster, and it’s turned against us. The doomsday scenario is not hard to imagine: a Dawn of the Living UnRead in which the final bastions of knowledge hold out against a swarm of increasing delinquency rates, spiking drop-out rates, and a widening achievement gap.
Now that the magnitude of the current dilemma has sunk in, rewind this conversation sixty years. Ask yourself, when have cultural commentators ever believed that people other than themselves read? Better yet, what consequences have such commentators attributed to a world without reading? In A Novel Marketplace: Mass Culture, the Book Trade, and Postwar American Fiction, Evan Brier shows how these questions can arise in the most unlikely of times. The post-war United States witnessed the proliferation of the paperback, the development of the up-scale trade paperback, and the purchase of publishing houses by large media conglomerates. Books and novels were widely read and publishing was a lucrative business venture. Still, no one believed that the general public read.
Brier resists the tantalizing, yet timeless, question: why don’t people read? Rather, he proffers a richer alternative: why, in a particular historical moment, do we perceive the state of reading to be in crisis? And what does this say about the practitioners of reading—publishers, literary agents, and authors? One way to address this question in the 1950s was to turn to the Cold War. Vicious fear mongering among American elites engendered a culture of intellectual scarcity (not enough math, not enough reading). As long as there was Communism, there would be a perceived dearth of reading amongst the American public.
However, Brier demurs, eviscerating this powerful rhetoric of fear by revealing a series of multi-leveled contradictions that permeated the post-war book market. People may have had the USSR in mind when they claimed that no one read, but they also had in mind a series of novels that discredited mass culture while participating in it. Readers didn’t read themselves out of communism; they read themselves into believing that no one else read.
For Brier, the culprit was the publishing industry, not the reds. On one hand selling, on the other claiming that no one was buying, literary scions were publishing works of art that were both beyond the market and very much a part of it. Writers, too, played the game, spurning the rise of advertising while relying on famous friends to obsequiously review their works—a clandestine form of marketing. In Brier’s portrait of the post-war era, a repression of the popular was necessary to become popular in unpopularity.
And the rapidly evolving populace was ready to absorb the message. The rise of the English department and the surplus of GI Bill college grads allowed publishing hucksters to market the novel to a new middle-class that was not only more educated, but more discriminating in its cultural preferences as well. For the first time, publishers could market books to people who hated marketing—highbrow readers who believed that their intellect and their literature were singular.
In this scheme, analysis becomes a romantic psychoanalytic. Brier sits down with works such as The Sheltering Sky and Fahrenheit 451 and reveals their deep-seated anxieties regarding mass media and middle-brow culture. For instance, Bradbury’s classic work is not just about the horrors of state censorship; to Brier, it is about an author trying to come to terms with his medium. How can Bradbury’s work be so indebted to the rise of the paperback while at the same spinning a dystopian vision of a society in which mass-culture has triumphed over the free-thinking individual? At the same time, he sits down with the books’ readers. How could numerous individuals buy (and later come to adore) books that were explicitly opposed to being read by large quantities of people? Hence the unrequited romance of the post-war American novel: consumers came to love books that did not love them back.
A Novel Marketplace is a pulverizing work that operates on multiple levels to reconfigure the commonly held oppositions between blockbusters and art, television and literature, art pour l’art and the market. Brier does not content himself with an economic analysis of the novel. Instead, he reads what he perceives to be the post-war situation in the history of publishing, the biography of authors, and the very texts themselves. If the novel is losing its cultural prominence today, it is not because people have come to embrace mass media outlets such as television and the Internet. Nor is it because people have stopped reading. Instead, it is because there has been a fundamental shift in the institutional connections that allowed novels to flourish in the post-war era.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010