November 1, 2012
JOHN HARRIS, editor of Praesidium and executive director of the Center for Literate Values, writes:
I happened upon Alexis de Tocqueville’s remarks about literary taste in American democracy recently. Dense irony swirled around the discovery of his words about the literary industry. He wrote:
The ever-growing crowd of readers and the continual need they have of the new assure the sale of a book that they scarcely esteem.
My Kindle allowed me to have a free copy of Tocqueville’s classic, in the first place … but I have long since learned that the price of such free stuff is a gaudy billboard staring me in the face every time I reach for my palm-held library. Last week, some TV serial titled “Nashville” hounded me. This week it’s a novel called Dawn which claims to be “Book One of the Xenogenesis Trilogy.” Has the author, then, already contracted to produce two more tomes … or is this glorious triad being republished for Kindle-owners after an initial triumph? Or, does it even matter? Isn’t everything a trilogy now? Does the sort of person who reads these things actually know what a trilogy is, any more than he or she is alert to the literal absurdity behind the word “xenogenesis”?
Tocqueville foresaw that, like everything else in America, creative literature would be driven by an insatiable thirst for novelty. Exoticism would be ground out without any consideration for plausibility. Breathless action would trump insight into human nature. Style and diction, of course, would court street-corner chatter rather than the poise of the classics.
Nothing really surprising there. This description more or less fits the romance whenever and wherever it has emerged. Sexual tension and marauding pirates drive the narrative of Daphnis and Chloe; sexual adventures and home-invaders fill chapter after chapter of The Golden Ass. The former is scarcely a better place to learn good Greek than the latter is to learn good Latin. These were works for a dynamic and growing middle class, its womenfolk (increasingly preserved from hard labor and coddled as trophies) bestowed with vast amounts of leisure in their comfy captivity.
Today’s setting, to be sure, is a little different: no two historical periods or cultural phases are inflexibly identical. Yet the similarities can descend to a stunning degree of subtlety. Consider only the kind of soft neo-paganism that circulates through all of these rambling fantasies, assuring the select few a safe passage to wealth and romantic bliss as the rest of the world goes to hell in a handbasket. To be sure, I haven’t read “Dawn” and have no plans to do so. What do you want to bet, though, that “xenogenesis” is a first cousin to Pan and Isis?
I still think — maybe twice a year now — about a novel called Footprints in the Snow of the Moon that I published through an on-demand outfit five years ago. It’s a story about middle-class people in Middle America during the cultural meltdown of the seventies. The publisher cleaned me out like one of Apuleius’s hooligans and moved on … but I have long faced up to the Tocquevillian realization that the work couldn’t have made a profit even if pumped up by Rush Limbaugh. In fact, conservative though I am and conservative though Rush appears in most ways, I doubt that he would know what to make of the thing. A couple of kids trying to navigate the sexual revolution without selling out their Christian heritage, their vision further warped by academe’s “sky’s the limit” claptrap and the social ambitions of their parents… a search for something like honor in a dishonorable era that ends in something like a free fall into the Unnamed God… how does that sound for a Kindle download? Not so much, in contemporary idiom.
Nevertheless, I made the book available for free in a gesture of … surrender to the times.
—- Comments ——
Mr. Harris’ remarks about the downloadable novel strike at a fact of life in a consumer society: when everything — even art — must first be saleable, then each item has a shelf life. And in novels, it is increasingly short, as novels are just that — novel — for about 2 months, after which the reading public is looking for something newer. Every publisher is looking to make money on a product, so that the very best book in the world will be rejected if it isn’t quick, easy, and pleasing.
This is what I believe drives the current craze for “teen paranormal romance” (that phrase is, no lie, the label on a whole set of shelves in our current big box bookstore). After outer space adventures, and magic adventures, and depressing mental-instability adventures, what is left to “teen fiction” that is new, that hasn’t been done a million times? Well, “good” vampires, and all the chin-pulling questions about what they ought to do when they fall in love with non-undead girls in tight jeans.
The evil one is pleased that he comes across as a novelty.