Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which paper burns, and the title of Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel set in an authoritarian state where reading is banned.
In this world firemen are paid to start fires, not put them out; books that they confiscate in Gestapo-style raids on the houses of the citizenry provide the combustible matter.
Out in the backwoods, book-loving rebels memorise the great canons of world literature, each adopting as his or her name the title of the book that they are learning and will bequeath to a future in which the oral has replaced the written.
So much for book hell — and for reading purgatory. The situation at the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century is somewhat removed. Instead, we have an excess of fire sales of books that publishers no longer wish to sell and that bookshops no longer want to carry. That annual ritual, the post-Christmas summer or winter (pick your hemisphere) sale of books is upon book-buyers and book-readers (not always the same creature).
One publisher’s remainders, another’s material for the pulping bins, become the buy-of-the-sale in another country, on another continent. Unloved books — or at least unsellable ones, those that have outlived their utility to their makers — do at least have a chance of adoption, foster care, a real life in the hand and on the shelves. Nonetheless, do we — the reading, book-buying public — need or even deserve such opportunities for ceaseless consumption?
In saying that, I am neither making an argument on environmental grounds (all those trees, regardless of what the Forest Stewardship Council says) nor advocating virtual buying, virtual books and virtual reading on electronic-book readers. Rather, the question is whether the world is writing and publishing too many books too quickly, without due diligence to the verities of making a book.
It would be easy, if correct, to blame capitalism, which preaches the necessity of surplus to strive for profit. To that “necessary” quantity must be added variety — different words for different folks — but not, alas, always quality. Sheer numbers and intimidating assortment we certainly have — but again, why?
One answer, taking into account the perils and imperatives that publishers face, is supplied in Tobias Smollett’s 1771 masterpiece, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker. The publisher Henry Davis, writing to the Reverend Jonathan Dustwich — who has offered Davis letters that have come into his possession, and which form the tale of Clinker’s curious travels around Britain with his family and household train — laments:
“Writing is all a lottery — I have been a loser by the works of the greatest men of the age — I could mention particulars, and name names; but don’t choose it — The taste of the town is so changeable.” Words as true then as now, 240 years later.
Variety is the spice of the book trade, a bursting catalogue and back-list the equivalent of a menu replete with amuse-bouche, sorbets between courses, starters, mains, desserts and postprandial extras such as cheeses, port and coffee.
Our tastes, then, have become cultivated, conditioned, acculturated and accustomed so that the seeming largesse of writers and publishers is a given. But could we — should we — live without it?
Never have so many readers had so much to choose from the voluminous output of so many. Here it’s as well to recall the eviscerating fate of Kafka, whose novels were published only after his death – the author of The Trial and The Castle did not see them in print.
Each time I hear or read of a writer bewailing his or her as yet unpublished status — a delayed metamorphosis from writer to author — I want to cite Kafka’s writing life or, as another striking instance, Italo Svevo, the reluctantly published creator of the 20th-century masterpiece Zeno’s Conscience (earlier, better known as Confessions of Zeno). It was only James Joyce’s regular presence in Trieste, meetings between Joyce and Svevo, and the Irishman’s insistence that Svevo allow publication of Zeno, that allowed a great work into the world’s consciousness.
It was Svevo also who enjoined aspiring authors that “write one must; what one needn’t do is publish”. It would, of course, take an adamantine temperament and steely self-denial for writers to heed Svevo’s injunction. Who doesn’t write not to be published in this age of the blog and almost instantaneous publication or self-publication on the internet? Publication, electronic or hard copy, seems to confer authority.
Nor can one leave aside the commercial dictates by which publishers thrive or decline. Nowhere have those been better grasped and conveyed than in Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Industry in the Twenty-First Century by John B Thompson (Polity Press, 2010). An anthropology professor at Cambridge University and a much-published author, Thompson brings forensic keenness, acuity, breadth, depth and wit to this page-turning study of the book trade, its denizens, demons and deities. It ought to be prescribed reading for publishers, booksellers, writers, authors, reporters, reviewers and critics.
In the weeks that follow, I will be drawing on Merchants of Culture as I discuss, with my colleague Percy Zvomuya, writing, publishing, buying and reading books in South Africa. It is a subject that we approach with trepidation, wanting on the one hand to encourage all those activities but on the other wishing fervently to avoid nurturing and buttressing only because something is “local”.
Sympathy for the local has bedevilled the critical response to performing and creative arts in South Africa. An implicit compact has existed between artists on the one side and reporters, reviewers, critics, academics and sundry, drop-in occasional commentators on the other.
It was encouraging in some guise, therefore, when contributors to a Book SA debate late last year bemoaned the lack of stricter, stronger, fiercer, more critical reactions to and views of their work.
Be careful about what you ask for, I thought, because Percy and I had long been pondering an examination of what we believe is hindering the development of a literary culture in this country. We were beaten to the first salvo when the doyenne of books editors and literary critics in this country, Maureen Isaacson, obliged with just such a piece in the Sunday Independent.
So, the debate — and I hope it will be robust and fair — has begun. As a first proposition, I would say: “So many writers, so little writing.” Online chatter and conversation about being a writer, the “writerly life”, or a writer’s miserable existence in a sports-obsessed country with low literacy rates seems, at least to me, to be robbing writers of writing time.
Yet, despite that, we have a plethora of fiction and non-fiction that appears sometimes to have been rushed to the presses and on to the shelves. Proposition two: “Too many books that could have been contenders.”