2016: The death of literature?

Alessandro Gallenzi 1 e1453068565371

When The Bookseller magazine asked me to prognosticate on what 2016 would hold for the publishing industry, I was only too happy to vent my spleen. “The usual deluge of bad novels, cynical tie-ins and instant books,” I replied, “as well as new hordes of publishers jumping on the colouring-book bandwagon.” To the question: “What types of trends in books will it be dominated by?” I offered, through gritted teeth: “Genre fiction, colouring books, erotica, Star Wars-related waffle.” And when the interviewer moved on to YouTubers, I raised my hand and said: “Sorry, I have no idea what YouTubers are.”

If one were to look at things through a literary lens, it could hardly be denied that publishing is on a downward spiral. Just look at the two top-selling books of 2015: E.L. James’s Grey and David Walliams’s Grandpa’s Great Escape. Neither author could string a good sentence together to save their lives. Come the new year, the UK book charts have been stormed by “Instagram sensation” Joe Wicks and his dieting title, Lean in 15. Having a quick peek at the celebrity-ridden and cookery-book-infested “Forthcoming” section of The Bookseller is enough to send anyone of a vaguely literary bent of mind into a frenzy of despair.

But are things today worse than in the past – is quality literature doomed to extinction and will “universal darkness bury all”? The centuries-old quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns rages on to this day – and I am not sure I can take sides with the poets of old who’d dash off formulaic sonnets about resplendent sunsets and purling streams while their valets trimmed their mutton-chop whiskers. After all, taste is subject to change and literature is not just about form and convention, but about breaking from tradition and being able to talk about the world we live in.

At the beginning of the Christian era Quintilian was already thundering against the degeneration of literary taste – and in more recent times Pope, Swift, Chateaubriand and Leopardi have all decried a similar decline. No one can deny, however, that the nineteenth and twentieth centuries produced some of the greatest works of literature this world has ever seen. If we look at the book charts in the last hundred years, on the other hand, probably the only two novels of enduring fame that claimed the top spot were Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer – arguably for the wrong reasons.

Three days after James Joyce died, on 16th January 1941, The Bookseller published a short obituary on p. 37, lamenting the end of “a literary career of extraordinary and probably of unique importance in our era”. His Ulysses, the note says, had only been published in England in 1936 in a print run of 1,000 copies – 100 printed on mould-made paper, bound in calf vellum and signed by the author, and 900 printed on japon vellum paper and bound in linen buckram. A few of them were still available from the publishers at only £3 3s. Meanwhile, such epoch-defining scribes as Henry Longhurst, Dan Wickenden and Robert Gibbings were selling thousands of copies of their books.

What spurs me on, then, is the faith that good literature still exists – only we can’t see it because we are too close to it. The classics of the future are among us – and if the flood of writing currently submerges the giants of our age, we should take comfort in the thought that they will stand out in the blazing sun one day.

Voltaire’s Candide said: il faut cultiver notre jardin. In today’s depressing publishing wasteland then, whether you are a literary author or publisher, my advice is this: block out the noise around you and smile at the circus of busy fools: believe in what you write and publish only what you’re passionate about. Real literature will never die.

This is a guest post by Alessandro Gallenzi. Alessandro is the founder of Hesperus Press, Alma Books and Alma Classics, and the successor of John Calder at the helm of Calder Publications. He is also a prize-winning translator, a poet, a playwright and a novelist.

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