Saturday, January 28, 2006

Falling Out of Print

I'm cross-posting this from Boing Boing:
Falling Out of Print is a Book's Natural Fate

“Teresa Nielsen Hayden, a science fiction editor at Tor Books, has posted a brilliant rumination on the ephemerality of literature -- how quickly most books, even popular ones, disappear into history. She uses a collection of bestseller lists from 1900 to 1955 to make her case, and delves wisely into the harm that extended copyright terms have wrought upon those who would rescue classics from the scrapheap of time:

'The literature taught in schools is that which has survived: a collection of gross statistical anomalies. This is misleading. Falling out of print is a book's natural fate. We can belatedly train ourselves to believe that this will happen to other people's books. What's hard is for writers to believe it will happen to their own.

'It'll happen just the same. It happens faster in mainstream fiction than it does in Our Beloved Genre, more slowly for nonfiction history books, very fast indeed for computer manuals; but in the end, all but a very few titles will be forgotten. Just look at the authors in that collection of bestseller lists. You're a literate bunch, but have you ever heard of Harold Bell Wright? How about Mazo de la Roche? Mary Roberts Rinehart, Lloyd Douglas, Irving Bacheller, Frank Yerby, Coningsby Dawson, Warwick Deeping? These were all notable authors in their day. Some of their books were no better than they should be, while others were genuinely praiseworthy; but all of them spent some time perched on top of the commercial heap.'”

So let me get this straight: Hayden uses "a collection of bestseller lists" as a standard of what ought to become a classic? Hmmm. What do bestseller lists have to do with anything? It seems to me that oftentimes it's just the other way around. For example, while I despise James Joyce because I think he was an (intelligent) fraud and charlatan, I also see his work as a classic of the so-called Modern period, even more so than the works of Stein or Kafka. Yet how many everyday people have ever actually read his work? I'm guessing not very many. In fact, Ulysses has never really been popular with the reading public. It stays in print now only because professors assign it to tens of thousands of captive students in universities throughout the Western world, and because many of those same students desperately want to look like a cognoscenti whenever they sit in a trendy coffee shop and talk literary politics with other hip-hippy, bourgeois-proletariat elitists.

From Wikipedia: “A classic is an item that has become a ubiquitous and unique symbol or icon of a time gone by, mainly because of its inherent quality or its representative status.” I agree, except to note that a work of “inherent quality” is not necessarily a work that is good. Rather, it must be so outstanding for whatever reason of its own that it actually creates a movement or comes to represent an existing one, whether popular or not. Ulysses is an example; its unique traits had such inherent quality that they became a rallying point for those who appreciated those same qualities: a disdain for literature as story, and a desire to see literature turned into a tool for cognitive disintegration (or at least a reflection of the author's own disintegration).

On the specific issue brought up by Hayden about stories going out of print, I say, “So what?” I don't write to be famous, rich, or remembered. I write because I love story, and I feel a sense of pride and happiness when I get it right. Yeah, I want to get paid someday and yeah I want to know that certain readers enjoy my work, but I have no illusions that a book deal will somehow transform my sense of self. In other words, it's not the main or motivating reason that I write. I suppose it's true that if I believe in my story enough, and I am faced with a publisher who has no vision for it, then I will want to fight to keep my story in print. But right now that's a problem I can only hope to face.