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Everything Old Is New Again

Yesterday’s New York Times carried a story on “invitation-only” book clubs among “young and attractive” New Yorkers with “impressive degrees” and the “angst that comes with being young and unmoored,” who, unable to find work in publishing or academe, “huddle” together in book-filled apartments to “trade heady banter” on great (or merely fashionable) writers and hoot at ideas their high-priced educations have taught them to hoot at. I defy anyone to read the story and not to conclude that the collapse of the high-end literary market is a very good thing, and not a moment too soon.

The Times reports the plight of the young literary enthusiast as if her discontent were new. Two and a half centuries ago, in “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” Samuel Johnson gave someone in her position some good advice: if you are able to keep your virtue while pursuing truth; if you are able to sustain your passion while studying long and hard to gain a full and comprehensive knowledge; if you are able to follow reason without wandering off even once into “tempting novelty”; if you are able to resist praise and overcome difficulty; if you do not fall prey to laziness, gloom, or disease; then and only then you should “pause awhile from letters” to consider this:

There mark what ills the scholar’s life assail,
Toil, envy, want, the patron, and the jail.

The literary market, with a publishing trade as a source of employment for laboring writers, is only about as old as Johnson’s satire. Before the mid-18th century, the poet and the scholar (the term writer was not yet common) depended upon patronage or inherited wealth. These and the debtors’ prison were gradually replaced by publishers and bankruptcy. Toil, envy, and want remained untouched.

For two hundred years writers wrote for money, and the institutions of the literary life — cash-paying publications and publishing houses — shaped their literary ambitions and achievements. The living (and the literature) were precarious. After the Second World War, the literary market began to dwindle (television is the usual suspect, although the expansion of university education under first the G.I. Bill and then the guaranteed student loan program is a more likely cause). A new form of patronage arose to shield writers from market forces: namely, the national system of creative writing — the Writers’ Workshops — that spread from coast to coast.

What is happening now is the revenge of the market. A high literary culture, utterly divorced from economic realities, was artificially propped up for fifty years. In rather more technical terms, American literary culture is an inefficient market; its products are overpriced, and there aren’t many buyers for them at any rate. As the air goes out of the higher education bubble, the literary life as fantasized by the New York Times’s attractive young literary cubs is deflating along with it.

Which is not to say that literature will disappear. Young writers’ expectations of a good-paying job (with benefits) fiddling all day on overwritten and unsaleable manuscripts — that will disappear. Most everything else will remain the same. Toil, envy, and want will still be the writer’s lot in life. The old economic conditions will be new again. And writers (and maybe even critics) will have to pay attention to them. That’s the only real change. Deal with it, clubbers.



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