circulars (Newsweek). The career of Gordon Lish is instructive:nLish, a self-described novelist, has worked for Esquire,nKnopf, and Yale. For promoting the careers of some of thensilliest and least-read writers in America, Lish has receivednawards both from the American Society of MagazinenEditors and from the Columbia School of Journalism.nMultiply Lish by a few hundred, and you have thenAmerican publishing industry, a cozy litde cabal of selfpromotersnwho dictate the reading tastes of 200-plus millionnpeople.nI wish it were that simple—so does Gordon Lish, onenimagines—but the only conspiracy in all this is thenconspiracy of mediocrity, of bustiers who regard the appetitenfor books as a kind of predisposition to drug addiction:nThe secret is how to find the best varieties of dope that willnmaximize consumption without killing the addict. Ofncourse, they do push their own tastes. George Gilder andnKingsley Amis have both learned recentiy that feministsnhave an effective veto over New York publishing houses,nand William Donahue’s splendid book on the ACLU sawnthe light of day only because Aaron Wildavsky brought it tonthe attention of Transaction. Still, they couldn’t preventnWilliam Buckley from becoming a best-seller, and theynwere probably too stupid to realize the significance ofnTolkien’s Lord of the Rings, a book that has planted thenseeds of reactionary Christianity into the minds of millionsnof adolescents who read it—time after time—in then1960’s.nIt is really very easy to understand the book business. Allnyou have to know is a few facts: First, that anything printednbetween covers can be called a book and that the personnwhose name appears on the cover is the author. In thisnsense, Jane Fonda, Jim McMahon, Bill Cosby, and AndynRooney are “authors” of “books.” Second, that massnliteracy is really mass subliteracy: The American system ofnpublic education guarantees the right of every child to readnon the fifth-grade level. A few go beyond that but not farnenough to influence the publishing business whose onlynobject is to put as many fifth-grade books in the hands of asnmany fifth-grade readers as possible. This leaves the businessnof “literature” (as opposed to mere “books”) safely innthe hands of the mutual adoration society of critics andnwriters who read on the eleventh-grade level.nPerhaps the problem lies in mass literacy itself Therenused to be a vigorous illiterate culture in Europe andnAmerica—ballads, tales, and memorized Bible versesn—that was far superior to the print culture of the 20thncentury. “Edward” can still scare the pants off anyone whonhears it for the first time, and who has not wept overnhardhearted Barbara Allen or admired the heroism of SirnPatrick Spense and Johnny Armstrong? Those days are, ofncourse, long gone, and one of the joys of literacy is beingnable to read the folk culture of other times.nStill, in this electronic age, an illiterate culture ofnmovies, TV, and pop music occupies more of our time thannbook publishers like to consider. John Updike is the mostnimportant novelist in America—or so we’ve been toldn—but his name rings a bell with scarcely a tenth of thenpopulation. The creative geniuses who really influence thencountry are people like Clint Eastwood, Merle Haggard,nand Phil Collins. The genuinely mass markets of popnculture must be harder to manipulate than the book trade.nHow else do we explain the success of Dirty Harry andnDeath Wish?nThe change in American literacy is most apparent innserious magazines. Back before World War I there was anclass of readers (not simply scholars and intellectuals) whoncould be relied upon to subscribe to publications likenScribner’s, Century, and The Nation. Fiction and literarynessays predominated, but there were articles on history, art,nand even philosophy. The most interesting was The Nation.nFounded by E.L. Godkin in 1865, The Nation was editednby Paul Elmer More in the prewar years. A scholar andnphilosopher, More expected his readers to follow a philosophicalnargument and catch a classical allusion. Withoutnexcluding political questions, he refused to pander to thentaste for muckraking and issues-oriented journalism thatnwas already seeping into other magazines. Because it wasnread by teachers and journalists, The Nation exercised anninfluence far beyond its 6,000 subscribers. To comparenMore’s magazine with what is turned out by Victor Navaskynand Alexander Cockburn, the current reigning intelligencesnat The Nation, is an effort that numbs the imagination.nWhat most readers not working for the KGB findnoffensive in the present version of The Nation is thenStalinoid hard-line of Mr. Cockburn, but is The Nationnreally more ideological than its competitors? Hardly. Nearlynevery important magazine has a line to push, with friends innor out of power to defend. This in itself would not constitutena serious problem if the magazines did not devote most ofntheir pages to titillating articles about Sandinistas (or contras)nand the do’s and don’t’s of SDL One year it’s religion,nthe next year it’s the family, and before long it will ben”cultural conservatism” or the return of compassion. Thenmanufactured issues change; sometimes a manufacturernswitches sides, but a Rip Van Winkle who slept through thenpast 10 years would wake up to find he had missed very littienin the way of news. (I once gave up television, newspapers,nand magazines for several years. While I missed most of thenWatergate coverage, I managed to read a lot of anthropology.nBelieve me, Mr. Nixon would have received fairerntreatment in a pygmy band!)nTo be fair, one has to concede that political journalismndoes supply a real need in American life by answering thenquestion: How can an aspiring writer get a piece of thenaction? It has sometimes seemed that the only arts in whichnAmericans really excel involve snookering each other. ThenYankee peddler was our first symbol, the medicine show ournfirst native art form, and advertising our greatest contributionnto the world’s culture. Until the 20th century, it wasnhard for the literati (and the far more numerous subliterati)nto find their place at the trough. In his essay “On Being annAmerican” (written in the Harding Administration!),nMencken commented on “the doctrine that it is infrandignitatem for an educated man to take a hand in thensnaring of this goose.” On the contrary, he insisted, anynman with “the intelligence of a stockbroker and the resolutionnof a hat-check girl . . . can cadge enough money, innthis glorious commonwealth of morons, to make life soft fornhim.” Mencken shared more of the American vices than henliked to admit, but in this case he proved himself to be anprophet. A few years later he was ridiculing the newfoundnnnAPRIL 1987/11n