The problem is, then, larger than it seems, with more villainsrnthan we may wish to recognize. (Fear of being labeled as paranoidrnhas left us easily vulnerable to all kinds of villainy.) Publishingrnis only part of the problem. Also deeply involved, responsiblernfor much that is wrong, are other parts of the literaryrnestablishment, including the academies and the writers themselves.rnSince most American “literary” writers are in thernacademies, for better and worse, there is less distinction herernthan one might imagine or hope for. The writer is worked onrnby both the publisher and the academic institutions that, morernor less, own him. None of the aspects of the present state ofrnthings tends to bring out the best in our writers. For whateverrnbones may be available, they snarl and fight like feral dogs. Inrnany case, now is not a time conducive to serious questions or tornstrict examination of the multitude of assumptions and follies atrnthe heart of our lives and our society. Few of our writers dare torndo anything more interesting or adventurous than to preachrnblandly and safely to a shrinking audience of the long-sincernconverted or to say a rosary or two of weary and discredited liberalrncliches. Literarv’ writing, at least for the survivors, the statusrnquo, is not a career of danger and daring. Our best and brightestrnhave become “company men,” just as in the Soviet Unionrnthe writers, with the exceptions of towering figures likernSolzhenitsyn and Brodsky, sold their art and their souls for thernsake of a mess of potage and a little comfort. Remember whatrnSolzhenitsyn told a graduating class at Harvard—how we in thernWest don’t need any state censors since the intellectual statusrnquo is doing a fine and dandy job, keeping all the serious questionsrnunasked and the most serious problems untouched. Forrnour culpable writers there is no incentive for them to challengernthe prevailing orthodoxy, either in literary form or content.rnThere is no good reason to take a stand against what is said to bernpopular. No wonder that despite superstores (Borders, Barnesrn& Noble, Books-a-Million), with music and coffee bars to delightrnthe unwary and to entice the curious, Americans are votingrnwith their feet, staying as far away as possible from most ofrnwhat passes for literar)’ art.rnStuck on a desert island (with Cindy Crawford?) or given arnchoice, who wouldn’t much rather read the latest ElmorernLeonard rather than the brand new DeLillo? Once years andrnyears ago I heard a bright New York editor (alas no longer whinnyingrnwith us) ask William Faulkner if he could be so bold as tornsend Faulkner a new book by a wonderful new writer. Usingrnhis pipe for pauses and punctuation, Faulkner allowed that herncertainly had no objection to receiving such a book in the mail,rnbut that he doubted very much he would be able to read it.rn”These days,” he said, “I only have time for the old verities.”rnThese days the old verities are going out of print and beingrndropped from the curriculum of “institutions of higher learning.”rnBut we still have some libraries, and a book with more orrnless acid-free paper will last maybe 500 years, at least ten timesrnas long as any known form of electronic information yet inventedrnor envisioned.rnSumming up 1997 in “A Feast of Literary Delights”rn(NcM’sweek, January 5,1998), reviewers Malcolm Jones, Jr.,rnand Ray Sawhill compared and contrasted the current literarv’rnscene with what they viewed as the high point of the 1960’s.rn(“Writers in the mid-60s stood at the red-hot center of things.”)rnThey argued, “Writers today dwell in an uneasy shadowlandrnsomewhere between the Wax museum and the midway.” Nevertheless,rnafter allowing for some of the unpleasant and undeniablernfacts—a string of huge celebrity advances that did notrnearn out; declining sales and profits overall; the losing battle ofrnthe independent bookstores fighting against the big chain storesrnand superstores; the extraordinary percentage of returns, oftenrn50 percent or more—these reporters tried to end on an upbeatrnnote, citing the successes of some of the smaller presses, thern(possibly) salutary impact, strange as it may seem, of Oprah’srnBook Club, and, exemplary of “the best season, critically andrncommercially in years,” the attention and success earned byrnthree literary novels —Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (AtlanticrnMonthly Press), Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixonrn(Holt), and Don DeLillo’s Underworld (Scribner’s). Their conclusion:rn”It is hard to despair of American publishing in a yearrnwhen three such distinguished and challenging novels not onlyrnappear on bestseller lists but, in the case of Cold Mountain,rnsell well over a million copies.”rnWhat the men from Newsweek do not mention is that allrnthree of these books received massive and very expensive promotionrnand reams of publicity and that nevertheless ColdrnMountain was the only one whose commercial results wererncommensurate with the expense and effort. Cold Mountain’srnpublisher, Morgan Entrekin, devoted much of his promotionalrnattack to bookstores all across the country, outside of New YorkrnCity, proving, with his success, that there are Americans in thernprovinces who do read books and, at the same time, that New-rnYork, though powerfully influential in the business, is really justrnone region among many others. Chances that any three literaryrnnovels in the foreseeable future will enjoy this kind of promotionalrnattention are slim.rnThe problems of the literary scene are exacerbated by the attitudernof many readers who, as in other products and other aspectsrnof our society, haunted by brand names and victimized byrnthe culture of celebrity, depend on publicity, advertising, andrnbook reviews more than their own good judgment and taste.rnStrangely, the book-reading public, relatively small as it may be,rnseems to be singularly easy to manipulate. Add to the hustie ofrnpublishers the unavoidable truth that so much that is published,rnfiction and nonfiction alike, does not speak to or aboutrnthe lives and values of most Americans, and you have a situationrnthat looks unlikely to change for the better any time soon. Newrntechnolog)’ may help a little bit—depending on the characterrnof the people who control it. Small presses, operating with lowrnoverhead and modest goals, may keep the idea of literaturernalive, if not well, in the future. Right now some of the universityrnpresses are doing some good books and picking up where thernbig commercial houses have failed. But a glance at the universityrnpress books advertised in PMLA does not inspire hope forrnthe future. Read the catalogue of Stanley Fish’s Duke Universit}-rnPress. .. and weep.rnTony Outhwaite tries his level best to finish off his reportrnwith some faint prospect of hope in the form of the “promisingrnyoung editors from a variety of trade publishers.” I wish I couldrnshare his optimism. I will try, always, however, rememberingrnmy Universitv’ of Virginia student (a victim of TV like aU of hisrngeneration) who wrote that his favorite American author is “EpcottrnFitzgerald.” And another one, more tv’pical of the risingrngeneration of non-readers, who wrote that he suffered fromrn”low self of steam.” At least these young people will escape unscathedrnfrom the ideological clutches of the theoreticians andrngraduate (probably cum laude) as innocent and ignorant asrnwhen they arrived and (pardon the expression) matiiculated.rnMAY 1998/23rnrnrn