Are writers cruel?

[This article is a response to a remark by Masha du Toit on Kindleboards: “It seems to me that people are reacting as though the writer wasn’t just depicting cruelty, but was actually being cruel. And when I think about my own opinions of books, I guess I sometimes feel that way myself.” I’ve also adapted the title from her. Thanks, Masha!]

Back in the days of the gentlemen publishers, when a literary novel had a “library print run” of about 2000 copies, you could count on every reader being generally sophisticated enough, and in particular familiar enough with the learned conventions of fiction, to grasp that the writer did not agree with the views of every character or even leading characters, and that the writer was the reporter of a vastly disinterested god’s-eye-view, not a participant.

Around about 1990 the gentlemen publishers were replaced by big conglomerate publishers. The oldstyle publishers had literary quality as their standard. The conglomerates, operated by and answerable to accountants, had popularity as their standard. They consequently widened the readership tremendously. This coincided with the outcome of a decades-long general decline in the quality of public education (I mean “free” here, not the British sense of expensive elite fee schools called “public schools” to distinguish them from being taught at home by private tutors), typified as a flight from the Three R’s of reading, writing and arithmetic, into other “less socially divisive” subjects like basket weaving, truancy and playground drug dealing. The result was a much wider, more demotic, but also less literate audience for a less literary general class of book. There were some good features to this too, but this discussion is about one of the most dangerous of the negative results.

Then came Amazon with their mercenary dream of grabbing the entire e-book market to sell Kindles into, an ambition in which indie publishing was a handy tool. Now anyone, regardless of literary merit or even literacy, could publish a “novel”. Some of them found kindred spirits among the new readers brought in by the ferment of the Kindle itself, and I don’t mean the anoraks and technofreaks (a class I’m closet member of…), I mean people who wouldn’t be seen dead in a library. As an example, The Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson, written at a sub-Robert Ludlum level, sold, the last time I looked, 70m copies, and with the enthusiastic complaisance of journalists was meretriciously boosted as “literature” for the admitted reason that Larsson was a saint of leftwing politics and feminism (in reality rather limply as a political activist though he told interesting lies about his early life, and demonstrably quite the contrary in the second — European left-wingers of Larsson’s Trotskyite stripe are by conviction anti-feminists). A book Andrew McCoy and I wrote exposing the lies behind the promotion of Larsson, and analysing the books, has attracted a great deal of vicious comment from readers who appear to believe that literary criticism is spelt H-A-G-I-O-G-R-A-P-H-Y. (Actually, I liked the books; I’m a Larsson fan; I like Ludlum too; and no, I’m not embarrassed by a taste for cheap literature. But liking cheap thrillers and writing literary criticism are two distinct activities I have no difficulty separating…) Only twenty years ago you could count on most readers knowing what “hagiography” is, or at least where to look it up. Outside of enclaves of culture like Kindleboards, Goodreads, LibraryThing, can you guarantee that today? (Ditto for “disinterested” above, meaning unbiased, not “uninterested”. You read it correctly and passed it over, right? Not everyone would. That’s the difference I’m talking about.) Even the Amazon book fora, where you would expect to find book lovers, are in the control of semi-literate book burners.

This is a bed the education system has made for communicators of any kind to lie on, and writers are just about as guilty as the educational theorists. Frankly, I expect the trend that disturbs Masha, of readers presuming identification between writer and character, between writer and fictional activity, to continue and deepen. What makes it more difficult to counter at this late stage is that it is a natural human tendency, out of which people have to be trained by familiarizing them with the conventions of fiction, usually by reading to them as small children and encouraging them to read during their formative years, and by pro-actively teaching good literature, something now only done in fee-paying private schools.

It’s a horrid symptom of a deeper malaise.

Speak your mind!