I NEVER PAID MUCH attention before when critics sang lamentations for the cause of literature and made dire predictions that in so many years time the public, its sensibilities dulled by television, would have lost interest altogether in good writing. It seemed to me that literature, that tough old camp follower of civilization, had looked after herself so well for so many centuries that she could weather any campaign that the combined forces of bad taste and video technology could mount against her.
But now, frankly, I'm worried. The real threat today comes not so much directly from television as it does from within the book publishing industry itself. The conglomerates and communications empires which began taking over publishers one by one in the '60s have apparently begun applying a rigid cost-accounting philosophy to their publishing acquisitions. And as a result, there seems a new determination on the part of many of them to bring out only those books that are sure to make money -- either best-seller candidates a la Belva Plain's Evergreen and the latest gimmicky thriller by Robert Ludlum, or the kind of self-help and homecraft books that inevitably pay for themselves and may even pop up on the nonfiction side of the list. They are after not much more than numbers -- and numbers (the ratings game) were what murdered television in the cradle.
This being the case, it grows increasingly difficult for a general reader, such as myself, to look back on the year's publishing with anything more than disappointment. Admittedly, my view is limited. It may turn out that 1978 was a banner year for books on, say, medieval history -- and the appearance of Barbara Tuchman's a d/istant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (Knoft, $15.95) suggests that this could possibly be so. Maybe hers is just the tip of the iceberg, that part visible to the public of a great body of important work done in the field and published this year. But how am I to know? Even reading her book with pleasure, as I have, all I can do is admire her prose style and the forceful way she has of organizing and relationg facts. Whether or not her syntheses and conclusions are correct I couldn't tell you. But taken as literature, as even works of history must finally be, A Distant Mirror would be a notable book in this or any other year.
Although it is both the longest and least of his books of autobiography, Alfred Kazin's New York Jew (Knoft, $10.95) was particularly welcome to me as a memoir of a life lived unabashedly as a professional man of letters. When anthropologists of the postliterary future want to know what it was like back when books really mattered they have only to dip into Kazin to find out. Malcolm Cowley's And I Worked at the Writer's Trade (Viking, $12.50), which seemed to promise so much in the same vein, was by comparison rather a disappointment. Where Kazin risked embarrassment and occasionally even a reader's contempt, Cowley ventured very little, content to toss off unrelated reminiscences in a breezy, impersonal style.
The kind of old-fashioned literary life is perhaps even better exmplified by novelists such as Elizabeth Bowen. (Such as? Where is her like today?) Victoria Glendinning's biography of this Anglo-Irish writer, probably the last who will ever be classified as such, not only presents the events of her life quite frankly (including illicit affairs, snubs and feuds), but also relates them reasonably to her fiction. Ultimately, Elizabeth Bowen (Knopf, $12.50), as it is straightforwardly titled, does what every such biography should do and sends you back to the novelist's work. This continuing devidend -- I'm up to The Heat of the Day -- has been for me the book's greatest benefit.
Which brings us to fiction, where the new realities of publishing have had the most dampening effect of all. Even fairly well-known writers are finding it difficult to get their books before the public if those books do not fit into some tried-and-true category (spy thriller, historical romance, etc.) or cannot be reduced to a catchy outline. I picked up a novel by an established Southern author the other day, and I was surprised to see that it had been published by a university press -- but not before it had been turned down by the commercial houses you can bet! However, there is some hope: a writer like Wilfrid Sheed has a following as well as a critical reputation. And when he writes a first-rate novel such as this year's Transatlantic Blues (Dutton, $9.95), it can be depended upon to sell at least as well as a mystery.
And there is always room for an international blockbuster best seller such as Gunter Grass's The Flounder (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $10.95). And in this case, all the excitement stirred up on the other side of the Atlantic is more than justified. A chaotic, energetic mess of a novel, so much more easily read than described, it explores the relations between male and femald from neolithic times to the present moment and concludes that it is time for a new deal.
In a way, the greatest cause for optimism this year is Mary Gordon's Final Payments (Random House, $8.95). Although it may not be quite up to novels by old hands such as William Kennedy (Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, Viking, $8.95) or even Louis Auchincloss (The County Cousin, Houghton Mifflin, $8.95), nevertheless it is an excellent first novel by a writer who is likely to prove very important indeed. Especially at this time, it is on such debuts as hers that hopes must focus.