The book publishers have gone home, clearing the Washington Convention Center for the next dog-and-pony show and leaving in their wake a not entirely agreeable odor. The 1987 American Booksellers Association convention may have been a smash hit in commercial terms, but in artistic ones it left a great deal to be desired; the primary impression the ABA imparted was of an industry so hellbent on profit, so cynically intent on milking the lowest common denominator for every available dollar, that it has abandoned all but the pretense of serving the literary and cultural good.
To be sure, as any veteran of ABA conventions knows, they have always been occasions when the less exalted side of book publishing moves to center stage. The ABA is a time for the book business to go glitzy: for lavish, if not ludicrous, displays on the convention floor; for extravagant parties thrown to honor books and authors of extremely dubious literary credentials; for autograph sessions by "authors" who may never have laid eyes on the original manuscripts of their own books. No one pretends that the ABA is a "literary" event; it is the book industry's annual exercise in flamboyance, and everyone accepts it as such.
It has always been understood, though, that the flamboyance is a brief and aberrant departure from the industry's norm. The ABA is assumed to be a peculiar and artificial occasion because the book industry is assumed to be congenitally uncomfortable with show biz; book people like to think that at the ABA they are just going through the motions of rank commercialism, that at its end they toss aside their sequined garments and turn back, with relief, to the good gray flannels of literary respectability.
In the past there was ample evidence of this. Major publishers may have emphasized their glossiest fall books at the ABA, but one could always find, in their catalogues and in private conversations with editors and publicists, much to indicate that they were busily publishing serious writing: fiction, nonfiction and poetry that might or might not sell but that fulfilled publishing's traditional role as guardian and promoter of the literary and intellectual life. The commercial books were seen as embarrassments, as moneymakers that would help underwrite the rest of a publisher's list but that were not really in character with what his house regarded as its true nature.
At the 1987 ABA, though, one had to look long and hard among the major New York and Boston publishers to find catalogues that fit this description or publishers' representatives who were able to talk with any real enthusiasm or conviction about the noncommercial aspects of those catalogues. Viewed from the perspective of a few years hence, the 1987 ABA convention may be seen as something of a watershed in the history of American book publishing, as an occasion marking the abandonment of cultural obligations in favor of the headlong pursuit of low commerce.
No doubt readers and reviewers will be able to find, as the fall season progresses, works of interest and distinction in the catalogues of some major publishers, but two decades of experience in examining these catalogues tell me that there are fewer such books than ever before and that publishers' commitments to these books are, with the rarest of exceptions, weaker than they used to be. Doubleday, Harper & Row, Putnam's, Morrow, Random House, Viking, Simon & Schuster -- these and most other high- visibility publishers have assembled lists for the fall of 1987 that a decade ago many, if not all, would have dismissed as beneath them.
There is of course always the possibility that what we have here is not a trend but a fluke; publishing is an unpredictable business in which good lists can follow bad in no apparent pattern and through no apparent design, and no one laments this unpredictability more than publishers themselves. But this time around doesn't look like a fluke. In the first place, the sheer ubiquity of the commercial and the tawdry is too obvious to be dismissed: Everybody's doing it. In the second, the book business has changed in fundamental ways that can only intensify the race for instant profits and discourage dedication to low-profit, long-term investment in serious literature.
The 1987 ABA took place, as it happens, simultaneously with the publication in The New Republic of a withering analysis of "the literary-industrial complex" by Ted Solotaroff, a senior editor at Harper & Row and former editor of New American Review, the distinguished paperback literary journal. The themes of Solotaroff's article are not exactly new, and as in so many such pieces the analysis is far more interesting than the proposed cures, but as a summation of what's going wrong in American book publishing, Solotaroff's article is necessary reading.
What Solotaroff describes is "the subversion of publishing planning and practice by the corporate mentality," a process that has occurred as iconoclastic publishers have sold their houses -- and, it now seems, their souls -- to conglomerates, thus unwittingly abetting and hastening "the transformation of publishing from partly a profession to wholly a business." Big-time publishing, Solotaroff concludes, "has largely sold out its cultural purpose to a commercial one, thereby losing the vision and the energy and the realism that guided and empowered publishers like Knopf, Cerf, Klopfer ... Enoch, Weybright, and others."
"Envy and greed lead one to think big," Solotaroff writes. "Respect and care lead one to think small." Therefore he calls for a recommitment of major houses to so-called "mid-list" books, and he recommends small presses and university presses as the source of serious publishing in the future. But these suggestions do not strike me as especially realistic. The big publishers are unlikely to change course unless editors seize control from corporate "procurement executives"; the university presses have thus far shown an eagerness to publish serious fiction that is exceeded only by their ignorance of what constitutes such fiction; and the small presses, some of which indeed do excellent work, tend to be underfinanced and poorly distributed.
To say all of this is not to say that book publishing in the United States has suddenly gone into an irreversible decline. Most serious and important work still gets into print, and as older publishers lapse into complacency and greed, new ones are born to assume the responsibilities they have forfeited; the outlook is probably neither as gloomy as Solotaroff portrays it nor as bleak as it looked on the floor of the ABA. But there can be no question that book publishing has joined the rest of American culture in entering the age of trivialization and sensation, the age of the 30-second attention span and 15-minute fame. It is an age inherently inhospitable to seriousness, and therefore one in which responsible publishing will become ever more difficult, ever more rare.