If you do what I do for a living--read, review and occasionally write books--and if from time to time you are invited to speak where two or three like-minded folk are gathered together, sooner or later you will be asked: Can book publishing survive the conglomerates? Or: Is there any hope for literature at a time when the only line that counts is the bottom line?
The question is a cliche by now and so, inevitably, is the weak answer that is the best I can offer: The conglomerates are driving the "mid-list" author away from the big trade houses, but this doesn't mean that serious writing--fiction, poetry, criticism, history, what have you--is dead, only that it will now be published in other places, notably the smaller houses that have cropped up to fill the void.
The answer is good enough so far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough. It is one thing to say that the small publishers will pick up the slack--more power to them--but it is quite another to look squarely at what is happening at the big houses where for so long both the letter and the spirit of serious literature were nurtured and promulgated. The truth is that nothing short of a revolution has taken place there, and that its repercussions appear to be entirely deleterious.
That gloomy thought was inspired last week by the arrival of a fat package containing the fall catalogues of Random House, the most famous American publisher, and its several subsidiaries. (Full disclosure: Two of my six books were published by Random House and two by Villard, a subsidiary thereof.) For so long as I have been reading book catalogues--nearly 3 1/2 decades--the fall and spring Random House packages have been among the year's highlights, but of late the anticipation with which I open them has turned to apprehension, if not dread.
To be sure, there are titles in the fall lists of Random House, Knopf, Pantheon et al. that look promising, as well as a few new editions of worthwhile and substantial books. Overall, though, the impression they convey is of herd-driven marketing and cynical commercialism, an impression reinforced by the simultaneous appearance of the nearly identical catalogue of Simon & Schuster, the only American publisher that rivals Random House in size and clout.
Most particularly, it is in the fall catalogue of the Modern Library that there is the most to mourn. That celebrated imprint, founded in 1917 and subsequently acquired by Bennett Cerf as the cornerstone upon which Random House was constructed, is by its own proud declaration a compendium of "The World's Best Books," and for generations readers have accepted that claim without dispute. Two years ago, in a brief introduction to the first Modern Library edition of Frederick Exley's "A Fan's Notes," I speculated about how thrilled Exley would have been to have his book chosen for such an honor, and wrote:
" . . . for a bookish person of Fred's generation--mine, too, though he was a decade older than I--the Modern Library was the literary equivalent of the Baseball Hall of Fame: Selection thereto was conclusive confirmation of a literary work's immortality, and thus its author's. The Modern Library still enjoys much the same distinction, but now there are many other 'libraries' that choose what they represent as the classics of world literature and publish them in hardcover or paperback. In Fred's day, there was the Modern Library and little else, certainly nothing else to rival its prestige."
All of a sudden, though, the Modern Library has transformed itself from rigorous champion of "The World's Best Books" into just another reprint house, virtually indistinguishable from another Random House imprint, Vintage. It now publishes paperbacks as well as the handsome, handy little hardcovers once so beloved by millions of readers, and the only apparent criterion for choosing the books it publishes is marketability.
Thus the fall 1999 catalogue of the Modern Library includes a "Modern Library Original" entitled "Erogenous Zones: An Anthology of Sex Abroad" and another "original," "The Cost of Living," by Arundhati Roy, whose chief distinction seems to be that she is "the best-selling author of 'The God of Small Things'--which has sold more than 750,000 copies." Thus there is a "tie-in edition" of Joseph Mitchell's "Joe Gould's Secret," which is "republished to coincide with the release of the feature film."
Thus there are new titles in the "Modern Library Exploration Series," which seems to have little to do with the actual merits of the books included and everything to do with cashing in on the vogue for "Into Thin Air" and "The Perfect Storm" and such. Thus there is a new series, "Modern Library, the Movies," with four titles chosen, according to Martin Scorsese, to "appeal to movie lovers and film professionals alike." Finally, most egregiously of all, is a Modern Library edition of "Working on God," by Winifred Gallagher, a smug exercise in New Age self-satisfaction that the editors of the Modern Library have the gall to place on a page facing that occupied by "Selected Dialogues of Plato."
Yes, of course it is true that the Modern Library has always kept an eye on the bottom line; it's the American way. But once upon a not very distant time it also stood for things that in the long run count for more, literary merit chief among them. The conglomerates are running the show now, though, and literary merit . . . ? Fuggedaboudit.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is email@example.com.