By Swéta Rana, future sheet music publisher.
“The importance of the critical faculty in the publisher’s reader dwindled, while the faculty of gauging the public mind and guessing what would sell became increasingly valuable … a purely commercial affair” – Encyclopaedia Britannica 11, 1911
Publishing was given a damning indictment in 1911. Apparently fiction publishers have little to no regard for literary merit, instead seeking to make money from undiscerning readers who, it seems, will read any old thing. Greedy, conniving publishers churn out mind-numbing material for financial gain. The common intellect is dying, and publishers don’t give a damn – in fact, they’re savouring it.
This description of publishing relies on the concept of quality. There must be a distinction between literature of great quality which is intellectually stimulating to readers, and that of lower quality which is intellectually stunting. Shakespeare has to be more worthwhile than a book by, say, Sophie Kinsella – it is of higher quality, intrinsically ‘better’. There is an immutable difference between good and bad writing, and the publishers’ mass output of popular writing is, seemingly, bad.
In Ancient Greece, Plato declared a similar stance. Deriding emotional poetry which stirred the passions, he claimed that such literature was harmful – it steered people away from pure philosophical truths, which can’t be reached through emotions. It was bad writing, sheer entertainment. In contrast, he named other literature good, but only that which directed readers towards truth (such as, funnily enough, his own works).
The epics of Homer, Hesiod and others that Plato dismissed as low quality are now almost universally regarded as the pinnacle of great intellectual reading. Yet, seen as reliant on sentiment and relatable situations, they were practically the chick-lit of Plato’s day. ‘Quality’ is too subjective to declare as truly inherent in any piece of literature. These once scorned poems are now held up as classics. And it isn’t simply time that changes perception, either. Yann Martel’s agent Derek Johns claims modern masterpiece Life of Pi was initially rejected by at least five major publishing houses, and Penguin editor Simon Prosser admitted to being one of those who disliked the manuscript: “I hold up my hand. Taste is very subjective.”
Simon is right – taste is very subjective. Someone might prefer Sophie Kinsella’s warm, relatable stories to Shakespeare, just as another might dislike Life of Pi, or reject Homer as poor writing. Whilst it is true that the majority will often agree on certain things – for example, that Romeo and Juliet is better than Confessions of a Shopaholic – these claims are not unshakeable. It’s conceivable for Kinsella to be as greatly regarded as Homer; the thought is perhaps as unthinkable to us as reverence of Homer would have been to Plato.
The notions of what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ reside in an entirely subjective realm. The quality of literature lies in how different people react to writing. These individuals unite to form a market which can publishers analyse, and fit production of material to. If publishing is commercial, this is because taste, quality and artistic merit are all somewhat commercial too. They are not unwavering attributes, but are decided by many subjective viewpoints coming together. Books cannot be ‘good’ or bad’ until people decide what they think of them.