Mass culture, best-sellerism, and the future of literature
From an essay by Philip Van Doren Stern that was first published in Virginia Quarterly Review in January 1942, immediately after America’s entry into the Second World War and several decades into the rise of modern mass culture:
Bookselling itself has changed. It has taken a lesson from the department store which long ago learned that it did not pay to stock thousands of titles when it was more profitable to promote a few vigorously and take orders for the others only if the customer insisted on having them. This stripped-stock method of merchandising obviously favors the bestseller. The book clerk naturally tries to persuade the customer to take a title from stock; books that are not displayed are not likely to be purchased; and if the customer asks for “a good book” the clerk will, of course, attempt to sell him one which he knows has already met with approval. (It should not be forgotten that the store makes more profit from buying a large quantity of one title at a long discount.) Stripped-stock selling has become so firmly established that the sales manager of one large publishing house candidly admits that it is easier to sell a store a hundred copies of a book the publisher is going to promote heavily than it is to persuade it to take even two copies of a good substantial book for which no ballyhoo is promised.
. . . Damning the best-seller is very much like cursing at our machine civilization. It is part and parcel of the world in which we live, as normal to our mode of existence as the automobile, as sure to continue with us as the machines themselves. It traces its ancestry back to Gutenberg; it received a terrific impetus from the invention of the steam rotary press, and every mechanical and social change since then has served to establish it more firmly. It is here to stay, no matter what form our economic system takes.
In a world which faces vast revolutionary upheavals the problem of best-sellerism may seem trivial. Actually it is not, for as has been shown, the best-seller is closely allied with the forces that are shaping our age. And if one believes that literature is important, the influence of the best-seller on publishing merits careful examination and analysis. It is not absurd to suppose that historians of the future will write elaborate treatises showing how the literature of the first half of the twentieth century was molded by mass audiences who got their reading matter in the form of best-sellers. We know the effect a small, highly educated circle of readers had upon the literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. We have seen how Dickens was able to dominate the nineteenth century novel by means of the steam press and serially issued installments. Surely it is not unreasonable to believe that millions of readers devouring millions of machine-made books will leave their impress upon the literature of our time.
The effect this mass audience may have upon literature is not easily forecast, yet one can already perceive certain tendencies. Everything is subordinated to the story; characters simply further the action without having any inner significance of their own; the deep underlying motives which govern human behavior are slighted because they hold up a rapidly moving narrative; atmosphere and background become nuisances which impede the progress of the plot, and philosophical speculation is ruled out entirely. Our novels are becoming as rigidly streamlined as our airplanes or automobiles; our non-fiction is written in a high-grade journalese which stems from the penny pamphleteers rather than from the great masters of English prose style.
And our readers who confine themselves to best-sellers are like motorists whose chief aim in life is to cover six hundred miles a day. You see very little while driving at seventy miles an hour — you gather very little from the galloping pages of a breathless narrative. Both are fun while they last, but what can be remembered of them except bright streaks of color, the feeling of rapid movement, and a temporary sense of excitement? The hurrying traveler is isolated by his speed; to his narrowly concentrated vision the world becomes a twenty-foot strip of road. Another six hundred miles — or pages — and he is just where he began. In his mad haste he has seen nothing, experienced nothing. Far back from the highway down which he raced there were a hundred towns and villages whose existence he did not even suspect. In them life goes on, lived in all its fullness, but what can be grasped of life or literature by a man who takes only the main-traveled roads and who never attempts to explore for himself anything that lies beyond the horizon’s rim?
More: “Books and Best-Sellers“