Monday, November 15, 2010

"It belongs to to a time when people read books. Nobody does that now," Or, Edith Wharton on publishing's long death watch

After last week's post about the remarkably long time that people in publishing have been pointing out that publishing is dying, I was pleased to come across a passage that extends the book's morbidity another half-century.

The passage comes from Edith Wharton's "Expiation," which was originally published in Cosmopolitan in 1908; nowadays it can be found in the wonderful NYRB Classics collection The New York Stories of Edith Wharton. "Expiation" is a brief, slightly mechanical satire on authorship, publishing, and respectability, and it tells the story of Mrs. Fetherel, who has just published her first novel, the racily titled expose of upper-class immorality Fast and Loose . . . to disappointingly non-censorious reviews. She laments to her friend Mrs. Clinch, who replies:
"Oh, the reviewers," Mrs. Clinch jeered. She gazed meditatively at the cold remains of her tea-cake. "Let me see," she said, suddenly: "Do you happen to remember if the first review came out in an important paper?"

"Yes--the Radiator."

"That's it! I thought so. Then the others simply followed suit: they often do if a big paper sets the pace. Saves a lot of trouble. Now if you could only have got the Radiator to denounce you--"

"That's what [my Uncle] the Bishop said!" cried Mrs. Fetherel.

"He did?"

"He said his only chance of selling [his own book] Through a Glass Brightly was to have it denounced on the ground of immorality."

"H'm," said Mrs. Clinch, "I thought he knew a trick or two." She turned an illuminated eye on her cousin. "You ought to get him to denounce Fast and Loose!" she cried.

Mrs, Fetherel looked at her suspiciously. "I suppose every hook must stand or fall on its own merits," she said in an unconvinced tone.

"Bosh! That view is as extinct as the post-chaise and the packet-ship--it belongs to the time when people read books. Nobody does that now; the reviewer was the first to set the example, and the public were only too thankful to follow it. At first they read the reviews; now they read only the publishers' extracts from them. Even these are rapidly being replaced by paragraphs borrowed from the vocabulary of commerce. I often have to look twice before I am sure if I am reading a department-store advertisement or the announcement of a new batch of literature. The publishers will soon be having their 'fall and spring openings' and their 'special importations for Horse-Show Week.' But the Bishop is right, of course--nothing helps a book like a rousing attack on its morals; and as the publishers can't exactly proclaim the impropriety of their own wares, the task has to be left to the press or the pulpit."
The golden age was never as golden as memory's made it, the fallen present never as tarnished as the Jeremiahs would have us believe.


  1. Honestly, I don't read books, whenever I start reading books, I become sleepy. But when the material is on the screen, then that makes me awake. Probably, I agreed with that statement.

  2. Totally agree to the statement and also to hizuka's comment. Found an interesting article a few years ago in an Indian daily. The last line of the article completely tells the complete story. It was, "Books are not made for furniture, but there is nothing else that so beautifully furnishes a house."


  3. Change is such a boogieman, it's been happening since the dawn of time, and every time change happens, people over-react to it and start carrying their doomsday signs around. I love resisting change just because that's my nature, but eventually, I make sense of it and get "it" to work for me. As a reader and an author, I'm on the fence about this 'death watch' of the publishing industry and the death of the printed book. (Shoot, they said the same thing about painting in the mid-80's when I first walked into art school with a portfolio full of pretty pictures and some fool professor with pompous over-dramatic diarrhea of the mouth tried to load the new painting majors heads with this post-modernist crap...psst, painting is still here.)

    I believe books in all forms (print and digital) will still be here, writers will still write more, readers will still read them, and there will be publishers publishing them. Things are changing, so what, go with it! There are plenty of writers with books to publish, it's not like we've all dried up and died at our laptops. I wish people stop crying about it and get to work to make it better. Anyway...that's how I see it from my size 6 1/2's...great post.

  4. I'm far more interested by the publishing comments. The only way to sell a book is by having it denounced? Curious that these days... well, it still works but I wouldn't say it's a publishers first choice for marketing. Better to mimic, right?

    Fascinating stuff.