By last count, there are 300,000 books published every year, and that number doubles when you include self-published books. Purely and simply, more books see the light of day than are seen by our own shining lights — and very few shine light on complex issues or offer guiding beams of wisdom to a broad range of readers. Although I used to joke that the university press for which I once worked published books that would be read by only three people, maybe five if the author’s family bought a copy to pass around, that gallows humor cuts closer to the truth than any publisher would care to admit. The stage grows even darker when we admit that of that unimaginable number of books, only a very small percentage will ever been seen by any of us. Amazon remains as clunky a search device as it has always been and is a disastrous excuse of an “online bookstore” with its facile algorithms. Amazon limits the joy of serendipitous discovery, and while it may carry every title under the sun, trying finding some of those titles.
Are publishers publishing too many books? Assuredly. Can they help themselves? No. Since trade publishing is a bottom-line business and publishers must weigh costs versus — and this is true of university presses as well; cost and revenue are always deciding factors in whether or not to publish books, even though “scholarly contribution” (publishing to the three people interested in the topic) continues to enter the equation — and as long as publishers pay high advances and royalties on books, publishers will stock their larders with sausages, the books into which they throw offal, as well as filets, those that will bring the highest return to the company.
At stake here is our very soul. Have we made a Faustian bargain in which we’ve allowed everybody to be a writer so that nobody is a writer? Self-publishing flattened the landscape of art, as did blogs. When did Goodreads or Amazon reviews replace the New York Review of Books or Washington Post Book World, to take only a few examples, as the critical arbiters of our time? Do we any longer possess an ideal of art? If so, how do we articulate it? Living up to an ideal does involve judgment and an aesthetic canon. Are we any longer as a culture willing to hold such an ideal of art?
While I don’t often think of myself as an idealist, Mark Edmundson’s new book, Self and Soul: A Defense of Ideals (Harvard University Press), got me thinking about art, literature, and music and whether or not we’re willing to declare that a book or a record simply fails to live up to the ideal of art. As Edmundson proclaims: “Anything that can possibly be called art is. Constantly we are pushing the boundaries of art in the interest of what seems to be an aesthetic populism … any man with a pencil who can juggle words is a poet, despite the fact that he has nothing to say, only some semi-agreeable sounds to make … . Art is everywhere: art is omnipresent … . Yet there is a problem. Almost none of it is art … . As long as you do not evoke the needs of anything higher than the Self, and you can proceed with some polish or eloquence, then an artist is what you are.”
We live in a soulless world where black velvet Elvis paintings and mass-reproduced prints of poker-playing dogs or mass-produced watercolor prints of craggy landscapes decorate homes and hotel rooms. We elevate self over soul, so that erotic photographs in pornography are accepted by our culture as art and the soulful Eros of poetry loses the power to change individuals, to transform their souls and hearts, and to change the world itself. Edmundson argues that the ideal of art finds its highest expression, of course, in the Romantic poetry of William Blake and William Wordsworth, yet even such poetry fails in these days to transform: “The detractors of Romanticism continue to fight against the idea that Eros, taken up into the imagination, can change the world or some fraction of it—and they have, in general, won at least a temporary victory. We no longer look to poets, and particularly not to Romantic poets, past or present, as sources of existential wisdom. But this may change.”
I am not entirely convinced by Edmundson’s defense of the ideal of art, but his vigorous questions regarding the power of art to change hearts and lives do give me pause about the glut of books and music in our world today. Using early hip-hop as an example, Rodney Crowell told me recently that the “cutting edge of hip-hop was based on poetry, but as it became more commercialized it lost its poetry.” The same, he pointed out, can be said of today’s so-called country-flavored music. Now, I don’t know whether Crowell would call himself an idealist, at least in Edmundson’s sense, and we ran out of time before I could ask him, but he’s pointing directly to a loss in the move from soulful poetry to prosaic and self-indulgent commercialized cultural products. For him, Jason Isbell, Charlie Worsham, and John Paul White are poets on our scene, chasing a narrative without regard to commercialism.
More and more, though, I do think Wordsworth was right that the “world is too much with us; late and soon/getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;/little we see in Nature that is ours;/we have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!” We’ll keep publishing too many books and releasing too many records, celebrating self — the obscene celebration of self is, after all, at the heart of the election of the 45th president, who himself is a perfect example of the soullessness of a culture that could elect a reality TV (which passes as art for many people) star to the highest office in the land — as we lose our souls. As Dylan Thomas counsels in a fitting word for our time: “Do not go gentle into that good night … Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”