Tell Us How You Really Feel, Ursula K. Le Guin

By Neal Comment

“Books are social vectors, but publishers have been slow to see it. They barely even noticed book clubs until Oprah goosed them. But then the stupidity of the contemporary, corporation-owned publishing company is fathomless: they think they can sell books as commodities.”

Ursula K. Le Guin offers her dissenting take on “the alleged decline in reading” in the February Harper’s, suggesting, in essence, that the focus on dwindling percentage points is misguided since “not everybody is up to [reading]” anyhow. “I think books are here to stay,” she declares early on. “It’s just that not all that many people ever did read them. Why should we think everybody ought to now?”

But while Le Guin might not have any particular emotional attachment to the lack of widespread leisure reading, she’s got plenty of scorn for corporate publishers and booksellers and their insistence on chasing after immediate gratification from the marketplace. “Publishing is not, in fact, a normal business with a nice healthy relationship to capitalism,” she insists. But while there’s some truth to what she says about the folly of going all in on one “potential blockbuster” after another, I don’t think anybody really wants to go back to the days of “making just enough, in a good year, to pay binders and editors, modest advances and crummy royalties.” There’s got to be a middle ground where business smarts and artistic achievement both flourish, a slightly better rallying cry than “stable with modest growth!

I found the Le Guin article when Harper’s caught my eye at the newsstand at Love Field last weekend, but it also turned up in NY Times Book Review editor Jennifer Schuessler‘s recap of the recent rhetorical volleys over the death of reading in Paper Cuts, the NYTBR blog. Her post led me to Caleb Crain‘s blog, Steamboats Are Ruining Everything, where he’s been exploring some tangents from his New Yorker take on the “crisis” in reading that are a bit wonkish but certainly worth serious consideration. For instance: “It is possible that the publishing industry took in more revenue even as the average citizen read fewer books and the proportion of readers in the population shrank,” he ventures in one of his early posts on the theme, and then he explains how that could happen.