Dispatches | January 17, 2007

In a previous issue of TMR I wrote about the publishing industry’s often repeated claim that they don’t really know anything about literary buyers — who they are, where they are, why they buy books — and that from this cloud of self-imposed ignorance they aim too many books for the lowest common denominator.  Several readers have emailed or talked with me and asked me to describe how publishing has changed from its earlier years.

The short answer is that at least in a certain way, both publishing and entertainment have changed surprisingly little.

Literature has always had a shaky reputation among publishers.  When a vigorous market began to develop in England in the late 17th century, publishers put out mostly rough-and-ready writing intended for entertainment.  There were popular genres for humor, sentimentality, romance, and titillation.  Judging by surviving examples, virtually all of this writing was ephemeral and, except for the interests of linguists and literary archaeologists, just as well lost.  Much of it consisted of execution broadsheets and pamphlets-brief, hastily written descriptions of criminals, their crimes, trials, and executions, often in doggerel verse so that it could be “cry’d” aloud to illiterate audiences.  Because of the demand for such crime writing, it didn’t have to be cleverly written to earn a few shillings for its sellers. Well into the 19th century,such stuff was still being hawked in the street and recited at gatherings. Consider, for instance, that foul example of womankind, Mrs. Winsor of Exeter, presumably hanged  “for the barbarous murder of Mary Jane Harris’s child” in 1866.

Those children belong to some poor girl
That had been lead astray
Mrs. Winsor would take them to nurse
As long as they would pay.
She would murder them — yes, strangle them
For this paltry gain,
By putting them between beds
Or pressing the jugular vein.

 According to “The Exeter Working Papers in British Book Trade History,” this ditty, illustrated by a crude woodcut of a gallows, goes on to describe Mrs. Winsor’s struggle to the death on the gallows.

Today’s market in crime entertainment, if anything, has grown in percentage terms.  Among fiction titles it is now reputed to be about a third of all that is published.  Television drama is dominated by programs concerning the evil deeds of criminals and their arrests and trials, most of which are about as realistic as the crime verse of 1800: Law and Order’s reassuringly stylized scenes separated by stanza-marking “ting-chunk” sounds, plods toward the inevitable triumph of justice, as do newer programs starring clever dissectors with a low-enough cleavage and tight-enough dress to wake the dead.  They chop out their victims’ livers feelingly while trusty geek-cop sidekicks clatter away on computers and in one dramatic beat find out the average iodine content of Lake Oomchowa near Nairobi during the 1945 rainy season.  One has to wonder if we haven’t somehow been marching in place since Mrs. Winsor was pressing on those jugular veins.

In my next blog, I’ll say a bit more about strange similarities of today’s publishing industry but talk more about the Big Difference.

Speer Morgan