The following essay is adapted from an address by Neal Gabler, chair of the nonfiction panel of the National Book Awards, delivered at the awards ceremony in New York last November 17. Gabler’s fellow judges were Buzz Bissinger, Sylvia Nasar, Nell Painter, and Christina Rathbone. The committee awarded the NBA for Nonfiction to John W. Dower for Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II.
Recently, there has been a great deal of handwringing among publishing professionals over the threatened obsolescence of the printed word in the face of new technologies. Electronic books, so-called "e-books," that can either be read over portable appliances specifically designed for that purpose or can be downloaded from the Internet are said to be the wave of the future. Paper and binding will, it has been prophesied, go the way of the horse and buggy. Even more calamitous to publishers, the very importance of the written word is threatened by visual technologies in our increasingly visual culture. Some Cassandras think the danger to publishing isn’t that people will be toting e-books with them. The danger is that people will stop reading books altogether.
Frankly, I think we should be less concerned about the digital and the visual and more concerned about the strategies that are now being deployed to keep literature relevant in the age of mass media–strategies that elevate the accessible and entertaining at the expense of the challenging and edifying. One has only to look at the best-seller lists–at the books that publishers, booksellers, and publishing media support most heavily and enthusiastically–to see the real danger, and that danger isn’t that people will stop reading. It is that people are reading only for distraction. Books that don’t distract won’t get supported, won’t get written about, won’t get sold, and won’t get read.
There has, alas, never really been a golden age of American literature when the books that sold best were the best books and the authors who were most valorized were those most deserving of valorization. But there once was, I suspect, a time, not even so long ago, when writers and publishers were possessed by a sense of dual mission. Yes, one had to publish books that sold because publishing was and is, after all, a business. Yet one also wanted to write and publish books that aspired to greatness–books that could stir the soul, not just tickle the fancy, books that could occasionally even rock the society, not just reinforce our complacency within it. One may feel that time rapidly receding from us, leaving publishers with only one mission: to move books.
The pressures to regard books as just another amusement to be hyped like other amusements are tremendous, not only because most major publishing companies are now global entertainment conglomerates fixated on the bottom line but also because the competition for reading time has grown so much stiffer. One is less likely to be pondering which book to read than to be pondering whether to read or watch television, go to a movie, or surf the Internet. To encourage consumers to choose reading over these other options all too often means creating a book in the image of these other options.
That is why now more than ever literature needs protection. It needs protection from booksellers obsessed with the hottest thing rather than the best thing; from book critics who are less interested in intellectually engaging a work than in dispensing opinion because opinion gets more attention; from publishers who care less about marketing good books than about books that make for good marketing; from book awards that promote the fiction that only five works in each category are worthy of recognition; and even from authors who are increasingly tempted to write marketing campaigns in the form of a book because, understandably, they want to be read. In short, we must protect our literature from ourselves.
It is a bad situation, and it is likely to get much worse. But it is not hopeless. The very weakness of publishing–the fact that so few people read and that a book can stay near the top of the bestseller lists for a year with fewer than 200,000 copies sold–is also, ironically, a cause for optimism. The five nominees for the National Book Award in Nonfiction attest to the fact that exceptional books do get published–books that are intelligent, moving, illuminating, beautifully crafted and masterfully written, even entertaining. Unfortunately, their publishers, booksellers, and the media haven’t supported them; there has been virtually no advertising for any of these books after the nominations were announced, no articles have been written about them since their original reviews, and my own very unscientific survey of bookstores suggests that the books have not been segregated where interested readers could easily find them. Nor is this sort of neglect likely to change, since it is the product of a deeply held belief among publishing professionals that readers want entertainment. Still, precisely because the reading public is so small, a minor redeployment of resources to worthwhile books like these might actually get people to buy and read them. It is a matter of reestablishing priorities.
For that to happen, however, publishing professionals would have to revive their role as custodians of our literary culture. They would once again have to embrace their mission–the mission of which these nominees remind us. That mission, lest we forget, is both to sell books and to provide a literature.