Who Decides What Books are Worthwhile?

I watched Incognito the other day, a story about an art forger. One of the most interesting bits of dialogue was when a gallery owner says (screams it, actually) that whatever he says is art, that is art. The comment caught my attention because lately I’ve been blogging about the publishing industry, the writing community, and where (or how) I fit into this modern world of books. And a big part of that equation is the meaning of art as it applies to writing.

I have no fondness for the corporate publishers. For the most part, the books they’ve been publishing for a long time now seem boring and trivial, and hold no real truth for me. I am not one who can read the zillionth book in a series and still maintain my interest in the characters. The writers I have always liked are non-literary authors, such as David Westheimer and Nevil Shute, who wrote stand-alone books that did not fit into any particular genre. (To me a literary author is one who is more focused on how something is said than on what is said, and who is more focused on what is said than on the story itself.) In fact, the very reason I decided to write my own books was that I could no longer find the sort of novels I liked to read.

On the other hand, I have no special fondness for self-publishers. Many write the same sort of drivel that the major publishers put out — trivial books that lack individuality and truth. Even worse, many are badly written, and the plethora of errors shows a complete disregard for readers. Originally, I assumed these writers who go it alone were better than those published by the corporations, since the major publishers seem to specialize in a high degree of mediocrity, but unfortunately, the reverse is too often the case. Worst of all, in an effort to get noticed and make a living, many authors write a book every three or four months. Without time to think, without the grueling months of rewriting, editing and copyediting, authors will be foisting increasing numbers of less than stellar books on the market.

In this avalanche of books, what distinguishes one from another? Who decides what is worth reading? Who decides what books will succeed? The critics? Just because they say a book is worthwhile doesn’t mean that it is. Some of the books that have won major awards stun me with their ghastliness. The corporate publishers? The books they choose aren’t picked for worth; they are chosen for salability. The masses who self-publish? The masses who read? (I hate using the word “masses,” because really, who among us ever considers themselves one of the masses? But I can’t think of a better one to describe huge numbers of people who do the same thing as everyone else.) Look at the self-published books that have achieved icon-hood — few have little value as literature or art, few have a modicum of “truth.”

So who is to decide what is art or literature? My books are published by a small press, and so are the books by many writers I have met online. Someday, maybe, these small presses will provide a literary haven between the two extremes of self-publishing and corporate publishing, but the truth is, no one has to decide what books are art, which books have merit. It doesn’t matter.

In the beginning, stories were told wherever humans gathered. It is one of the very few things that separate us from any other species — our ability to tell stories. It is what makes us human. Perhaps even what makes us divine. We are a species of mythmakers, telling ourselves the story of our lives, telling each other the stories of other lives, both real and imagined.

The pen was the first great technological advance in story telling, followed by the printing press. The printing press allowed certain businesses to control what stories were told, and that control held true for centuries. Now, in this electronic age, the control is gone, and anyone can publish anything, no matter how terrible. This puts a burden on readers since often they get stuck buying something that is poorly written and badly edited, if edited at all, but this is the way things are going to be for a long time to come.

And perhaps the situation is not such a bad thing. We could be moving away from literature as art (as defined by self-styled critics) and returning to our very beginnings . . .