Discount, if you will, the tablets of Mount Sinai as a special signed edition, and the fact remains that books through the ages have earned humanity’s high regard as semi-sacred objects, Especially in contrast to the daily press, whose product is designed to self-destruct by sunrise next, and to even more artfully created periodicals of opinion and sensation, books have been our truth bearers through the generational divide. But standards change with time, and technology. One generation’s conception of “truth” may be found by its successors as permissive and simplistic. The gentleman publisher of yore, far more concerned with felicity of style and orthodoxy of sentiment than the research methods of his authors; perpetrated more than his share of what we wouId, today, label consumer fraud. Plagiarism was common, attribution of sources often lax, documentation second- and third-hand or by rumor, and scholarship as much a matter of intuition as industry.
It is harder now, and truth a sterner taskmaster. We all know so much more. There are so many machines interconnecting us all, so many books and journals and newspapers from throughout the global village in common circulation. The whole earth is accessible to a writer, and there is scant excuse for getting the details of the landscape wrong, or attributing false folkways to a people, There are so many libraries bursting with source materials–diaries, letters, memoirs, minutes of meetings, transcripts of hearings. There are photocopying machines and tape recorders to help collect it all more precisely. And every field is subdivided into a dozen narrower disciplines each with its pecking order of experts, appraising and assessing. Indeed there is so much raw data out there now at the writer’s disposal that it is nearly impossible to detect small acts of scholarly distortion or manipulation that an author cannot readily defend rationally and probably even metaphysically.
If the writer today may be held to a stricter standard of truth, may less be asked of publishers? The latter, though, appear to have been smitten in a different way from authors by the onslaught of modernity. The camera, the telephone, the phonograph, the movies and, most devastatingly, television, have all profoundly altered reading habits. And so our literature has been forced to complete with forms of communication that numb and transfix rather than stimulate us To gain and hold readers, publishers are turning to wares that are increasingly blatant, increasingly unverifiable, and full of short, easy answers in a world that seems to grow more complex, intractable, and toxic by the month.
Other industrial developments have affected publishers. The paperback has assumed command of the market. Books are now cheap, ubiquitous, disposable without guilt, and delightfully profitable to the communications giants and conglomerates that have absorbed all but a handful of the small, independent houses. Mass production means higher stakes; hoopla and hype attend the launching of the latest list, heavy in escapist fiction of undetectable literary merit and self-help books of dubious need and efficacy. A “publisher” now refers less to a person of refined taste and committed values than to a pIace of business, to an institution, a locus of power and profits. Editors are likely to be rated by the number of six-figure paperback sales their judgment has yielded, not how many National Book Award nominations.
Of course many works of quality are still being published, under the guidance of people who continue to view books as the repository of our best sustained thinking and most precise and graceful expression. But they are receiving proportionally less attention and promotion than the outpouring of meretricious merchandise–pseudo-histories that are half-factual, half-fudgicle; quasi-scientific revelations, filled more with demons than plausible data; recipes for self-shrinkage (of body and soul) that exploit our severest anxieties; memoirs by the celebrated-but-vapid and the discredited-and-still-bitter…. Nevertheless, the serious reading public persists in holding the purveyors of our literature to a standard of integrity unheard of in other industries. We continue to think book people are a special breed, no less spiritual than the talent they superintend. It is an antiquarian notion.