You can always count on a dead New York Intellectual for a quote that bears repeating. Terry Teachout (in an appreciation of the nearly forgotten writer Edwin O'Connor) just excavated this truism from the pen of Edmund Wilson: "a literary intellectual objects to nothing so much as a best-selling book that also possesses real merit."
Read today, the line takes on a poignancy that Wilson couldn't have intended, for he lived in an era when works of genuine aesthetic value (Salinger, Bellow, Pynchon, Mailer, Faulkner, Baldwin) commonly appeared on the bestseller lists. In fact, Faulkner's later, lesser novels were 'popular' enough to be Book of the Month Club selections, as was Richard Wright's Native Son. Difficult contemporary literary fiction from Faulkner to Sartre to Celine was sold in cheap paperback editions with sensational pulpy covers intended to appeal to a mass audience. (Imagine that: publishers marketing 'literature' to the working class...Those Mad Men weren't all bad. They realized that in the days before Fox News and American Idol, it wasn't unusual for working people to actually read books. I wish that aspect of those bad old days would return, but chances are slimmer than Pickens.) A glance at today's bestseller list shows how far we've come--in the wrong direction. Further evidence is provided by the fate of John Sayles' A Moment in the Sun, a big, bulging, authentically populist historical novel that should have won the Pulitzer Prize last year (quick, name the novel that did). Instead, it was rejected by the big publishers, and Sayles (who's not exactly Mr. Unknown Writer) ended up publishing it at McSweeney's (kudos to them). When I read the book, I couldn't help thinking that if it had been completed ca.1983, Random House or Simon & Schuster would've jumped on it, marketed it as "even better than Michener," and it would've sold millions of copies. It could have been a fine example of that increasingly spectral "best-selling book that also possesses real merit." Instead, it seems destined for cult status, at best.
Anyone who electronically laments the passing of the book or the culturally significant novel tends to meet with the typical 'technological utopian' reply, which I paraphrase: It's the best imaginable time to be a writer. Digital technology allows writers to self-publish in minutes and bypass the now-obsolete publishing industry. Stop your whining and start collecting the profits from your e-books. To which I reply in advance: Some kind of gatekeeping apparatus is necessary in book publishing, since we still live in a society in which anyone who is literate imagines he can 'write.' The trouble with throwing publication open to everyone is that everyone publishes, and works of Wilsonian 'real merit' tend to be lost in a Deepwater Horizon-size slick of pseudo-literate sludge. I'm not saying that online publishing is like pissing in the ocean. I'm saying it's like pissing in the Amazon. (And old Bill Burroughs told us about the dangers of that, didn't he?)