12 Winters Blog

More Ulysses and the monetary value of literature

Posted in May 2010 by Ted Morrissey on May 31, 2010

A couple of days ago I tweeted that I was “#amreading” Ulysses and one of my former students, via Facebook, expressed surprise that I was still reading Ulysses.  I have stopped periodically to focus my reading on other texts — for example, because I’m teaching this African American literature class right now and I’ve revamped the syllabus since the previous go-around, I’ve spent some quality time on classic slave narratives, and last week I took a couple of days to read some Wallace Thurman — but I’m also a slow (and careful) reader, so Ulysses is the sort of text that takes time.  I’ve been chipping away at it since around Christmas, and I’m less than halfway through, working on the “Cyclops” section presently.  The student who made the comment is a good one, and an avid reader.  Still, though, I’ve noticed that young folks — the dwindling few who still read for pleasure — are disinclined to read classics.  I use “classic” here to mean a text that challenges them intellectually, even just a little.  As such, the idea of reading something like Ulysses (an extreme example I realize) becomes increasingly alien to the culture’s mindset.

Something else I wanted to touch on here:  the monetary value of literature (that is, serious contemporary literature).  I was doing some research on William H. Gass, specifically his meganovel The Tunnel, which appeared in, I think, nineteen excerpted installments between 1966 (when he began writing it) and 1995 (when it was published in whole).  I was at Brookens Library at University of Illinois, Springfield, and I was tracking down various excerpts that appeared in journals like The Iowa Reivew and TriQuarterly.  I was astonished to see that a journal like The Iowa Review cost virtually the same in the 1970s as it does now, about $9 for a single issue.  Had the cost of literary journals kept pace with inflation, that $9 journal in, say, 1975, would cost more than $35 today ($35.49 to be exact, according to The Inflation Calculator online).  Working in the other direction, something worth $9 in 2009 should have cost $2.08 in 1975.  Publishing literary journals has always been a for-loss proposition for the vast, vast majority of such journals; and that hasn’t changed, except perhaps for the relatively new phenomenon of  ejournals, as opposed to traditional print journals, as ejournals have very little overhead cost.

What this data suggests to me is that literature — again, serious contemporary literature — was of greater value to the public at large (or at least the journal-buying public at large) thirty years ago.  That is to say, people were willing to spend more of their discretionary income on a literary journal in 1975 than they are now.  Journal editors today have difficulty moving print product.  Imagine if they were charging more than $35 for a single issue.  Contemporary literature in the form of hardback books is approaching that price tag, but journals are still roughly $9 per issue.  I daresay it would be almost impossible to sell a literary journal for thirty-five bucks, which is the main reason that serious contemporary literature is rarely published in hardback today.  University and other small press publishers release novels and story and poetry collections in paperback, with a significantly smaller price tag than hardback, and even then it’s an uphill battle to get folks to buy them.

This statistic — that the relative value of serious contemporary literature is about a quarter of what it was in 1975 — seems to jibe with how the culture feels to those of us who are compelled to produce serious literature.  Once in a while I’ll have students ask me who my favorite writers are, and I’ll throw out names like Pynchon, DeLillo, Gaddis, and Gass, and they’ll respond with a “never heard of him.”  I know.

Speaking of eliterature, the first issue of Spilling Ink Review is scheduled to appear this week (which includes my story “Walkin’ the Dog”).  Meanwhile, I’ve been typing my manuscript “Weeping with an Ancient God” — long, and not very interesting story, but I haven’t had an electronic version of the novella, so I’m typing the manuscript (and making revisions along the way).  I’ll also type up some older short stories for which I no longer have electronic copies (e.g., “Fische Stories” that appeared in Glimmer Train Stories).  I’d like to publish “Weeping” as a novella with collected stories.  And of course I continue to work on The Authoress.  In another week, The Authoress will move to the top of my priority list, and I’ll be able to write at a much faster pace — very much looking forward to that.

tedmorrissey.com

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