29 August 2004

This week's window on the publishing industry comes from across the pond. Don't, however, think that things are necessarily so different in the UK that they don't apply in the US; if nothing else, consider who owns Penguin USA.

First, we have the age-old argument between fiction and nonfiction. I get bored with this argument rather quickly. There's a lot more truth in many works of fiction than there is in virtually any "nonfictional" political memoir, most of which are devoted to cementing a favorable place in the "historical record" with little regard for anything but ego. And, conversely, some of the flights of imagination one finds in self-help books make the average interminable fantasy series seem downright pedestrian. But that's not the point here, although in the end it's far from irrelevant.

The logic behind non-fiction promotions is laid bare by a new series from Penguin of classic titles, entitled Great Ideas, for which it has high hopes. The emphasis, however, is a slightly peculiar one, which tells one a lot about the predominance of non-fiction. It includes Marcus Aurelius's Meditations, Thomas à Kempis's The Inner Life, Schopenhauer's On the Suffering of the World and Nietzsche's Why I Am So Wise. There are other, more purely historical or theoretical works, too, like Darwin, the Communist Manifesto or Gibbon, and many, such as Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women, which are of interest to contemporary concerns. But the dominant flavour of the list is one of self-help, and, in promoting the list, Penguin has stressed this. "Bill Clinton read Marcus Aurelius and Thomas à Kempis to help him through Monicagate!" the publicity burbles. The emphasis is largely on philosophy as a means to help you through difficulties. This is only a part of philosophy, and by no means the most important part. Many of the greatest philosophers may be read from beginning to end without extracting much in the way of positive advice about how to live your life. They were just not interested in that and, in return, we're just not interested in them.

(typography corrected; fake paragraphing removed for clarity) So, then, it's not longer just the cover by which we shouldn't judge a book (and, given that the people who design covers have almost invariably not read the book, this should surprise nobody); we should also ignore which section of the bookstore we found our latest purchase in. You wouldn't, for example, find this blawg in a section devoted to excrutiatingly correct grammar after that last sentence, which includes five violations of Mrs. Grundy's Constipated Manual of English Grammar; but that doesn't mean this blawg has nothing to do with writing! The reflexiveness goes much deeper than that; I have rather immodestly taken my inspiration for the blawg from George Orwell's "As I Please" columns from Tribune.

On the other hand, what about that supposed bastion of the unimaginative reader of nonfiction only, the Scientist? The Guardian's section on science books devotes itself to science fiction this week, both with new material and references to older pieces. This is a startlingly serious examination of what those unfamiliar with it consider the fluffiest and most-escapist of publishing categories. (These, of course, are the same people who don't realize the the category in which 1984 and Brave New World and On the Beach and One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Handmaid's Tale fit most comfortably—if that is indeed a requirement at all—is "speculative fiction.") It is not just that gathering this kind of material in a single issue of a "mainstream" publication is so unusual; it is that even the less-meritorious entries are unusually thoughtful.