Michael at 2 Blowhards discusses how publishing fads — which he charitably refers to as “consensus” — come to be. His commentators offer various unsatisfactory explanations. Many are of the “workshop” variety: editors and publishers have to promote books, therefore they promote what they have, and what’s wrong with that? The economics of the publishing industry puts this out of court. Publishers, like movie studios, depend on blockbusters for their survival. These are lottery industries, and it matters far more if you can squeeze 100,000 extra copies out of the latest Clancy or King than if Morrison or Rushdie sells 25,000 or 30,000 copies.
Social theories are more to the point. Publishing people all go to the same parties, where they exchange opinions about books. Naturally they expected to do an ungodly amount of reading. Michael Kinsley wrote an amusing article a while back about being a book prize judge. He was theoretically required to read more than 400 books.
Nobody in book or magazine publishing reads even one-tenth of what he’s supposed to have an opinion on, and shortcuts become indispensable. This is why book critics are far more widely read than books. They save time. If you haven’t got round to Rushdie or Morrison or Jonathan Safran Foer or whoever happens to be the novelist du jour — and you probably haven’t — it’s safest to praise them, most likely in the terms of Michiko Kakutani, whom you have read. (I, too, have opinions on Morrison and Rushdie despite having read only brief excerpts of the latter, which struck me as show-offy and not half so clever as the author obviously thought them, and the former not at all. Morrison’s fatuous public utterance makes me doubt that she is intelligent enough to be a good novelist. This is slender evidence, and it may be the opposite of the publishing consensus, but then they don’t invite me to their parties.)
The Blowhard thread evinces a simultaneous distrust of publishing fashion and genuflection toward the Canon. This is very common, and very odd. Woody Allen’s movie Crimes and Misdemeanors features an incredibly annoying TV writer, played by Alan Alda, who keeps repeating, “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” Well, the Canon is the fashion plus time. It’s subject to exactly the same vicissitudes. Shakespeare largely owes his reputation as the greatest English writer to two 19th century German critics, the Schlegel brothers. Nobody read John Donne 100 years ago. In 1921 Sir Herbert Grierson published an anthology, featuring Donne, of “metaphysical” poets, borrowing the term from Samuel Johnson, who used it disparagingly. T.S. Eliot picked up on Grierson, emphasizing Donne’s “difficulty” when difficulty was all the rage. An entire generation of academics, steeped in Eliot, began to teach Donne, things picked up steam, and now he is a “classic,” and the streets are littered with college graduates who know nothing of Donne except that he is “metaphysical.” Note that in this process one critic, maybe two, formed an independent opinion of Donne’s actual merits.
Time has its virtues. People have been reading Homer for three thousand years, and there’s probably a reason. But English poetry is only 500 years old, English prose even younger. Hapless undergraduates still battle the Red Crosse Knight mostly because C.S. Lewis thought Spenser was the exemplar of the “Golden Style.” Bulky self-regarding Wordsworth is too much with us, late and soon, because he happened to come along with the Lyrical Ballads in 1798, just as the heroic couplet was going out of style, and because he promoted himself tirelessly. The Canon is more reliable than the fashion, as some of the dust has settled, but it is a sort of fashion, just the same.
(Update: Brian Micklethwait comments.)