Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Commodification of Letters

If Cervantes had lived in modern times, soon after the resounding success of The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote de la Mancha, his publishers would have started to press him for a sequel, and since that joust with windmills had been the image in the original, the next in the series would have been Don Quixote and the Dutch Giants, soon followed by a youth-oriented novel titled Rocinante Goes to the Derby. Rocinante, of course, was Don Quixote horse. Sancho Panza’s Extravaganza, subtitled The Little Mule that Could, would have come next and exploited a multicultural thematic. Dulcinea, Will She, Won’t She would be ready for the next Christmas season and attempt to capture a wider female audience. Dulcinea? Well, she was Quixote ideal, the Lady, in fact a peasant girl, and unattainable at that. In the original. Plenty of leverage still left in that. After that would come yet other explorations of live issues in that far-off time. By the seventh and last novel in the series, Don Quixote and Moctezuma, even the greatest fan of the hidalgo would have wearied of him, of Sancho Panza, and the ever richer historical and archeological detail that would fill endless paragraphs to make the page count come out right to justify the book’s price.

Thus are successful authors commodified in our day and age. P.D. James comes to mind; so does Frank Herbert’s Dune series—of which only Chapterhouse Dune comes alive a little. Too many authors suffer thus from success. Agatha Christy, the most prolific, oddly escaped a total wilt-down—perhaps because she predates the period of commodification.

Dictionaries don’t even mention the sense of commodity we use in ordinary language—thus goods of the sort where anybody’s brand will do. When I buy sugar I buy the cheapest, usually the Kroger brand. Sugar is a commodity; there is really no difference between one kind and another. The dictionary’s definitions—fitness, adaptation, convenience, advantage—while true enough are just a tad off-target. Commodification, a word coinage of Marxist origin, suggests the assignment of market value to things or services that shouldn’t really all be treated as commodities, thus as things where the qualitative differences can be safely ignored. Marx having grown horns over time—but the process having genuine benefits in the realms of business—the word has been modified for capitalist use, as it were, into commoditization. But it means the same thing.

Once a steady and repetitious market for something develops commodification has a tendency to set in. It affects all kinds of goods, not least natural products, and we note this when buying fruit. It neither looks nor tastes like it used to in the 1930s, 40s, 50s. Changes in the growing, harvesting, and culling of apples, tomatoes, strawberries, etc., have, in the subtle process of commodification, increased the size, shape, and appearance of the product—and have usually blanded out (to coin a verb) the taste.

The same thing has affected literary productions. I’m not sure (never having read a single one) but I suspect that the penny dreadful of the nineteenth century was an early example of this process. Since then commodification has deformed virtually all of the so-called popular genres of literature and I suspect (and only suspect because I can’t get myself to read them) the straight literary novels as well. And very much as in the case of apples and tomatoes, which once had unique and local character, so with the arts of the human creator the industry that now dominates distribution has worked its commodifying powers on the product. This, at any rate, is the conclusion I draw from a three-year project, roughly, of trying to find some genuinely entertaining mystery novels at various libraries. You can still, here and there, discover something special, but the predictable blandness of the rest is amazing. This process also works its stultifying magic on the occasional gifted writer—by forcing excess production on him or her…of which a fictional example is the Don Quixote series. People of less talent simply must conform to genre rules in order to get into print at all.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post.

    I must say that your search has been productive in at least the discovery of the author, Sarah Caudwell. I am enjoying the first of the three novels of hers that you lent me. And, I'm learning a few new words in the process... insouciance, for example. Fun.