It isn’t just today that serves up inexplicable publishing phenomena. There’s a lot more of it about these days, of course. Paper used to be prohibitively expensive back in the day, but that didn’t stop plenty of doozies getting through, and not only getting through, but managing to get themselves called Classics, required reading for unfortunate generations yet to be conceived.
I have attempted the reading of Robinson Crusoe three times, twice as a child, once as an adult. Daniel Defoe’s novel is apparently based on the real life story of Alexander Selkirk, which I read in comic book form many, many years ago. Selkirk was genuinely stranded on the island of Juan Fernandez, off the coast of Chile, for about four years, but somehow managed to make a go of things.
What the comic book didn’t tell me was that Selkirk was apparently deliberately abandoned on the island by his shipmates, who decided that they’d rather commit the nearest thing to murder than listen to him for another minute. My tortured attempts the read the novel (and I had such a lovely edition, red hardback and colour illustrations) offered some clue as to how it all kicked off.
Extremely boring control freak gets stranded on an island and proceeds to write long lists of everything in order to keep himself from going mad, never realizing that he’s actually been out to lunch his entire life, madder than a ferret in a microwave oven, crankier than Planet Crank’s finest.
Robinson Crusoe would be a torturously overlong joke if it was written today, a bit like ’50 Shades of Grey’ or ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ or ‘The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair.’ It would have become what is referred to as a ‘publishing phenomenon,’ i.e. a book which is crap to the point of actually constituting a mental health hazard, but which somehow sells millions anyway.
For this is it. This is where it’s at: literature fashioned exclusively for people who never read, brain doodles for those who never think. The publishing industry see as its main business the persuasion of millions of people to part with cash in exchange for something with print in it. It doesn’t actually matter what’s in the print, or even if anything’s in it.
The ideal, perhaps, would be if non-readers bought the books as presents for other people who never actually get around to reading them, but naturally feel too embarrassed to admit this, and just go “oh yeah. Thanks a million. That was great.”
Actually, I’m increasingly wondering if the entire book publishing industry doesn’t hinge on the crucial condition of nobody ever reading anything. As I know from my limited experience of PR, it’s much easier to write a press release about something if you’ve never actually read or seen it. Actual knowledge of what’s inside the subject impedes your creative ability to make up snazzy sound bytes about it.
The odd review of something in a major newspaper increasingly makes me wonder if the critic whose name is on the article has actually read or seen anything connected with ‘the thing’ either. Again, should we be surprised at this? Those rare critics still important enough to get their names on bylines probably have all sorts of other things to do, don’t they, like drinking wine at book signings or doing product endorsements or playing skittles with JK Rowling?
It is thus reasonable to assume that the job of actually ‘reading’ or ‘seeing’ anything is devolved upon some nameless underling, an intern perhaps. This intern is of the smarter variety, and realized some time ago that she can spend the $10.50 involved on pizza with her boyfriend, and so long as what she says chimes in with the general orthodoxy of what everyone else is saying, no one is any the wiser.
I have an increasing suspicion that publishing houses function in exactly the same way: an entire industry which rests upon the fact that nobody ever reads anything; and even the readers themselves are locked into the deal by the glorious social contract of embarrassment: ‘I’ve never read it either, but please don’t tell anyone.’
A friend once told me an amusing story about ‘Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance.’
He was locked inside deep conversation with some shining eyed, beauteous creature. The glow of her face and a thousand non-verbal signals were pointing emphatically towards a many-splendoured night, when all of a sudden the girl’s eyes upped a notch in fantastic luminosity, and she asked if he’d ever read ‘Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance.’
He essayed a sort of indeterminate burp, realizing that a sudden change of subject was impossible, unless he actually set fire to her dress. He even considered this notion briefly, but dismissed it as impractical and open to all kinds of misinterpretation. Of course he’d never read the cursed thing, or rather, he’d scanned the first five pages and realized that, even at his tender age, life was far too short.
But the clock was ticking. She was gushing and shining and asking him what he thought in a voice that caused sweat to grow old before its time on his brow.
What did you think? He had to think pretty bloody fast.
“I think,” he said, after an intense and woozy pause, “I think there was too much in it about motorcycle maintenance, and not enough about Zen.”
Reality wobbled and went limp as he awaited her reaction.
It came – after a long second – as another kind of fantastic luminosity, a symphony of light, green eyed lasers, phosphorescent skin, giant white teeth that induced immediate snow blindness.
“You know,” she said, “you are just so right. You are so absolutely right.”