I just finished reading Moby Dick. I read it sitting at the bookstore, bit by bit, on repeated trips. I’m sure the bookstore didn’t care, since I bought coffee and the occasional cookie, so they made more money than they would have if I had bought the book. Of course I was robbing whoever is getting Herman Melville’s money.
Because Melville published the book in 1851, when, apparently, knowledge of whales was less firmly situated, after a detailed discussion he declares the whale to be a fish. In doing so, Melville gives all the evidence that a whale is a mammal, including having a penis (which he coyly mentions only in Latin, as I know from the footnote).
The presence of that long discussion in the book says a lot about Moby Dick. What the book is not—and this came as a surprise to me—is a book about hunting a great white whale. The hunt is included, and if someone asked “What’s the plot of the book?” and you then thrashed about for a quick summary, you might say “Well, there’s a captain, and there’s a whale, and…” But in a book of over 600 pages, in my edition, not more than 75 actually concerned the hunt for the whale. Granted, the last 30 pages were entirely on this topic, in a rather epic expostulation, with a dramatic maritime ending. But what this long book is mostly about is philosophy, science, or general commentary on life.
Could a book like that be published now? I’m sure it could not. I don’t think Charles Dickens could get what he wrote published now. That fact, at least I think it’s a fact, gives rise to a corollary question. Is it a bad thing that such books could not be published now?
Times change and tastes change, and what people relate to changes, so maybe it’s OK that David Copperfield could not be published, though that sounds like a loss to me. But in addition to changes in taste, there are also insidious changes in the social process of getting published. I have several times seen literary agents, in talking about what helps to get a book accepted, use the rather cold, mechanical word “platform” to describe activities, qualities, or knowledge of a writer that might catch people’s interest. That might mean you should be a lawyer if you write legal thrillers, or that in general you appear sometimes on TV, or you have a popular blog. An unknown recluse like Emily Dickinson would of course have no prayer. But what can the agents do? They’re trying to earn a living too.
From visits to the bookstore, I’ve also concluded that a tremendous amount of publishing resources is being put into books that even the publishers must have privately considered shit, but presumably with the assumption that a book on philosophy we can learn from cats would sell. And maybe it does, but should such a thing have been published? Publishing seems engrossed in the frantic commercial Zeitgeist here at the beginning of century number 21.
Here is where I invite insightful repartee from readers. How many things have I said here that you, my assumed reader, would disagree with? Do you think we can do without long rambling books and good riddance to them? Maybe you have a wonderful platform and you’re looking down on me from up there. Or maybe you think a whale is a fish.