James T. Farrell | ETOL Home Page

James T. Farrell

The Fate of Writing in America

(April 1947)

Extract from pamphlet of this name reproduced in The Western Socialist, Boston, April 1947.
Transcribed by Adam Buick for the Marxists Internet Archive.
HTML by Jonas Holmgren.

The magazine Tide (August 15, 1945) printed an article on Book Publishing, which stated: “With the prospect of more paper for book publishers in the not far distant future, the big publishers are girding themselves for the biggest expansion and probably the greatest competition in their history.” This article gives an account of the connections of the four big reprint companies. [Simon & Schuster; Doubleday, Doran & Company; World Publishing Company; and the combination of Harper & Bros., Random House, Little Brown & Co., Charles Scribner & Sons and the Book of the Month Club.] These are now becoming the dominating organizations in the book business. The major publishers, the article remarks, ᰴagree that the industry is changing and will possibly evolve into a quite different animal.” Many have said the same thing, both in public and in private discussion. Publishers, writers, editors, economic journalists and others are all asking questions about what will happen in the book business. Contradictory predictions are being made, some gloomy, some optimistic. In general, there is a great deal of interest, curiosity, alarm and uncertainty in literary and publishing circles about these recent developments.

A number of serious critics have repeatedly discussed the differences between literature and commerce in American culture. A question posed for a number of writers has been formulated in terms of the opposition between success and integrity. Now, with changes in the book business, gloomy prophets and disturbed writers are predicting that in the future it will be impossible for writers to retain any integrity and that American writing will become merely a success chronicle of commercialized writing. It will be, they say, Hollywoodized. Heretofore, questions of this kind have usually been dealt with in terms of a juxtaposition of “high culture” and “low culture.” “High culture” has been treated as serious art and viewed as the concern of gifted, sensitive and educated people; “low culture” has been dismissed as cheap popular art, spiritual fare for the uneducated masses. This view can be very misleading, for what has long been happening in this country is that a commercial culture has been developing and expanding. It has confused cultural values, and has almost totally absorbed the theatre. Books have not been unaffected; in fact the fear of commercialized culture is the source of current alarm about the future of books.


However increasing tendencies toward centralization in publishing and the enormous influence of Hollywood cannot, singly or combined, kill living creative literature. But writers will kill it themselves if they surrender, if they passively acquiesce. It is true that we have in America a swollen commercial culture. But at the core it is empty. And we can see that it is hollow by noticing how, when serious books do have an opportunity to sell, they often maintain themselves in competition with the base products. For instance, there is the phenomenon of Richard Wright. But his example does not suggest the full situation. For the advance-guard writer and the poet do not have the same chances as does the realistic novelist. Still all serious and honestly written literature has the influence of helping the literary artist. Literary taste must be created, and this can only be done by examples, by examples of seriousness and truthfulness. In the final analysis the problems of literature and commerce will remain as long as we have a capitalist form of society. But the literary and cultural situation is a fluid one. The Hollywood film may be produced more or less on the basis of monolithic industry. There may and most likely will be pronounced monolithic tendencies in book publishing. But the character of the industry itself, the unevenness of monolithic economic development, the great variety in tastes, cultural levels, and cultural needs produce a very fluid and complicated book market. The publishers intend to make money. They will, within this compass, have a more or less neutral attitude on what they publish. They are now competing on all sides. Their very competition gives the author a certain independence of position, vis-à-vis commercial publishing. The production and distribution of books in America may be organized in terms of the needs of the commercial book trade. But literary influences can, if with difficulty, grow even outside of this organization. Thus the writer himself has a role to play, and he has some voice.

Even though the gloomiest of predictions be fulfilled, these tendencies must work out in time. And here time is of the essence. They have not worked out to their end of total standardization. The channels of serious communication in America have been narrowed in recent years, but this narrowing has occurred more in the field of ideas and political thought than it has in that of literary work. As long as channels remain open the object of the writer should be to use these channels. Viewing these problems from the standpoint of the writer who opposes the commercialization of art, we see that counter-efforts must be made to provide different examples, different types of work. The conditions of the social organization of literature are given for the writer. He does not control them. But Napoleon was fond of remarking: “Engage in battle, and see what happens.” The writer must do likewise. He must engage in battle and see what happens. His battle, as a writer, is made through his effort, through his opposition to shoddy standards of writing, and thereby, through the creation of counter-examples that are not shoddy.

As these centralizing tendencies do evolve to the degree that they may, it should become increasingly clear to the writer with a conscience that his long-run interests as a human being and as an artist fail to coincide with the interest of capitalism. But this conclusion, leading the writer toward socialism, does not, in itself, give him a literary perspective. By reaching this conclusion the artist will not thereby necessarily assimilate socialism as a perspective which motivates his work. Some of these problems are problems involving the economic position of the writer, and the degree to which he desires to struggle in order that he be able to write out of his own needs, his own feelings, his own tensions and emotions, his own experiences, rather than on the basis of the fluctuations in the book market. An analysis such as this one is not directly concerned with a discussion of the problems of orientation and perspective out of which a writer develops and works according to his own bent. This problem is a separate one, and to introduce it here would be as likely to confuse as to clarify. It is best treated separately. Further, we can now see that from the standpoint of the writer the direct and immediate problem he faces is precisely the same as that which his predecessors have faced – the problem of success versus integrity. The circumstances of that problem have changed somewhat, and the attractiveness of success is greater than ever. The rewards of writing for the market are higher. In consequence, the serious writer will meet with more competition from those who see in writing merely and solely an opportunity for the big money. But greater competition does not change the problem in its essentials. For some time to come al least, this problem will remain posed for the writer as it is at the present moment. In meeting it his own decisions constitute a factor of great importance. This point cannot, be over-emphasized. The writer is an active not a passive agent in his situation.

Long ago when discussing the question of freedom of the writer, Karl Marx remarked: “Is a press which degrades itself to a trade free? A writer must certainly earn money in order to exist and write, but he should not exist and write in order to earn money. [...] The first freedom of the press must consist in its emancipation from commerce. The writer who degrades the press to a mere means of material livelihood deserves as a punishment for this inner slavery that outer slavery called censorship, unless his very existence is already his punishment.” After quoting this, Marx’s biographer Mehring stated: “All his life Marx lived up to these principles and to the same standard which he demanded from others: a man’s writing must always be an end in itself. Far from being a mere means for himself and others, he must, if necessary, sacrifice his own existence to his writing.”

Marx was a great revolutionary. But creative artists have written and clung to this same principle. Tolstoy did. Joyce did. And we love the memory of these men, not only for their literary greatness but also for their artistic conscience and honor. Decidedly the time has come for writers to speak up, to assert themselves, to take a stand on the future of books. The time has come for them to say, and with scorn in their voices, that they will not be hacks. The field of the future is theirs. Year in and year out bestsellers have come and gone. Real books will not go like that. They will stay. For we know that the future of books is involved in the future of culture. And the future of culture is a not insignificant part of the future of mankind. We have not lived through the last mass revulsion in taste in history. We have not lived through the last change in history. We have not lived through the last revolution. Now less than ever should the literary artist surrender to the Philistines and to commerce. The future is more important for writers, for the new generation, than the bombast and glamor which so many now call culture. A half-monopolized culture can only reproduce worn-out and wretched formulas, patch them up with cellophane, and let the press agent do his job. You can saturate humanity with everything including this sentimentality. Clear and honest work will stand out against such saturated sentimentality. Years ago, Zola boldly proclaimed: “The truth is on the march.” That is the role of the writer – to try to make that truth march.

JAMES T. FARRELL [Copyrighted, 1947]

Top of page

[This extract is reprinted with permission of the author. The pamphlet can be obtained from New Directions, 500–5th Avenue, New York City, for 25 cents.]

Marxists’ Internet Archive   |   Encyclopedia of Trotskyism   |   Document Index