Howe Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page


Book Review

The Fate of Writing in America

(August 1946)

From New International, Vol. XII No. 6, August 1946, p. 191.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Fate of Writing in America
by James T. Farrell
New Directions, New York 1946: 25 cents

In this pamphlet, the novelist James T. Farrell has examined the tendencies towards concentration and centralization in the publishing business, the counter-tendencies which make for a relatively small scale and free industry, and the position of the serious writer in relation to these developments.

“The war boom,” he writes, “demonstrated positively that mass production and distribution in books are both feasible and highly profitable. These developments are irreversible. Their structural consequences are revealed in the tendency towards combinations and centralization. Inevitably every phase of book business will become more concentrated than in the past. This concentration will increase the difficulties of operation for small and independent publishers, and it will probably have the effect of requiring a higher initial investment from any newcomers into the field.”

This economic tendency, reflecting the general tendency of capitalist economy, is traced by Farrell in certain recent developments in the publishing field: the growth of gigantic reprint houses which produce books cheaply and on such a mass scale as to require a high degree of standardization and certainty of huge sales; the combination of a number of smaller houses in to large concerns; the increasing dependence of publishing on Hollywood in a hoped-for sales of books. for movie production.

But simultaneously Farrell indicates where, in his opinion, the tendency towards centralization and standardization has not yet reached and probably will soon not reach the extreme to which it has gone in Hollywood. The book medium. has a tradition, a heritage of greatness as the major cultural conveyer of our civilization that is totally foreign to the movies and which gives the publishing business a certain kinship to cultural values. Limited though it may be by commercial considerations, such a kinship is still largely foreign to Hollywood. The capital investment required to publish a book is far less than that required to produce a movie and the publisher need not therefore concern himself so greatly with standardized tastes, pressure groups and “public opinion” as does the movie producer. And finally, the individual writer in his dealings with the publishers can, no matter what his personal discomfort, strive to maintain his integrity, to avoid the temptations of fat contracts which come from writing popular trash.

It is on this last note that Farrell ends his pamphlet: a call to his fellow writers to maintain their independence from commercial subservience. He is aware that in order to live writers must deal with commercial considerations; they cannot loftily disdain the social conditions in which they function. But they must nevertheless say “with scorn in their voices, that they will not be hacks.” The writer, says Farrell, is “an active and not a passive agent in this situation”, and it is his responsibility firmly to refrain from the tawdry temptations which a decadent society may occasionally offer him-when it doesn’t disdain him altogether.

In this brief notice, the issues raised by this pamphlet cannot be discussed. But it should be said that Farrell’s article will be found both interesting and provocative to anyone who is concerned with the problem of culture in capitalist America.

Howe Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 15 March 2017