Every drunken man's dream is a book

caxton press wikicom e1499537152399 1Every month or so we get another outcry against self-published fiction. Some are aimed at the Beast of Amazon, destroyer of standards and scourge of literature, like George Packer’s bitter lament in The New Yorker (“Cheap words,” February 17, 2014) or Thad McIlroy’s anxious number-crunching on his blog (“How amazon destroyed the publishing ecosystem,” March 12, 2014.)

Others, like Donald Maass, rail against self-publishing in general, on the grounds that it produces far more chaff than wheat  (Writer Unboxed, “The new class system,” February 5, 2014.)

This dire transformation, this destruction of literature, is blamed on new technologies which have made it far too easy to produce a book, drastically lowering the necessary barriers to publication that have kept the riff-raff out for centuries.

I’m talking about the Internet, right?

Wrong! The innovation that destroyed literature by opening the gates to all and sundry was the printing press, invented by Bi Sheng in China in the eleventh century and by Johannes Gutenberg in Germany in the fifteenth. William Caxton brought the device to England where he promoted its products intensively, ushering in a revolution in the world of words. Caxton was the Jeff Bezos of the sixteenth century.

In medieval times a book was handcrafted from start to finish, written with quill and ink on parchment, the pages sewn together with linen thread and bound in leather. Each individual book was commissioned by a wealthy patron. The printing press, in radical contrast, made it possible to produce thousands of copies of a single book. Bibles, almanacs, and ABCs were the bestsellers of that century. Far worse: now you could print up tens of thousands of broadsides to be sold around the country by chapmen like Autolycus, the peddlar in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Hot rumours from abroad, sightings of marvelous fishes, murder trials: all manner of scurrilous nonsense flew off the presses and into the eager hands of the masses.

The Deluge of Dung 

A gentleman of that time complained that there were “more [books] in number than the leisure of any man of calling will permite him to reade, or the strength of any ordinary memorie can be able to beare away.” The great-great-etc-grandfather of Thad McIlroy, one supposes. 

Donald Maass’ spiritual ancestor wrote, “I loath to speake it, [yet] every red-nosed rimester is an author, every drunken mans dreame is a booke, and he whose talent of little wit is hardly worth a farthing, yet layeth about him so outragiously, as if all Helicon had run through his pen, in a word, scarce can a cat looke out of a gutter, but out starts a halfpenny Chronicler, and presently A proper new ballet of a strange sight is endited.”donkey 1

Writers struck back at the “malignant, ready, backbiters” with their “sharpe morosities and biting cavils.” Elizabethans seldom minced words. “Let them not, like angrie dogs, also beslaver with their jawes the stone cast at them…. [I] will straightwayes fetch forth an olde rust-eaten halberd, which saw no sun these seven yeares, wherewith I will either massacre their deformed limmes, or (if they speake mee faire) garde them safely to Coldharbour colledge [a London jail], where they may have one whole monthes leysure to studie their backbiting arte.”

Thomas Nashe, the J.A. Konrath of his day, explained why he chose to self-publish his popular works: “I thought it as good for mee to reape the frute of my owne labours as to let some unskilfull pen-man or Noverint-maker startch his ruffe and new spade his beard with the benefite he made of them.”

And that’s the indie-pub argument in a nutshell.


Quotes were taken from Bennett, Henry S. (1965.) English Books & Readers, 1558 to 1603. Cambridge University Press. Pix from wikimedia commons.

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