Saturday, June 27, 2015

Against big ideas

Sam Leith’s comment on the trend in non-fiction publishing is spot-on, and Toby Mundy’s analysis of it typically insightful. (And I’m not saying that just because you’re the new director of the Samuel Johnson prize, Toby – though, you know, congratulations and all.) Sam echoes my impression, though I suppose as someone published in the UK by Bodley Head (rightly exonerated here as a noble exception) and in the US by the University of Chicago Press, I would say this. It is good to have critical reviewers around, like Steven Poole and Bryan Appleyard, who will challenge this Gladwellization of non-fiction, but I fear they’re fighting against the tide. Sam’s complaint about the way the mainstream trade publishers seem mostly interested in books that offer a single “big idea” that explains everything about being human/history/the brain/the economy/the internet/the universe (until the next one comes along) is very well founded. Life is not just complex (in which case “complexity theory” would explain it all right?) but complicated. So are most areas of science. So are people. We need ideas and narratives that help us unravel the threads, not ones that pretend it is all just one big rope. This seems especially problematic in the US, where it feels ever harder – outside of the university presses – to publish a serious discussion of any topic rather than an airport book in which the subtitle tells you all you need to know. It’s very reassuring to hear that being published there by a university press there is increasingly a guarantor of substance.

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