A child of mine made a joking statement that if we wanted to raise the level of writing we needed to lower the number of people who are literate. The supposed logic behind this suspect claim is that the books from the past, when literacy was lower, are held in higher esteem as classics. Therefore, if fewer people read as in the past centuries, they would be educated and more discriminating readers who would demand better books.
Visits to the library funding raising book sales may provide a bit more insight into this strange assertion that my child made. At these huge sales books are reduced to a dollar, then to fifty cents apiece, and finally to five dollars for an entire bag at the end. The typical fare is often a series written around a sixth grade level with happy endings (or at least a destruction of the great villain). They often contain unrealistic plot twists and constant excitement to keep adrenaline flowing. Even if the protagonist has an arc in the initial novel of the series, they remain much the same kind of predictable character throughout the remainder. Some readers enjoy this kind of predictability. But, after people have read their fill they are simply not checking them out any longer, so the library sells them very cheaply.
I rummage through these sales, searching for a dollar copy of a treasured classic, but rarely find them. There are some reasons for this. One definition of a classic is a book that deals with universal human themes. Therefore, it remains relevant over time. The quick easy quasi-exciting books of the past were sold for pennies (in fact, they were called penny dreadfuls). Then, they disappeared into dusty old junk stores and mostly disappeared from the memory of the reading public.
The most formulaic genres, such as murder mysteries, suspense, horror and romance, are the ones that people read in larger quantities. Authors can still write literary works that might resemble some of the themes in these genres. But, the publishers assume the public wants simplistic formulaic novels made exciting by explicit descriptions rather than depth of thought. It is much easier for authors to crank out more books to sell if they are producing something easier to read than the literary level.
Sometimes there is a dichotomy set up between genre fiction and literary fiction. Genre fiction is an easier to read, entertaining, action-driven type of writing. When consuming literary fiction, the reader has to take part in interpreting the novel and be patient with the slower pace of a character-driven story. However, the difference is not a clear cut one. It’s probably more accurate to think of these types of writing as two ends of a spectrum, which can blend together.
However, it does make sense that the quality of writing expected depends on the general public’s level of literacy. This does not mean the number of people that are literate, but the comprehension and analysis level of the people who do read. Maybe that joking statement is not such a joke after all.