The title may seem like a curious question. However, I wanted to trace how the increasing percentage of people who could read changes the publishing business. Do the types of books favored by the public change as a population becomes more literate?
Prior to the seventeenth century many books and shorter works were self-published. The author simply paid the printer, or scribe, and distributed the books themselves. There were fewer manuscripts go around. Authors writing fiction openly borrowed characters and plots from other writers without fear of copyright infringement. However, with smaller populations and an even smaller percentage of literate people, those that did read had a larger grasp of past literature.
Literary canons based on the best works evolved because the people that read shared a bit more in common. Authors often alluded to works by other authors. These allusions allowed the readers to rapidly understand the situation in a book or drama. Even prior to the twentieth century people who spent time reading had different expectations from authors. They were willing to deal with more subtle writing and dig for clues that were not as obvious. They desired more complex stories which meant more reading between the lines.
Within the twentieth century came the trend towards writing in a lean manner with concise descriptions. Part of this had to do with the availability of motion pictures in which there are not descriptions of the characters or setting. One simply looks at them. Much of the story is told through dialog. Now, people write books with the goal of them becoming movies, full of action with minimal details. However, movies taken from past classics leave out huge chunks of the complex plots found in these novels. This becomes evident when watching films based on Les Miserables or Anna Karenina, and comparing them to their respective books.
So, how does the increase in literacy affect what is written? The number of published books has exploded. Authors expect to have sole rights to their work, but cannot prevent a person from creating another fairly similar book. Readers seem willing to consume work that is more similar and familiar, with an ending they already know. Publishers are looking for these kinds of “comps.” There is no longer a reliable canon of work that most readers know in any particular culture. Therefore, the author has to explain the allusions to other works for these to be understood.
In the twenty-first century, there are five levels of literacy most often used in assessments, but recently the top two levels have been merged because such a small percent read at the top level. (https://www.wyliecomm.com/2021/08/whats-the-latest-u-s-literacy-rate/). Still, every so often a book is written that throws out the expectations. The scenes multiply the reader’s understanding rather than simply adding to it. In an extremely well written story, clues are added slowly so the reader has to think to catch on to what is occurring. Stories still exist that require the reader to be invested in making sense of them.
How many authors long to write a book that is more than the sum of its parts?