The World's Smallest Essay on Our New Miniaturization of Literature

In the early part of this millennium, a well-known author was presented with that oft-asked and irritating question, "What advice do you have for new writers?" Her reply: "Make sure what you have to say is worth reading, because our libraries are being filled up by minutia."

* * *

According to industry statistics, more books than ever are being published, with 1,052,803 books coming out in the U.S. alone in 2009. The vast majority of these books are self-published, with ebook sales exploding while print sales remain strong.  But these massive sales numbers disguise that most of those million plus books sell only a few copies. More than ever there are a handful of best-sellers and everyone else.

Stephen King. John Grisham. Stephenie Meyer. Forget all others.

* * *

minutia (noun). A minute or minor detail.

* * *

When Ann Godoff, the respected head of the Random House Trade Group, was fired way back in 2003, it wasn't because she hadn't made money for her corporate bosses. It was because she hadn't made tons and tons of money. As the New York Times wrote at the time, "The old assumptions of book publishing β€” that it earned modest, steady profits built on a respected stable of authors and a deep backlist β€” now seem practically prehistoric."

If the old assumptions of book publishing were dying in 2003, where does that put us in our brave new world of ebooks?

I love that ebooks allow authors to keep their backlist in print. I love that ebooks empower everyone to be an author. But does everyone truly have a story to be told? Does every book deserve to remain in print forever?

* * *

Etymology of minutia:

The word comes from several Latin words including "mintiae," meaning petty details; "mintia," meaning smallness; and "mintus," meaning small. Minutia dates from around 1751 β€” right smack in the middle of the scientific revolution.

* * *

The old joke is that specialists learn more and more about less and less until they know everything about nothing, while generalists learn less and less about more and more until they know nothing about everything.

How about another choice besides two different types of the same minutia?

* * *

The scientific revolution changed how people thought about themselves. Human knowledge became abstract. Truth could be empirically tested, proved, or disproved. The world was seen as a giant machine and could be broken down into tiny pieces.

Into minutia.

* * *

Most common advice in MFA creative writing programs: "Show, don't tell."

* * *

The world is growing smaller every day β€” and not in the "it's a small world after all" vision of Walt Disney or a treehugger's "we're all neighbors in an interconnected web of life." Instead, it is becoming more and more possible to find out anything about everything. Want to know if God exists? Search Amazon and you'll find a million different ebooks promising God's address on a silver platter. And if you can't Kindle a truth to your liking, Google will definitely deliver it.

Why read literature to understand the world when the truth β€” any truth, someone's individual truth β€” can be delivered instantly?

* * *

Second-most common advice in MFA programs: "Write what you know."

* * *

The scientific revolution, writ large, began with Nicolaus Copernicus saying the sun is the center of the solar system. Along the way, Isaac Newton went from apples to gravity, and later Charles Darwin evolved, Albert Einstein discovered that we are all energy, and Dr. Jonas Salk produced a polio vaccine.

That's what I know about the scientific revolution. None of it is minutia.

* * *

Thousands of major scientific and technological discoveries are announced each year.  I don't doubt that these discoveries are true or that some of them will one day change our lives. But of all the scientific and technological breakthroughs announced last year, how many did you truly understand?

Do you try to understand each new discovery and its possible impact on our world? Or do you simply nod your head and think, "That sounds absolutely marvelous. I don't understand what it means for humanity, but I'm sure someone does."

What does it portend when the scientific and technological forces shaping our lives on a daily basis are not understood by the vast majority of people?

* * *

Just as fewer and fewer people understand scientific discoveries, more and more books are being published but selling only a few copies. Is this because most of those million plus books released each year aren't worth reading, or are they simply lost in an avalanche of literary overload? Or is it some mixture of the two?

In many ways, literary success has always been a system of long odds. Want to become the next Stephen King or J. K. Rowling? Then write your book and hope the literary lottery pops up with your number. Yes, talent matters. Yes, drive and determination and craft make a difference. But it is still a roll of the dice to make a living from your writing, let alone make the best-seller lists.

As the number of self-published books and ebooks reach even higher numbers, how will this improve for the better? When we have ten million ebooks coming out each day, authors will be praying that an influential reader or critic actually reads their book, let alone praises it. They'll be endlessly promoting their beloved tale to the world, hoping against hope that the odds click and their book is suddenly on the digital road to success.

The new literary lottery is for a book to rise above the minute and tiny role it plays in a world of millions of digital editions.

* * *

One final minutia:

The well-known author from the start of the essay is not famous β€” her books are rarely read outside of the literary world. But writers know her, and she swears she was misquoted in her response to that oft-asked and irritating question, "What advice do you have for new writers?"

Her true response: "Make sure what you have to say is worth reading, because our libraries are being filled up by the minute."

Nothing ever really fills up. There is always room for more minutia.

* * *

Note: This is a reworking of my essay "World's Smallest Essay on the Coming Miniaturization of Literature," which came out in 2003 or so. Be sure to also read Jim Booth's response to this original essay, Literary Minutiae at the Present Time. (And yes, I'm aware that the spellings of minutiae and minutia in these essays don't match. Such is life and the preferences of different dictionaries.)