Today writers can work in a bewildering variety of genres tailored to certain groups of readers. It’s as though each group can aspire to have their own books. This is an interesting and characteristically modern development, the history of which it might be instructive to explore.
All contemporary categories of writing are descended from an original single category of book which existed when the printing press first appeared around 1440 – the Bible, or books about the Bible. In 1440, very few people could read, and books were prohibitively expensive. Writers are sometimes known as authors, and that word author – derived from the word authority – is very much a hang over from the time when “divinity” was, in effect, literature’s only genre. The ultimate author was considered the writer of the Bible, which reached people almost entirely through the authority of the Church.
One of the great social schisms of Western culture occurred in the sixteenth century, when the printing press, and some increase in literacy, allowed people to start reading the Bible for themselves. This widening readership was actually the beginning of the shift away from the idea that one book, and one author was relevant to everyone. Now individual viewpoints started to become more important.
The centuries continued to pass, literacy rates crept up, and improved printing technology continued to make headway in reducing book prices. By 1700, academic Jeremiah Dittmar estimates that there were around eighty basic varieties of book serving an enlarged, but still modest, book market, where divinity continued to account for half of all sales. Through the next three hundred years, the rate of change gathered pace, so that today, literacy is now almost universal, and digital publication offers reduced book prices, and an opportunity for anyone to publish their work. As a result, genre varieties have exploded. The current situation in publishing is a mirror image of what it once was in 1440. Whereas in the fifteenth century everyone shared the same book, now it’s almost as though everyone can have their own book, unique to their own part of life. The bewildering variety of genres reflects the fact that today almost everyone is a potential reader, which means that all kinds of different people with varied tastes, interests and experiences, are all looking for books which reflect themselves.
It is of course great that perspectives and viewpoints reflected in books have increased out of all recognition. And yet, perhaps there are new difficulties in the way a widely inclusive culture is also a fragmented one, with people tending to live more in their own cultural bubbles.
Writers write based on their own experience, so it’s inevitable that people similar to themselves are more likely to resonate with their work. Nevertheless, I think in some small way, any writer instinctively harks back to 1440, when there was one book for everyone. Writing has to manage that trick of reflecting its readership, while not confining them in a bubble. A book should be a means of offering a wider perspective rather than closing the door. After all, a best seller is by definition a book that crosses divides, appeals to lots of different people, and echoes in a small way that situation right at the beginning of publishing when a book was something that everyone shared in together.