Jason Sanford

World's Smallest Essay on the Coming Miniaturization of Literature

The other day, 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."

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According to industry statistics, more books than ever are being sold, but these massive sales numbers are being reached because of fewer and fewer authors.

Stephen King. John Grisham. Nora Roberts. Forget everyone else.

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minutia (noun). A minute or minor detail.

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When Ann Godoff, the respected head of the Random House Trade Group, was recently fired, 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, "The old assumptions of book publishing — that it earned modest, steady profits built on a respected stable of authors and a deep backlist — now seem practically prehistoric."

Forget the midlist — those books that sell around 10,000 copies and take years to find a readership. Forget that the midlist is precisely where the modestly bought heart and soul of literature lives.

If James Joyce were alive today, "Ulysses" would be a midlist book. Why would anyone publish it when they could make a fortune off the new Tom Clancy novel instead?

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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 — right smack in the middle of the scientific revolution.

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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?

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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.

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

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The world is growing smaller every day — 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? Type the request into a search engine and you'll get a million different places promising God's address on a silver platter.

Why read literature to understand the world when you can just Google it instead?

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

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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 all I know about the scientific revolution. None of it is minutia.

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The top scientific story of 2002, as decided by the American Association for the Advancement of Science: "The discovery that molecules called 'small RNAs' control much of a gene's behavior." (This may further research on cancer and stem cells.)

I don't doubt that this discovery is true or that it'll one day change all our lives. But you would have to be a genetic expert to understand any of this.

Does this mean that the science which now shapes our lives on a daily basis will never be understood by more than a few experts?

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Just as fewer and fewer people understand scientific discoveries, fewer and fewer people read literature. Soon, most authors will be writing their stories and poems for fellow writers and a few select readers. Imagine the scientific peer-review system — where scientists write about their discoveries in language that can only be understood by other scientists. Apply this to literature.

In too many ways, literature is already a peer-review system. When was the last time you walked up to an airport magazine stand and bought a copy of the Southern Review? It often seems that no one reads literary journals except for writers wanting to be published in those publications.

For literature to once again matter to the world, this must change.

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One final minutia:

The well-known author from the start of the essay is not famous — 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.

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Jason Sanford is the fiction editor of storySouth. Read more of his essays here. In addition, be sure to read Jim Booth's response to this essay, Literary Minutiae at the Present Time. (And yes, the editors are aware that the spellings of minutiae and minutia in these essays don't match. Such is life and the preferences of different dictionaries.)