What Is the Business of Literature?

[W]hat was the business of literature, pre-book? There were words, for sure, and there was culture. There were books and there were writers. They were paid, in fact. Very well. But few writers of today would likely forgo the life of the twenty-first-century writer for that of a thirteenth-century writer.

Moreover, the role of the writer before Gutenberg was simply to transcribe.  The writer’s purpose wasn’t to reimagine language—not gainsaying the existence of outliers such as Virgil. Writers were not thought leaders, conjurors of other worlds, conjoiners of emotion and aesthetic. Writers were the machines through which the word of God was reproduced and disseminated. Or, at most, the knowledge that humans had accumulated thus far—the myths, the legends, what is now called “folk wisdom.” They captured the store of human knowledge to date. The writer was the printing press. At most, it could be said that the writer was a representative of her generation because, quite literally, the writer faithfully reproduced the stories and beliefs of her time. Such were the trade-offs: a job for life, doing nothing but writing, but you were, in the words of the academics who study this period, a “trained scribal laborer.” A calligrapher.

The advent of the book, in the sense of bound typeset pages, was an economic disaster for the writer. –Richard Nash (Virginia Quarterly Review)

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