Is Competition Good for Literary Fame?

An abbreviated, simplified, and narrow history of the book goes something like this: once upon a time, there weren’t very many books; then Gutenberg came along and there were more books. However, there were still not that many. Most literate people living in the 17th and 18th century had only a couple of books in their households, the Bible always being one of them. Then, at the dawn of the 20th century or so, a print explosion happened and continued to the present day.  Now, readers are inundated with books, so much so that even the most bookwormish among us cannot hope to keep up with the flow of newly published books ever year, much less to catch up on the accumulated stock of the written word.*

For those of us still semi-interested or awake after that history lesson, here’s the question: what’s the effect of being published alongside so many other books on any particular work achieving literary fame? That is, is it more difficult for a work to eventually become part of the canon of the reading when there is so much more noise created by all the other books around? After all, the Bible is viewed as such a towering work of literature partly because for at least a thousand years, most people read nothing else. Or, is it the case that the creme always rises to the top, and when a book is very, very good, it will, with certainty, join the Parthenon? Or, to make a weaker case, even if admission to the canon is a more random process than literary critics would like to admit — I’m a believer in the existence of underrated books, all the books consigned to collective oblivion, not because they’re any worse than their renowned cousins but merely because their lucky stars did not shine as brightly — it could still be the case that the number of books on the market at the same time as a potentially canonical  book has no effect on it being recognized as such.

Let me shamelessly put in a plug and say that this is related to my previous post on the crowding-out effect of writing. However, I think this question is more answerable with hard facts, and not fuzzily toed with opinions and speculation of the kind I always supply. Scholars of the book out there, would you mind running a few regressions? The dependent variable should be the eventual inclusion on the 100-most-important-works list (a dummy variable) or time until included on the 100-most-important-works list, and the independent variable of interest is something along the line of a 3-year-running-average of the number of books published when this particular work came out, or more narrowly, a running average of the number of books that are in this book’s category (same language, same Library of Congress classification for instance). What do you find with those regressions? Is the coefficient on the variable of interest significant? What is its sign? Or have you run this kind of regressions already, and I’m too much of an ignoramus to know that?

(*I’d hate to attribute this toy version of history to one source. I feel that would be not only be terribly mean to the author but also may get me charged with libel. However, if I must, then under duress, I point the finger at Andrew Pettegree’s The Book in the Renaissance.)

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