“In old days books were written by men of letters and read by the public. Nowadays books are written by the public and read by nobody.”–Oscar Wilde
Wikipedia defines “aphorism” as a “terse saying, expressing a general truth, principle, or astute observation, and spoken or written in a laconic or memorable form.” Few writers approach Oscar Wilde in the expression of such bons mots.
The above quote is Wilde’s lament about the decline in the quality of books, and the influence of “the public” on those who wrote them. Wilde died in 1900 at the age of 46, so “the public” of his time was very different from our own. In his “old days,” potential readers were far fewer, and limited to a much smaller educated class. “Men of letters” like Wilde came from the same class and, not surprisingly, they wrote for those who could read and understand what they were trying to say.
Wilde’s “nowadays” reflects the emergence of a broader, more literate public less interested in the musings of the upper class. Many novels were first published serially in newspapers and magazines that were more accessible to ordinary people, and the books often reflected the lives those people led, most notably the works of Charles Dickens. The success of this business model encouraged more of the same, and made writing and reading far more democratic. Hence, Wilde’s suggestion that books were written by”the public.” His claim that they were “read by nobody” excludes the great unwashed–what he meant was “nobody” who mattered.
Since Wilde wrote these words, the evolution of books has intensified. With the new printing and publishing techniques, “the public” is now actually writing the books, often to the chagrin of “men of letters.” Millions of books, from execrable to fabulous, are published each year. The sheer mass of words, and tremendous range in merit, means that quality writing is often overlooked. Ironically, the “democratization” of literature that Wilde complained about now seems to validate his assertion that books “written by the public” are “read by nobody.”