440. Poverty of non-fiction literature?
In this blog and elsewhere, I have been trying to bridge the gap, in non-fiction literature, between specialist scientific literature and popular literature, on a broad range of subjects, aimed at a wide but intellectual audience. I am making it as accessible as I can, but with nuance and some abstraction, in an interdisciplinary effort, trying to integrate insights from different branches of philosophy and sciences of humanity and society (economics, sociology, psychology, cognitive science, linguistics, and politics).
I think it is good for society if insights and debates from social science reach a wider public, and is not locked up in less accessible scientific journals and books. That would impoverish public debate, generating insufficiently informed policies, opinions and votes.
I have mostly published in English, to have access to a large audience, but being Dutch I also wanted to publish a few things in Dutch. I used to regularly publish pieces on the opinion pages of the top Dutch newspapers, but since a few years that stopped. My pieces were no longer accepted. I asked around why that was so, and I was told that newspapers had to aim at a wide general public, and my pieces were ‘too difficult’, and on subjects that ‘do not interest most people’. So, I took recourse to English, with this blog.
Recently, I wanted to publish some more books, also one or two in Dutch. One was a piece with radical criticism of economic science and the economic system, with some indications for improvement. It was rejected by a number of Dutch publishers and they also told me: the audience for this kind of intellectual book is simply too small, commercially not viable.
So I translated it into an English version, and that was instantly accepted by a British publisher: Edward Elgar. It will appear in December 2019 under the title Uprooting economics; a manifesto for change.
Against better judgement I tried another book in Dutch again, on ontology, the philosophy of what exists, which recently I also discussed in a number of items in this blog. Again, this also was rejected by Dutch publishers, with the same comment as before. So now I am self-publishing it, and I will again try produce a version in English (looking for a publisher in the UK or USA).
Perhaps I am making too quick an inference, based only on anecdotal, personal experience, not a representative sample. Perhaps I am simply not able to write well enough to reach the intended audience. But the fact that English versions do get an audience does seem to mean something. My point now is that apparently there is a poverty of serious non-fiction literature in Dutch, with some depth, nuance and abstraction, because there is no viable, large enough audience for it.
In the Netherlands objections have arisen against the gradual replacement of Dutch by English, at universities. But if serious non-fiction can no longer be published in Dutch, what do you expect? Scholars will have to seek refuge in English, as I did, even for non-specialist literature aimed at a wider than only academic audience.
I expect that a similar situation has developed in other small non-English speaking countries. I expect that countries like France, Germany, Italy and Spain should be large enough for the intended audience to be commercially viable, but I suspect that smaller countries face the same problem as the Netherlands.
Perhaps this should be seen as inevitable, not a big problem. Regional dialects and languages (Keltish, Basque, Frisian in the Netherlands) also have been bypassed, but are still alive in local culture.