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When the Italian “economic miracle” moved into full swing three or four years ago, it touched off a cultural submiracle known as il boom editoriale. Suddenly the relaxed, almost patriarchal world of Italian publishing was shattered, sales of books (especially fiction and serious non-fiction) soared, and Italian writers who had once idly dreamed of someday reaching the dizzy Olympian heights of Alberto Moravia (whose books regularly sold more than 10,000 copies) now saw the incredible spectacle of books that sold copies in the hundreds of thousands. Clearly the flush new bourgeoisie created by the economic miracle was buying up books as fast as it was buying “AAA panoramic” apartments in the fashionable new quarters of the great cities. In the sophisticated new Italy culture came high on the heap, and books were not less bella figura than a de luxe Fiat or Lancia. Writers and publishers, obviously convinced that so good a thing couldn’t possibly last, responded with swift enthusiasm (and who could blame them?). The result was something that can only be called “boom fiction”—a fiction in most respects custom-tailored to the tastes and aspirations of the new bourgeoisie. Prosperously packaged, it was printed on good paper bound in heavy boards, and its pricetag was as high as the prestige its ownership conferred. In style the vogue was for a mild experimentalism, while in subject the emphasis was on a bright, knowing modernity and sophistication. Loss of innocence, fashionable despair, psychological “studies,” sophisticated people with sophisticated problems—these were the preferred topics. As for the dominant social realism of the post-war years, it was (apart from diehards) moribund, and for obvious reasons. The new Italian bourgeois wanted to know that he had at last arrived, and that the modern luxury of having psychological and cultural (rather than merely economic) problems now belonged to him as much as to the older European bourgeois. By and large the publishers and writers saw to it that he got what he wanted.
Il boom editoriale is still on, but it is apparent that the literary inflation is no less dangerous than that which now threatens the lira. The trouble, of course, is not that too many books are being sold, but that these books seldom receive even minimal critical scrutiny. The buyer is buying status and hence has a vested interest in buying masterpieces; the publishers tout their wares with Hollywoodstyle exaggeration. As for criticism, it was never a hardy growth in Italy, and it grows now in the baleful shade of the major publishing houses. For years the Italian writer (e.g. Pavese, Ginzburg, Vittorini, Calvino, Bassani, etc.) has made a living at publishing, and he has now been joined by the “company critic”—i.e., a critic paid by a publisher to puff (with appropriate delicacy, of course) the publisher’s books in the publisher’s magazine. The result is that Italians are now producing “authenticated” masterpieces at the rate of two or three a month; for obvious reasons this exuberant illusion of a literary Renaissance is…
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