An American Editor

April 22, 2010

Will eBooks Be the Downfall of Literature?

According to statistics released by R.R. Bowker and published in Publisher’s Weekly, more than 764,000 self-published and micro-niche books were published in 2009, compared to 288,000 traditionally published books. I wonder if those numbers include ebooks?

We already know that a goodly number of the traditionally published books — all of which presumably were professionally edited and produced — aren’t of particularly high quality, so what does that portend for the three-quarters-of-a-million nontraditionally published books? Odds are that many of them aren’t even of the lowest quality traditionally published books.

I readily admit that among the nontraditionally published ebooks are some gems; I’ve bought a few and throughly enjoyed the writing style even if there were a lot of significant annoyances (see for some examples, On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake!) — but I wouldn’t name a single one as great literature.

The problem isn’t just in the lack of the finishing touches, the kinds of things that professional editors, designers, and producers can provide (for an understanding of what an editor does, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor). The problem is that they really aren’t new twists on old stories and the old twists aren’t particularly well executed.

Pick up a novel — doesn’t matter whether it was written by a world-famous author or your next door neighbor — and the story is probably a rehashing of a story that is at the core of thousands of other books. It isn’t a wholly original story. How many times have you said to yourself that the eighth book in a series is really just a repeat of the first book — just different characters and different locale? How many different ways can someone be murdered or armies clash or elves have pointy ears?

It is clear, however, that there is a distinction between run-of-the-mill novels and literature. Would anyone mistake Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories for their neighbor’s mystery novel? I’m not talking about whether I like a particular author or story, I’m talking about whether the story will stand the test of generations: Will future generations be reading the work for anything more than research? (Will researchers even bother reading the work?)

This is the problem I see with nontraditionally published ebooks (and to be honest, even with many traditionally published ebooks). Sure there are some that will sell several thousand copies and be considered a financial success by their authors. But financial success doesn’t equate with good literature. Ponzi schemes bring financial success but no one I know considers investing in such a scheme to be good financial planning.

There are no clear or easy resolutions to the problems that ebooks bring to the reading world. It isn’t possible to equate single-digit sales numbers with poor literary merit any more than 5-digit sales numbers can be equated with it. There is something significantly more elusive about what makes a novel literature as opposed to nonliterature. I admit that I can’t put my finger on that elusive trait and identify it clearly for all the world to see and acknowledge, but readers do know it exists.

Great literature is often the retelling of an older story but in a new way or in a new light. Fantasy adventures, for example, are often a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey or Virgil’s Aeneid. (Unfortunately, too many are retellings of the retelling of the retelling — ad infinitum — of the original retelling.) It is how they are retold that separates the wheat from the chaff. And it is the ease of publishing ebooks that makes the separation process so difficult.

Many people have a story that they want to tell. The question is: Should they tell it? Is there really a place for wooden characters, wooden dialogue, and repetitive plots? Should there be? And with the ease of nontraditional publishing of ebooks, will literature soon disappear? Or will it become unrecognizable? Or will it become more readily recognizable?

Although I can’t identify the precise thing that makes one book great literature and another not even poor literature, I do recognize that there is a certain broad, cultural identification of a work as great literature, even if some of the recognizers would not themselves call it such. Consider Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath or Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Both are considered literary masterpieces of the 20th century; I don’t dispute that accolade even though I think Salinger is well overrated and Steinbeck deserves greater praise. I also think Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry should be in that esteemed company although I have yet to read a Philip Roth novel I would recommend to anyone. My point isn’t that I think yea or nay but that there is a developed consensus that says yea or nay.

How do you develop such a consensus with nontraditionally published ebooks? It takes more than a village of 10 people to move an author from the wanna-be to the great category. Two generations from now, what will be the great literary works of the late 20th-early 21st century that are discussed in schools, that everyone can point to as being in the list of top 100 must-read works? I fear that the future of ebooks will be the downfall of literature as ease of publishing sinks everything to the bottom. I fear that we are seeing the birth of mediocrity as the new great literature.

10 Comments »

  1. You’re talking about a problem of publishing *mechanisms* (i.e. lack of filtering), not the ability or lack of ability to publish. I know that these seem like the same thing, but I have great hope for collaborative filtering for ebooks. It already happens today, for instance, when feedbooks mentions books “users like you downloaded” at the end of a book.

    “Overlay journals”, which select topical and high quality works that have already been made available, are another example. We are used to conflating “making public” and “selecting/recommending/stamping with approval”. That doesn’t have to be the case.

    You also do not take into account the failures of traditional publishing filters–i.e. great works that are now critically acclaimed but almost didn’t get a publisher.

    (reached this via http://twitter.com/liza/status/12638672667 )

    Comment by Jodi Schneider — April 22, 2010 @ 8:39 am | Reply

  2. Another way of looking at this subject: If there is so much inferior material out there, then the great works will stand out that much more sharply. In the era of instant global communications, word passes at lightning speed when something interesting, different, dramatic, appalling (choose your adjective) comes along. A great story, in whatever medium, will get shared and remembered.

    Along with new methods of publishing, new centers of information exchange, including reviewing and marketing, are developing. These ultimately will enhance or replace current systems. So I believe that great books will continue to rise to the top and endure. The real problem may be the physical form they take. Will electronic media last for generations the way paper can?

    Meanwhile, to address this paragraph: “Many people have a story that they want to tell. The question is: Should they tell it? Is there really a place for wooden characters, wooden dialogue, and repetitive plots? Should there be? And with the ease of nontraditional publishing of ebooks, will literature soon disappear? Or will it become unrecognizable? Or will it become more readily recognizable?”

    This strikes me as snobbery and elitism. Anyone who has a story, or a vision, or a song in their hearts should feel free — and be free — to express it. Freedom of speech includes the freedom to create and disseminate inferior arts and letters. Standards come into play once packaging this output enters the commercial arena, which will always grade the arts by some quality/value equation. Publishing’s history of hit or miss will continue, in that some superior works will be overlooked while some inferior works gain the spotlight, with the majority, as usual, stuck in between.

    Publishing professionals need to reacquaint themselves with the dictionary, which defines “literature” several ways (here, according to Merriam-Webster Collegiate, 11th ed.). The sense that “literature” is used in this post falls at number 3:

    1 archaic : literary culture
    2 : the production of literary work esp. as an occupation
    3 a (1) : writings in prose or verse: esp : writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest
    [balance of definitions not included]

    Further, here’s how the dictionary defines “literary”:
    1 a : of, relating to, or having the characteristics of humane learning or literature
    b : bookish
    c : of or relating to books
    2 a : well-read
    b : of or relating to authors or scholars or to their professions

    I don’t see anything in there that suggests a huge gap between “run-of-the-mill novels and literature.” Rather, I consider run-of-the-mill novels to be a subset of literature. “Literary” novels are a style, and the term is used to distinguish them from other categories of fiction. Within all categories, some books are great, some are mediocre, and some are crummy. Within all categories, a handful will endure.

    Every writer needs the same chance to get his/her work out there and perhaps be one of the greats whose words will carry through time and influence people. The vast collection of good, bad, and mediocre writing will continue to comprise “literature” for as long as people keep creating and disseminating it. And literature will only die out if it’s denied expression.

    Comment by Carolyn — April 22, 2010 @ 9:22 am | Reply

  3. Thank you for this excellent post. I do believe that after a short period of near-chaos, what will emerge on the ‘net is a system quite similar to what we have now. It will be rocky, but agenting and editing will survive (thank God).

    Hope it’s okay if I put you on my blogroll and link to this post.

    Comment by Kelly Wittmann — April 24, 2010 @ 2:25 pm | Reply

  4. [...] on demand, publishers, quality, sel-publishing, value, words, wordsnSync My previous article, Will eBooks Be the Downfall of Literature?, turned out to be quite controversial, provoking lots of comments around the Internet, few [...]

    Pingback by eBooks & the Downfall of Literature: The Great Debate – Round I « An American Editor — April 27, 2010 @ 7:32 am | Reply

  5. First, about a third of those non-traditionally published books are reprints of public domain books, so you’d be wrong if you said none of them are “great literature.” I’m willing to bet money that BiblioBazaar has reprinted A. Conan Doyle. A minor but important point: at least a third if not more of these books from independent publishers are reprints. They’re competing with the ugly editions of Oscar Wilde and Nathaniel Hawthorne that Barnes & Noble makes under its own imprint.

    Second, publishers would cease to exist if they only published “great literature.” Literary fiction is rarely ever the gravy train for a publisher, just like films that make it to Cannes are rarely huge commercial successes. We need books like The Da Vinci Code to prop up books like Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher, just as the movie studios need the Saw and _____ Movie franchises to support films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

    …Or do they? Well, until every book is better than and as popular as one of Stieg Larsson’s novels and every film is better than and as popular as Lord of the Rings, I think they do.

    Third, “great literature” is extremely subjective. Most of what I have had to read in school and have seen touted as classic or literary falls into a very narrow view of human existence: white, straight, cis-gendered, able-bodied, middle class American/European men in the prime of their lives. Most of these stories are written by white, straight, cis-gendered, able-bodied, middle class American/European men (yearning to relive the prime of their lives). When the majority of people on this planet — the rest of us — are represented, recognized, and immortalized in popular culture proportional to our existence, then I will respect that terminology.

    Let me tell you the only think I learned from reading Salinger: if you write something radically different than the prevailing trends, make it edgy, and do something that other plots haven’t done in living memory, AND manage to be noticed, you will be a legend. Now, Barbara Kingsolver? There’s a writer we can agree is talented and successful. Why aren’t there more Barbara Kingsolvers on the shelves?

    I don’t need more Holden Caulfields. That isn’t what I pick up to read for pleasure. Usually, I end up reading ‘critically acclaimed’ fiction by accident because I liked the plot.

    Some of the most brilliant work I’ve ever read is firmly in genre territory. I think Neil Gaiman has earned the right to have his work called “great literature.” Stephen King wrote The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile and Apt Pupil, for crying out loud. Octavia Butler wrote about racism, slavery, time travel, and vampires. Her prose is haunting and beautiful.

    “Great literature” as determined by the mainstream critics is a faulty concept. I hope that changes soon.

    Comment by Lexy — April 27, 2010 @ 9:18 am | Reply

  6. [...] More on ebooks and the downfall of literature. [...]

    Pingback by Stumbling Over Chaos :: An Epic Episode of Linkity — April 29, 2010 @ 7:43 am | Reply

  7. Your point, that there is bad writing in the digital book world, is well taken. What you fail to comprehend is, that this medium of expression is new and freely available. Many will dive into the new medium looking for success, much like the dot-com boom. Only those who have something of worth, will find themselves living the dream for the longterm.

    The truth, should be noted that this abundance of good and bad writing is only a benefit for the literary world. As readers become more well read, looking at the classics that are available for free, and compare them to newer releases they will become more critical of what they read. The exposure to such a breadth of genre in such an easily accessible platform should be celebrated by the likes of you.

    This exposure means that the reader who is the consumer who is the customer will become more of an aficionado. I, as a reader of the new medium, do not have time to waste on poorly written drivel. The question is, how will I recognize poorly written drivel if I don’t read the well written drivel. Digital books provides the platform for someone, such as myself, to establish what kind of literature consumer I am.

    You mention Steinbeck and Salinger; for you Steinbeck doesn’t receive the accolades that you think he deserves. That is your opinion, but what if I prefer the writing of Salinger. The question is not what the elitist publishing industry and its quorum of equally elitist critiques think;the question is what resonates with me, the reader. It is the reader who will keep a certain piece of literature alive from generation to generation.

    If your so concerned about the literary world than focus on forcing schools to focus on teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic (they could try making them read the classics and modern pieces, relevancy is important).

    Digital books gives voice to the voiceless, and only the voices that connect with the reader will become more than a blog on steroids.

    Comment by David — May 3, 2010 @ 12:49 pm | Reply

  8. [...] Editor (Will eBooks Be the Downfall of Literature?) затеял это обсуждение на тему “Станут ли е-книги [...]

    Pingback by Планета е-книг » Blog Archive » Обсуждение “животрепещущей” темы — May 3, 2010 @ 1:19 pm | Reply

  9. [...] points of view. For those who would like to read my original articles, you can begin with this one: Will eBooks Be the Downfall of Literature? It was followed by a 4-part series that began with eBooks & the Downfall of Literature: The [...]

    Pingback by The Rarefied Literary Critic: Literary Criticism from One Author’s Perspective « An American Editor — May 11, 2010 @ 6:09 am | Reply

  10. I will leave it up to the buyer demand will lead for greater literature in ebooks if a demand is there for it.

    Comment by Tina Allen — May 20, 2010 @ 11:17 pm | Reply


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