An American Editor

April 30, 2010

eBooks & the Downfall of Literature: The Great Debate – Round IV

How do we find the next literary masterpiece among the 1 million+ books published each year (and I believe that number will rise rapidly as increasing numbers of writers publish direct from their computer to Internet). Don’t we need to find the next literary masterpiece? Don’t we need to separate the Shakespeares from the Joe Schmoes? Or does it not matter if we never find another Shakespeare? Or find another literary masterpiece? Does it not matter what our literary state says about our culture, our state of intellectual advancement?

For me, this is the dilemma. What role does literature play in our society? In our civilizing process? In our civilization? If we view the role as very limited or expendable, then finding and nurturing the next Hemingway is unnecessary and having ebooks be the leveler for all writing is acceptable.

But if literature’s role is important, if it is important that future generations be able to point to particular authors as purveyors of culture and builders of social mores, then finding and nurturing the next Hemingway takes on great importance and the anything goes from-writer’s-computer-to-Internet ebooks are problematic absent some method for finding the next Hemingway.

Too many people think that the leveling of the playing field that ebooks brings is the only thing that matters; they are too dismissive of the gatekeeping role and assume that readers themselves can act effectively as the sieve. By sheer volume alone, this is impracticable, but it is also impracticable when there are no standards for determining the quality or lack of quality of an ebook.

Books serve many purposes in a society. They can be, for example, pushers of social change or recorders of social injustice. Books can be the purveyors of ideas that change a society’s direction. But to do these things, books must be read and read by more than a handful of people. The elitism that came about with having one’s book published by a traditional publisher also gave the book the social standing to be a game changer. With a leveled playing field, such books do not stand out – they are lost in the mass (morass?) of available books.

eBooks are clearly the new medium for idea dissemination and pbooks are clearly in decline. And just as the number of direct-from-writer’s-computer-to-Internet ebooks continues to increase, there is a parallel decline in literature — because society cannot create a consensus that a work is worthy of being called literature; too many books with too few readers to build consensus.

When following the traditional publishing route, an author strives for excellence because the author needs to separate his or her work from that of the masses. The competition for gatekeeper recognition that drives an author to strive for excellence doesn’t exist in the direct-from-writer’s-computer-to-Internet-ebook world. I’m not suggesting that the direct-from-writer’s-computer-to-Internet-ebook authors do not strive to do their best, but rather that the pressure to do whatever it takes to be the best no longer exists; that an author more quickly reaches the point of saying his or her work is good enough. No gatekeeper is saying more work is needed, much too often there is not even an editor reviewing the work, and the author knows that his or her ebook is going to be hard to find among the hundreds of thousands other good-enough ebooks. Good enough becomes the great leveler.

The standard of good enough is not a high enough standard for literature. It can be sufficient for the casual read (although I would argue that it is insufficient for any read), where the book will be read once, never read again, and forgotten completely within hours, if not within minutes. Good enough is not the Catcher in the Rye or To Kill a Mockingbird standard; it is not the standard met by a book that is still being read 50 years after its birth. Good enough, although a common standard for going direct-from-writer’s-computer-to-Internet ebook, is not a high enough standard for literature.

eBooks will be the downfall of literature and the arising of good enough! We already see that; and our current complaints about poor quality ebooks are likely to escalate in numbers and frequency. Future generations will miss out on today’s and tomorrow’s literature because what could be literature will not be recognized as such among the mass of direct-from-writer’s-computer-to-Internet ebooks that the new publishing paradigm encourages.

The real devaluation of books is not low price but the direct-from-writer’s-computer-to-Internet ebook model of publishing.

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