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.

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