An American Editor

April 27, 2010

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

My previous article, Will eBooks Be the Downfall of Literature?, turned out to be quite controversial, provoking lots of comments around the Internet, few supportive. Arguments against my article ranged from free speech (which is a legal concept that really doesn’t apply) to with so much dreck the cream will rise to the real culprit being print on demand to literature includes dreck by definition to … pick your own dart. Many commenters lauded the ability of anyone with a computer to “publish” their ebook. Swimming through an open floodgate is not, in my view, a good way to swim; it is only a good way to drown.

It is obvious to me that — although others assure me to the contrary — I failed to articulate my point very well, or that if I did articulate it well, it was too subtle or esoteric or whatever because no one really zeroed in on the issue. So I not only want to try again, because I think the point is deserving of debate, but I plan to do so over the course of several articles (thus the round numbering).

So, let’s start the great debate (divide?) by defining literature. As some commentators pointed out, the dictionary definition of literature is all-encompassing — it includes all writings in prose or poetry form. The dictionary definition, however, goes on to say especially “writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest.” Literature is something more than words assembled in a logical stream. It is this “writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest” that is the literature of my discussion. 

I use literature to be synonymous with that small portion of writing that by consensus is of such caliber that it will still be remembered, read, and pointed to as an exemplar of literary merit long after the particular style has gone out of fashion and the author has died. I use literature to mean that body of work that society in its amorphous whole has determined should be put on a pedestal, distinguishing it from all other publications.

I do not use literature to mean popular or fashionable or award winning. James Patterson’s books are popular but I do not see society declaring his novels to be literature. I guess what I mean by literature is what many call great literature — works such as Shakespearean plays that are still read and performed hundreds of years after the death of the author. It is possible for a work to be both literature and popular, but whether something is literature is independent of whether it is popular. The terms literature and great literature are synonymous here.

When we look at what has been denominated great literature over the course of time, we can observe that there is something more to the work, something that may be indefinable or something that caused a revolution in thinking or perspective. It is that intangible that separates literature from simply being in print.

Consider music. People recognize the greatness of a Beethoven symphony — a masterpiece of music that has withstood the test of time. Yet, not all of Beethoven’s symphonies were well-received at the time of their premiere — other composers were more popular, but once they died they became dust in the dustbin of musicology. The great composers — the Mozarts, the Bachs, the Beethovens of music — had patrons and publishers who acted as gatekeepers.

The same is true of art. Consensus is that van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse, and Da Vinci, for example, were true masters. But that hasn’t stopped your neighbor from painting and trying to sell his or her artwork. The great artists were represented and their works competitively sought after by galleries that acted as gatekeepers. The gatekeepers began the separation of run-of-the-mill art from great art.

Writing is similar to art and music. And before the advent of ebooks and print on demand (POD), the process of separating literature from the rest of what was published or available to be published was easier. eBooks and POD have changed the landscape. In 2009, at least 1 million new books were published, 75% nontraditionally, i.e., as ebooks, POD, and micro-niche publishing.

With 250,000 traditionally published books it was already difficult to separate literature from run-of-the-mill work. We relied on gatekeepers to start the process. But in 2009 we were overwhelmed. Name 1 novel that was published in 2009 for which there is consensus that it is great literature and will withstand the test of time?

When J.D. Salinger published Catcher in the Rye in 1951, it was but a short time until a consensus was reached that this book was literature. By the 1960s it was standard reading in high schools across the country. Publishers, book reviewers, teachers, and readers were already comparing new works by other authors to Catcher, looking for the next book that could be called literature. Catcher had become a standard. Probably the next book to reach that status was Harper Lee’s 1962 novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Like Catcher, Mockingbird became a literary staple, a standard, and required reading near universally. We continue to celebrate these books today.

So, out of the 1 million books published in 2009, name the novel that is today’s equivalent of Catcher or Mockingbird. Perhaps there is one, but I admit I don’t know of it.

Literature is significantly more than numbers, more than a good story that is well executed. Literature comes about by building a societal consensus, something that is easier to do when there are fewer choices.

The debate continues in round II…

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