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…



  1. I think you’re basically right, though I also believe this is far too early to tell if anything published in 2009 can be considered real literature as it’s just too recent.

    What I do like is your divorcing of literature from genre.

    Personally, I consider the works of Robert E. Howard to be approaching the status of literature, though it still may be too early to tell. It’s now almost seventy-five years since his death and his works are still being reissued by both trade and university presses. There’s both a significant body of scholarship growing up around his works and public recognition.

    His work has been adapted into multiple forms, and we’re still seeing new adaptations alongside reprints of his original work.

    The only thing that’s preventing me from definitively calling his work literature is time: My general belief is that if something’s still popular after a century in publication then it’s literature, and we still have a little while to go.

    Some books may be recognized as literature more quickly – but I still hold to the belief that if a book can do that it deserves to be recognized.


    Comment by Dave Robinson — April 27, 2010 @ 9:09 am | Reply

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  4. I admittedly haven’t read the following rounds of this debate yet, but as an English teacher, I think that what you refer to as “literature” is what we in the business refer to as the “literary canon,” especially since so many of your arguments and examples center around what is taught in schools.

    A work becomes part of the literary canon for different reasons (and that’s another lecture topic for a different day), but behind all of them is a consensus about the overall quality of the work. There are works which were quickly entered into the canon shortly after the time of their writing but survived only a short residency there (Chesnutt, _The Marrow of Tradition_), while still other novels weren’t recognized for many years after publication (_Their Eyes Were Watching God_). Currently, many high schools are including _The Kite Runner_ and _The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time_, but my personal suspicion is that, while they are both outstanding works, they are perhaps too much “novels of our time” to survive well into this century as part of the literary canon. (One could make an argument for either book to survive as well, but again, different topic for a different day!)

    One of the most interesting developments in the literary canon over the past five years is the explosion of young adult novels and their incorporation into the school systems. Since your definition of “literature” seems to hinge upon how much it is taught in school, then it is not the self-published/POD books that threaten literature, but it is instead the approach that many middle schools (and increasingly high schools) are taking to the study of literature. More often self-guided reading and study approaches are being used, where a student (or a defined reading circle group of students) select a novel on their own, either by complete free choice or by selecting from a list of selections) and then engage in reader-response criticism of the work. This works in that students are encouraged to _read_ but does have the “consequence” that no longer is one novel the focus of an entire unit of teacher-led study.

    What is going to threaten “literature?” The fact that the schools are moving away from teaching novels pulled from a literary canon.


    Comment by jcanker — April 30, 2010 @ 2:06 pm | Reply

  5. I am a little uncomfortable with the idea that we need “less books” in order weed out good literature. Like jcanker mentions above “Their Eyes Were Watching God” was not recognized for many years (because she was an African-American woman); leaving out minorities or women (or whoever) has been one way to keep the number of books low. Not by any means do I think you’re suggesting keeping the number of books low in that manner. Yet, the suggestion that non-traditionally published books are the clutter while inside traditional publishing are the great works seems a bit snobbish. Who knows where the next great works of art will come from; how do we know which means of production they will have to/choose to use? There seems to be an assumption that all great books find their way into publication; how can that be proven? There is no doubt that many brilliant books have never been acknowledged. Att the very least, now those books reach an audience even if a publisher doesn’t see its beauty.


    Comment by Rebekah Mori — May 1, 2010 @ 3:51 pm | Reply

    • I am not suggesting that we need to reduce the numbers of books; I am suggesting that if we don’t, we still need some functional gatekeeping. We can all point to books that we think are great but were not picked up by traditional publishers, but that address the problem of a lack of gatekeeping. Gatekeeping also works to prevent the lowest common denominator from becoming so low that tweeting vocabulary becomes the new standard.


      Comment by americaneditor — May 2, 2010 @ 7:26 am | Reply

      • Do you find that gatekeeping is forming online? The development of online literary magazines,reviews, reading sites, etc. seems to be (naturally?) developing on the web. Now, these gatekeepers are a mixed bunch, a combination of traditional publishing-editing folk, writers, and aficionados, so not everyone who has an audience would have been found in a traditional publishing setting. With the net, the proof is in the pudding. Backgrounds (awards, achievements) are admirable, but their online reputation accentuates the work and point-of-view they offer. Being seen as a gatekeeper has a slightly different criteria. One must exhibit a proficiency that satisfies traditional standards and be trustworthy and accessible to the literary e-audience. It’s far more interactive, far more democratic. Things like “tweeting vocabulary” are bound to happen and be probably have their fifteen minutes, but it’s doubtful that old/new gatekeepers and audiences will ever champion gimmicks.


        Comment by Rebekah Mori — May 2, 2010 @ 3:12 pm | Reply

  6. […] 4 тура обсуждений: eBooks & the Downfall of Literature: The Great Debate – Round I eBooks & the Downfall of Literature: The Great Debate – Round II eBooks & the Downfall […]


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  8. […] Will eBooks Be the Downfall of Literature? It was followed by a 4-part series that began with eBooks & the Downfall of Literature: The Great Debate – Round I and continued over the following 3 […]


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  9. A forum I participate in (on?) has a subcategory for quotations from women writers. Recently, somebody posted this statement by Elizabeth Drew, which struck me as germane to our discussion:

    “The test of literature is, I suppose, whether we ourselves live more intensely for the reading of it.”


    Comment by Carolyn — May 18, 2010 @ 5:08 am | Reply

  10. I want to know how to solve a problem. Several agents and editors have called my novels “great literature” or “the finest literature” they’ve read in a long time. However, the agents – and I had several- couldn’t sell it to the editors who, while admitting they agreed with my agents, would not take my novels on. After 20 years, I have given up. If you can offer helpful suggestions, I would be very grateful.


    Comment by Sharon — June 23, 2010 @ 9:40 am | Reply

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