An American Editor

April 29, 2010

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

OK, I know you aren’t convinced that ebooks and print on demand (POD) will be the downfall of literature, and perhaps there is no convincing you or perhaps I’m wrong. One commenter suggested that the great will rise, like cream, to the top. I hope they do, but I don’t think they will.

As ebooks and POD continue to supplant traditional publishing, the traditional ways of separating literature from nonliterature will also be supplanted. The question is: Supplanted by what? That is the big unknown.

Many commenters point to customer reviews at ebookstores such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. So here is my first question: Excluding anger and protest reviews (such as the 1-star reviews because of price), for how many ebooks that you have bought and read have you written a review? How many of those reviews were in-depth reviews? In my case, the answer is zero. I counted up my ebook purchases over the past 2.5 years, and discovered I have purchased more than 500 ebooks and of that number have read 283. Yet I haven’t written one review (except for a couple here on An American Editor and on MobileRead). And of the pbooks I purchased and read in that same time frame, the only ones I have reviewed are the ones I reviewed on An American Editor.

Yet if you look at the reviewers on, for example, Amazon and Barnes & Noble, some have written more reviews than books I have read, yet they supposedly (according to their profiles) have numerous other interests that must take some time. I haven’t written reviews for several reasons, not least of which is that I don’t have the time to write an in-depth, thoughtful, and balanced review. I’m not a believer in the “Great book 5 stars” review, but then you probably guessed that from my suggestion that New York Review of Books reviews are the gold standard for book reviews.

I am quite skeptical of the reviews found at the ebookstores. And the 2-paragraph reviews I find at many of the ebook review sites aren’t much better (plus I have no idea who the reviewers are or their competencies). So who will become the new opinion shapers? How will we find them?

The Internet is both a great leveler and a great fragmenter. As a leveler, it makes new audiences available to authors, audiences they would not otherwise be able to easily reach. However, as a fragmenter, the Internet makes it easy for readers to find their niche and not expand out from it. Consequently, ebookers tend to take a narrow look at books rather than the more expansive look readers had to take when the only reviews were in generalist publications.

So how does a consensus get built that XYZ book is literature? You have the problems of sheer volume, Internet fragmentation, and questionable reviews that need to be overcome. Although the advent of ebooks has given everyone who wants to write an outlet for doing so, it has also made the task of finding the next J.D. Salinger or Ernest Hemingway or Ursula Le Guin exponentially more difficult, if not impossible.

The lack of gatekeeping will cause a continual flood of ebooks, and picking and choosing among them will not be easy, perhaps even impossible. The idea that all that matters is that one find a book and enjoy it is OK as far as it goes, but it does nothing to help identify literature for new readers or future readers. The way we learn to appreciate good writing is to be exposed to good writing. But because ebooks make publishing a trivial experience, it is not possible to isolate good writing from poor writing (and pretty soon bad writing becomes the standard).

Just as poor grammar and spelling are commonly seen in ebooks (see On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake!), so those ebooks reinforce already poor grammar and spelling skills of readers (readers with good grammar and spelling skills are unlikely to have the patience to wade through the dreck of bad writing, bad grammar, and bad spelling). As writing falls perilously close to the lowest common denominator, the concepts of literature – of correct spelling, of correct grammar, of good writing – diminish until they are meaningless.

The lack of gatekeeping standards, the lack of publication literary standards that ebooks bring to the marketplace, and the sheer volume of ebooks available solely because of a person’s ability to bypass traditional publishing, indicates to me a downfall in literature.

It is not that the next Steinbeck isn’t out there — rather, it is that the next Steinbeck won’t be found.

The debate continues and concludes in round IV…

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