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…



  1. While I agree with a lot of stuff here, I’d like to point out that traditional publishing has been going down hill recently. I find grammatical and/or spelling errors in most books nowadays, even the ones coming out of the big houses. Also the big houses have been publishing lowest common denominator material for a while. Maybe they always have and we don’t realize it because we read the “classics” from another age, not the books that never acquired classic status. But really much of what is being traditionally published is dreck. I’m not saying the ratio of dreck to classic is the same in traditional publishing as in ebook publishing, but traditional is not the shiny gold standard we think it is. And keep in mind that with ebooks at least there’s a chance now that the really great writing that never got published before because the author got tired of rejections and so quit the game, might get out there. I think word of mouth will be more important than ever. Perhaps social media will play the major role. There are important reviewing venues for ebooks only developing. They will not come from anyplace you’ve heard of. They will sneak up on you because you are only watching the traditional outlets. Start with something like Kindle Nation. Find those types of places. Watch book sales after they make a recommendation. You’ll begin to see how things are going to shape up.


    Comment by suelange — April 29, 2010 @ 8:10 am | Reply

    • Sue, I don’t think traditional publishing today is any different from traditional publishing of 100 years ago. I think the real change is in literary criticism. A century ago, literary criticism was an important discipline; the average person wanted to know what Mencken had to say and having Maxwell Perkins be your editor didn’t mean financial success, it meant literary success. Unfortunately, today’s literary critics are few and are not highly thought of. Consider the demographics of the New York Review of Books: its readership’s median age is 62 and is largely white males. The bulk of its readers earn 6- to 7-figure incomes. Perhaps great demographics for the NYRB but telling on the issue of literary criticism and who is interested in it.

      Word of mouth will increase a book’s popularity but not change a book from dreck to literature. That is also a problem with sales numbers. I do not know anyone who would call a Dan Brown novel a literary masterpiece, yet his books have great word of mouth and high sales.


      Comment by americaneditor — April 29, 2010 @ 8:59 am | Reply

      • Regardless of the introduction of ebooks into the mix, literary criticism has changed. Maybe the critics are serving as shills of the publishing industry more than as educated thinkers finding the nuggets. Perhaps that’s because we have more educated people than during Maxwell Perkins’ time. There wasn’t such competition to be a critic (or a writer) because the education it took to be one was rarer. Nowadays everybody can put a sentence together and everybody wants to be a writer. Failing that they become critics. How to be taken seriously as a critic? Get a big following. How do you do that? Write what they want to hear. Just guessing here. I’m not saying that’s actually the case, just trying to figure out why criticism is going downhill. I’ve even heard it said about the New York Review of Books: they are reviewing the books their readers (median aged 62 white males) want reviewed. So much for educating the public. They might be reviewing well, but they are picking and choosing which books to review based on what their readers want. So a lot of books don’t get taken seriously because they’re not on the NYRB, and I don’t mean just genre literature.

        Re: Dan Brown, I’m not really thinking about best selling books. And by word of mouth I don’t necessarily mean the type that got Brown’s book off the ground. I’m more talking about word of literary mouth. The word of mouth that will get literary circles interested. I don’t know if such a thing even exists, or could exist, but I’m envisioning a rarefied word of mouth that doesn’t pay attention to sales figures. Does that make sense?


        Comment by suelange — April 29, 2010 @ 9:29 am | Reply

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  3. I am following your debate from the first short version to this 3rd round today. As far as I can understand you are concerned with the potential loss of book reviewers to identify great literature, due to the potentially overwhelming number of self published books. As you defined great literature – literature per definition anything not being great is just “entertainment” for a lack of a better word. This distinction requires someone to identify and promote the greatness in the published books to the masses. In your eyes this is the job of the book critic.
    Here is my issue with your view. Today the books go through a screening process (the publishers) before the book review can even take place. Publishers who are very much driven by profits from sold books will look at a book from their sales potential as the main reason for publishing the book. Historically many great writers were not very popular during their life time and their greatness was only recognized by later generations. From this perspective many hopefuls are being cut before they even reach the eye of the book reviewer. Self publishing will allow them to see their book published and giving them a chance to reach a book reviewer in the first place. Will this overwhelm the book reviewers? Most certainly it will, however this only means the process has to change. What if book reviewers start reading books that have gathered a certain momentum on blogs or sales? Instead of a prescribed idea on what great literature is, we will see a wider variety being promoted. Today book reviewers are reading the top releases from the top publishers creating many reviews of the same book. Instead we will see book reviews for different books thus increasing the chances of finding the next great writer.


    Comment by Norbert Hildebrand — April 29, 2010 @ 8:35 am | Reply

    • Good point and good question. I personally would favor the idea of reviewers reading and reviewing books that have gathered momentum on blogs or sales, but using such criteria could be tricky. For example, a lot of ebooks are offered for free by their authors and get downloaded hundreds, if not thousands of times. Are these “sales”? If they are sales, do they really represent reader movement or just a reaction to something being free? If they are not sales, then what is the price point at which something will count as a sale? Of course, we know that there is no correlation between a free ebook download and the ebook actually being read. I’m as guilty as anyone else in that regard — I’ve downloaded interesting looking free ebooks but they often remain in my to-be-read pile.

      Blogs present a similar problem in that there are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, that review books. Which blogs will become the market makers?

      One of my criticisms of current mainstream reviews is that they are too narrowly focused. I think the New York Review of Books is an outstanding publication; my current subscription runs until 2015. Yet it doesn’t review, for example, scifi/fantasy, which is primarily what I read in fiction. I’ve asked why not, but have never received an answer. What it means is that the NYRB is unlikely to have reviewed Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 or George Orwell’s Animal Farm or 1984, all of which are considered important reads today.

      There are no easy solutions and all I have are complaints and questions :).


      Comment by americaneditor — April 29, 2010 @ 8:51 am | Reply

      • I agree this will be tricky to implement and some approaches will certainly fail. However, some will find a way to do this efficiently and successfully. Darwin rules!


        Comment by Norbert Hildebrand — April 29, 2010 @ 10:13 am | Reply

  4. There are tons of reasons our literacy rates are declining and our language skills decreasing. One of them is simply laziness. People use adverbs too often when they write and too rarely when they speak. TV has been contributing to the downfall of the English language since the 50s. You can choose to worry about it, you can teach grammar classes, or you can write better entertainment.

    Re: “great literature,” I understood exactly what you were saying. The problem is that not all storytelling is marketed in a way conducive to being taught in classrooms like Shakespeare. Much of Western culture has the markings of indigenous storytellers, but because they have oral traditions, they are passed over and ignored; only now do we have the inexpensive means to preserve storytelling of this kind, where the author/originator is only as important as the delivery of the story itself.

    Even pointing out the immortality of Shakespeare doesn’t make me believe that the Upanishads or the Pillow Book aren’t as beautiful and as valuable to their own respective cultures as the Bard is to English-speaking societies.

    With the tastes and preferences of the privileged comes the erasure of other underrepresented cultures and viewpoints. Jamaica Kincaid and Derek Walcott are as essential to any literature curriculum I would have my children read as Virgil or Donne. That is because I have a specific connection to the Caribbean. I have never seen Caribbean culture or literature taught below the college level in any of the school systems my family has encountered, the occasional picture book excepted. Ironic, really, since without the blood and sweat and sugar and rum of the lands there, the Industrial Revolution could not have occurred.

    If I relied on the traditional publishing system to introduce Caribbean lit to the world, I’d be waiting a long time. Now, thanks to POD, there are more Caribbean voices accessible to more people than ever before.

    It’s one thing to have recommendations. Those systems I can endorse. Gatekeepers present another situation entirely.

    I don’t want to miss the next Walcott because a NY agent doesn’t think she’ll be able to sell an unknown writer who writes about characters who are not necessarily white and not American. The same goes for GBLTQ writers.


    Comment by Lexy — April 29, 2010 @ 11:17 am | Reply

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