An American Editor

April 30, 2010

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

How do we find the next literary masterpiece among the 1 million+ books published each year (and I believe that number will rise rapidly as increasing numbers of writers publish direct from their computer to Internet). Don’t we need to find the next literary masterpiece? Don’t we need to separate the Shakespeares from the Joe Schmoes? Or does it not matter if we never find another Shakespeare? Or find another literary masterpiece? Does it not matter what our literary state says about our culture, our state of intellectual advancement?

For me, this is the dilemma. What role does literature play in our society? In our civilizing process? In our civilization? If we view the role as very limited or expendable, then finding and nurturing the next Hemingway is unnecessary and having ebooks be the leveler for all writing is acceptable.

But if literature’s role is important, if it is important that future generations be able to point to particular authors as purveyors of culture and builders of social mores, then finding and nurturing the next Hemingway takes on great importance and the anything goes from-writer’s-computer-to-Internet ebooks are problematic absent some method for finding the next Hemingway.

Too many people think that the leveling of the playing field that ebooks brings is the only thing that matters; they are too dismissive of the gatekeeping role and assume that readers themselves can act effectively as the sieve. By sheer volume alone, this is impracticable, but it is also impracticable when there are no standards for determining the quality or lack of quality of an ebook.

Books serve many purposes in a society. They can be, for example, pushers of social change or recorders of social injustice. Books can be the purveyors of ideas that change a society’s direction. But to do these things, books must be read and read by more than a handful of people. The elitism that came about with having one’s book published by a traditional publisher also gave the book the social standing to be a game changer. With a leveled playing field, such books do not stand out — they are lost in the mass (morass?) of available books.

eBooks are clearly the new medium for idea dissemination and pbooks are clearly in decline. And just as the number of direct-from-writer’s-computer-to-Internet ebooks continues to increase, there is a parallel decline in literature — because society cannot create a consensus that a work is worthy of being called literature; too many books with too few readers to build consensus.

When following the traditional publishing route, an author strives for excellence because the author needs to separate his or her work from that of the masses. The competition for gatekeeper recognition that drives an author to strive for excellence doesn’t exist in the direct-from-writer’s-computer-to-Internet-ebook world. I’m not suggesting that the direct-from-writer’s-computer-to-Internet-ebook authors do not strive to do their best, but rather that the pressure to do whatever it takes to be the best no longer exists; that an author more quickly reaches the point of saying his or her work is good enough. No gatekeeper is saying more work is needed, much too often there is not even an editor reviewing the work, and the author knows that his or her ebook is going to be hard to find among the hundreds of thousands other good-enough ebooks. Good enough becomes the great leveler.

The standard of good enough is not a high enough standard for literature. It can be sufficient for the casual read (although I would argue that it is insufficient for any read), where the book will be read once, never read again, and forgotten completely within hours, if not within minutes. Good enough is not the Catcher in the Rye or To Kill a Mockingbird standard; it is not the standard met by a book that is still being read 50 years after its birth. Good enough, although a common standard for going direct-from-writer’s-computer-to-Internet ebook, is not a high enough standard for literature.

eBooks will be the downfall of literature and the arising of good enough! We already see that; and our current complaints about poor quality ebooks are likely to escalate in numbers and frequency. Future generations will miss out on today’s and tomorrow’s literature because what could be literature will not be recognized as such among the mass of direct-from-writer’s-computer-to-Internet ebooks that the new publishing paradigm encourages.

The real devaluation of books is not low price but the direct-from-writer’s-computer-to-Internet ebook model of publishing.

13 Comments »

  1. It seems that you are pointing out the loss of our culturally accepted “gatekeepers.” It is important to remember that gatekeepers have sometimes been very wrong in the past–at least in the sense that works that are acknowledged now as “great” were ignored or maligned when they were published and works that won a Pulitzer or other prizes are now not seen as valuable. As an example, Moby Dick sold poorly when it was first published and got mixed reviews. The subjectivity of the process (and any other filtering process) is also inevitable and there are probably many masterpieces that have never seen the light of day. And, while there have been works that have promoted positive social change and which have been widely read because of powerful thought leaders, there have also historically been widely-read literary works which promoted racism, paternalism towards the poor and other negative social attitudes.

    If you really compare “judgment by the few” (cultural gatekeepers) with “judgment by the many” (Internet feedback and such) you see that neither is better or worse, they are just different. To borrow a phrase, what we are seeing now is the “long tail” of gatekeeping. Just because we no longer rely so heavily on professional reviewers and publishers, doesn’t mean we are without means of filtering the influx of literature. The difference is that there is a much broader range of authorities to choose from. As one example, I belong to Goodreads.com. If I really enjoyed a book, I read through other people’s reviews of it. If I find one that is very smart and articulate, I may go to that person’s page and look at what other books he or she recommends. I also would go to the website of an online critic whose work I have liked to see what else they have posted. As more people self-publish, these kinds of authorities will flourish.

    What we have truly lost or are losing is a culturally-shared body of work—or, I should say, we have fragmented into micro-communities with localized “cultural literacies.” But we have gained access to a much broader and more diverse body of literature. So, with loss comes gain.

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    Comment by Lauren Albert — April 30, 2010 @ 8:42 am | Reply

  2. […] Editor is one of the blogs I read regularly if not daily. This past week he has been looking at “e-Books and the Downfall of Literature.” Today, he focuses in on the role literature plays in our society. What struck me in particular […]

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    Pingback by Riding Waves of Literature or Drowning in Crap? « Behind the Words at BiblioBuffet — April 30, 2010 @ 11:27 am | Reply

  3. I think the problem lies not so much with the fact that everyone is giving opinions now and the gatekeepers have lost control, but in the fact that with so many books being published, who can read them all? One of the components of greatness is having a new idea, either a new form, a new style, a new subject, a new something. Something we haven’t seen before. The traditional tastemakers did not have to contend with so many books to read so they were able to watch the entire field. They knew when something bold came along. Nowadays something might appear bold, but without being able to keep up, how do you know if it isn’t just somebody else’s rehashed idea? The field has to be compartmentalized so that we can at least keep up with our own compartment.

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    Comment by Sue Lange — April 30, 2010 @ 2:26 pm | Reply

  4. Really, one needs only to look to YouTube to see what will happen with the publishing industry over the next decade or so.

    There are myriad videos posted by the minute: some are put up by middle-school children so they can yuck it up about an inside joke with four of their friends while others try to raise our collective social conscious. Others yet attempt “merely” to entertain. There are probably billions of niches in the online video world, much less on YouTube alone, yet enough videos rise to the 1,000,000+ level of hits, and some rise to 5, or even 10 million hits.

    As the epublishing industry sorts itself out and settles down, we will experience a similar scenario: Many will sell a few books to friends and family, but higher-quality books will garner recommendations outside that circle in proportionate numbers. Those books that offer a sample of the work inside will have a leg up on the competition as well, allowing readers to avoid books of lower quality.

    Let’s not forget the beginnings, for example, of one of the beloved books of our time, _The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy_. This is a book–nay, a series–which started as a BBC radio show long before it was conceived as a book. The radio public served as the gatekeepers yet again here. The fact is that in the publishing industry, like most other industries, word-of-mouth is the single-most important factor in determining a product’s success.

    It’s notable that somewhere in these “rounds” you noted how many books you have purchased versus how many you have actually read. Let’s re-frame that question to put it in a context more appropriate to your argument. How many books have friends recommended to you that you did not explore a purchasing route? My guess is your answer is “very few, if any.”

    Let’s also not ignore the fact that even traditional publishing houses will still stick all but the A-list authors with many of the same tasks which you bemoan are being performed by the ebook self-publisher. Sure, a publishing house will provide editing and typesetting services, but when you show me the publishing house that doesn’t make non-A list authors responsible for their own marketing, I’ll show you the publishing house that’s receiving my next query. Try getting space in Barnes and Noble for even a small display stand for your work if your last name isn’t King, Rowling, Cromwell, Crighton, Brown, or Kinney. They’ll let you sell your books the night you’re there speaking and signing, but keep that display for a few weeks after you leave? Newp.

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    Comment by jcanker — April 30, 2010 @ 3:09 pm | Reply

    • You wrote:

      How many books have friends recommended to you that you did not explore a purchasing route? My guess is your answer is “very few, if any.”

      The actual answer is none. Interestingly, among my friends I am the only one who reads books and shuns TV. Most of my friends watch TV and shun reading. A few do read. I can’t remember the last time a friend suggested I read a book. Of course, it might also be that among those of us who do read, my taste in reading material is significantly different than their taste. For example, they will read Stephen King and Dan Brown and I won’t.

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      Comment by americaneditor — April 30, 2010 @ 4:58 pm | Reply

  5. I know, I’ve said all this before. Well, I’m going to say it again.

    I have no doubt at all that there were those who swore up and down that Gutenberg’s process, by eliminating the need to have a roomful of monks in order to make books, would be the end of literature. And in fact, it may have been. For a while.

    I believe the human need for great writing (“literature,” if you will) will always, eventually, lead to the discovery and nurturing of those who produce it. But I’m not at all sure it will happen in my lifetime or yours.

    We may simply have been born to early or too late.

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    Comment by levimontgomery — April 30, 2010 @ 8:45 pm | Reply

  6. A couple of points:

    1. Since shortly after the invention of the printing press, there has been too much content for one person to read or digest. We’ve never had a situation where a single person or even the members of a single organization could read every book. There has always been a vast amount of content that the “literary community”, such as it is, has simply ignored. The ebook revolution merely increases the amount of content that you need to ignore.

    2. Pretty much every self-published ebook in the top 10000 in the Kindle Store [and there are QUITE a few] will sell at least 1500-2000 Kindle copies this year. A great many will sell many more than that; the top-selling independent titles in the Kindle store sell 5000-10000 copies a month. Is this a high enough number of readers for the consensus-building process to occur? I think so. I’m willing to bet it took a couple of decades before 10000 people had read The Divine Comedy or Leaves of Grass, but there was no difficulty in building a consensus around those titles. Nietzsche’s initial audience was measured in the hundreds [and in some cases for some titles, the dozens].

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    Comment by Thomas Brookside — April 30, 2010 @ 8:50 pm | Reply

  7. It’s interesting that you mention To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye — both of which are 40+ years old. One could say, in the sense you’re using it, that literature has already experienced its downfall. Can you name anything since then for which people have come to a similar consensus? There may be phenomena like Harry Potter, but that’s different.

    I know I read the Lee and Salinger books because they were assigned in school. That’s something to think about — what are the teachers reading? Now, if education ends up going down the same road as media and the arts, then we might truly see the end of common reading material — for a time. I tend to agree with levimontgomery — things will change, but it doesn’t mean there won’t be good stuff out there. We may have lived through the end of one era and are waiting for the next one to begin. All we can do is try to make the next one as good as possible.

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    Comment by Benjamin Lukoff — May 1, 2010 @ 2:10 am | Reply

  8. I guess the problem I’m having with this entire discussion is the idea of “consensus” of “what’s good.”

    I had large quantities of “great” literature — including many of the titles referred to in this thread — shoveled down my throat throughout my entire school life, and I hated all of it. None of it resonated with me or my life, or the life of anyone I know now or knew then. Much of it was turgid, or overstyled, or spoke more about the author than the subject. The majority of it was tragic, and inspired me to nothing except avoiding similar types of books once I was free of school.

    Meanwhile, I have read 3 to 7 not-great-literature books a week for 40+ years. I’ve found these books mainly by browsing bookstores, libraries, and tag sales, or picking up titles/authors referred by friends. Once in a while I read a review somewhere that sounds interesting so I try that author/book. Among this lowbrow mountain of titles, I’ve enjoyed and/or learned from 90+ percent of them. I keep the ones I want to re-read and move the rest along for other people’s pleasure (or not, as the case may be).

    Among the whole, I regularly see everything that qualifies as “great” in writing and story, portrayal of the human condition, etc. — all those qualities that make a book literary, even if people point and laugh at it because it’s baldly commercial.

    I strongly believe that teaching some of these books in schools, particularly in the low and middle grades, would turn more kids onto reading than what they’re currently given. If great literature is so great, then why aren’t people everywhere gobbling it up? Why did great literature chase away someone like me, whose entire life revolves around books?

    And why do we need somebody to tell us what great literature is? Why do we need to agree about it?

    A reading class that studies novels from all categories, well-written and badly written, old and new, traditionally published and e-published and self-published, would probably teach kids more about writing than a solid diet of the “masters.” It would also affirm that their tastes are valid no matter what form a story takes.

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    Comment by Carolyn — May 3, 2010 @ 2:30 pm | Reply

    • You ask good questions and ones that I cannot answer when you ask:

      If great literature is so great, then why aren’t people everywhere gobbling it up? Why did great literature chase away someone like me, whose entire life revolves around books?

      However, I will confess that I, too, found the “great” literature of my school days uninteresting. But as I look at that “great” literature with today’s experience, I can see why it is great compared to much of what I regularly read.

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      Comment by americaneditor — May 3, 2010 @ 3:28 pm | Reply

  9. Several agents and editors have called my novels “great literature” but the agents have not been able to sell my work to the editors. What do I do now? How do I find an editor/a publishing house that still wants to publish “great literature”.

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    Comment by Sharon — June 23, 2010 @ 9:57 am | Reply

  10. I think a large part of the problem is that not many people, unfortunately, WANT greatness in literature anymore–or, to be more specific, they despise the idea that one work can be “greater” than the other, especially if that pronouncement was made by an “academic” like, say, Harold Bloom. Such people believe that all literature is equal, that Shakespeare and Stephen King are merely “different” (even, in more extreme cases, regardless of genre differences), that to believe otherwise is to be culturally insensitve and even racist or misogynistic or homophobic, given that most of the literature pronounced “great” has been written by white (seemingly) heterosexual males. Such people, of course, are cultural critics who conveniently forget that narrow cultural expectations helped forge this view, instead accusing all who subscribe to it as hopelessly prejudiced; and yet, the “forgotten” writers they dredge up have, in many cases, been forgotten for damn good reasons–they suck. Until this deluding obsession with equality dies, if it ever does, literature itself is nothing more than more difficult TV, and you can bet “great” literature–a term implying inequality–will not come about. It’s no coincidence that many workshop writers obsess over little contemporary writers, for they are afraid, perhaps even embarrassed, to engage with their literary superiors. It has become “uncool” to speak of greatness, and people have succumbed to the ridiculous delusions that all literature–indeed, all art–is simply a chain of cultural differences, with no qualitative difference whatsoever. What difference, after all, could there be between Dickens and a text that reads, “lol dum bitch?”

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    Comment by Calliopea — July 31, 2010 @ 3:23 pm | Reply

  11. I belong to the “all literature is equal” camp because there is no known way to define “greatness” in any of the arts — or anything, for that matter. (There have been many great generals, for instance, who were insane, or destroyed their people.) Greatness remains a subjective and relative term (as do good, bad, etc.), and until it can be clearly defined and universally agreed upon, it remains subject to subjectivity.

    I, like most everyone, have strong opinions about what works are great and which works are terrible, and everything in between. There are many works I admire and respect, and that I think are, indeed, great — even though I happen to despise them and would never recommend them to anyone (or only to a select few whose tastes and mentalities appear a good match). Other people disagree with my opinions and consider those works great literature. Which of us is right? Who gets to decide?

    What matters is freedom of speech, freedom of taste, and access to the widest possible range of art and literature possible for all people. Other postings on this blog have raised serious questions about how to find and preserve works in the overwhelming flood of choice in this age. In my opinion, that’s the more important issue. Debating greatness is an intellectual exercise. Making it possible for greatness to be accessible and to survive (and to be debated!) is a cultural imperative.

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    Comment by Carolyn — August 3, 2010 @ 9:04 am | Reply


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