How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Digital Future

Despite the panic that e-books inspire in the hearts of crusty publishing executives and would-be authors who can only fantasize about literary success in terms of hardbound novels rolling immaculately off the presses, I’m willing to hope there may be something to look forward to after all.  We’re always, these days, mourning the loss of one or another mythical paradise, whether the suburbia of the 1950s, the bohemia of the 1960s – or other Edens farther afield.  But the consolations of curmudgeonry often come at the price of flubbing the present.  Nostaligic devotion to the vision of a publishing world pre-dating the advent of the Web and the imposition of the Digital Mandate by our gadget-wielding overlords may prove a hobbling anachronism, a loyalty too far.

Jason Epstein in a recent piece for The New York Review of Books explores two possible benefits of digitization: the resurrection of the backlist (that is, those countless titles, many fallen out of print, which used to provide stability to publishers’ balance sheets, and which might still earn readers today) and an era of “disruptive literacy” resulting from the gross democratization of the form and means of publishing.  Indeed, Epstein sees in e-books a technology so potentially explosive in its intellectual consequences that it can only be compared to Gutenberg’s, which was, despite the havoc it unleashed, “the sine qua non for the rebirth of the West.”  If Jacques Barzun is right, then, and western culture is presently concluding a dawn-to-decadence cycle that began with Gutenberg five hundred years ago, we might, by Epstein’s lights, be seeing now the dim outlines of those forces that will shape a succeeding epoch.

Less compelling (and less convincing) is Epstein’s claim to have foreseen all of this twenty-five years ago, and his assurance that the digital future will still be a comfortable place for the professional author.  It’s mere fantasy, he says, to think that “in the digital future content will be free of charge and authors will not have to eat… Newborn revolutions often encourage utopian fantasies until the exigencies of human nature reassert themselves.”  Through stricter international copyright protections and the deletion of superfluous middlemen (warehousers and distributors superseded by electronic delivery and print-on-demand) authors will be liberated.  They may enjoy a greater share of profits from their work in the future than they do today, according to Epstein.  We shall see.  When everyone’s peddling a book, no one’s reading.  And I think we can safely assume that the technical means for circumventing copyright can only be expected to keep pace with those for safeguarding it.

Though he doesn’t quite address the issue directly, Epstein wants to gently reassure us (and himself) that the death of authorship as an economically self-sustaining profession is unlikely.  Let’s not even entertain such horrible notions, he seems to say.  I wish it were so certain.  But then, at the first invitation to heresy, I begin to wonder if the death of professional authorship wouldn’t possibly bring certain benefits – if it couldn’t possiby be a good thing.  Tell me:  How long has professional authorship been something granted to more than, say, a half-dozen people in each generation?  Two-hundred years, maybe?  Two-hundred-and-fifty?  Shakespeare never supported himself on the publication and sale of his plays.

Let’s be frank.  Freeing authors of fiction from the bonds of real-world drudgery has had some negative consequences.  It’s allowed too many to take themselves more seriously than they deserve.  It’s provided opportunities for gross self-indulgence and solipsism.  It’s sharpened authorial susceptibility to flattery that weakens the writer’s ability to see and hear the world everyone else still inhabits.  And it’s encouraged the cultivation of personal eccentricities that might have added charm and savor to their work if nurtured in open air and clean soil, but which turn the hot house of writerly isolation into a little shop of horrors.  Maybe it’s better to remove entirely the temptation to write for a living.  Maybe it’s better to write for pleasure, or out of compulsion.  If dear old Updike, for example, had been required to teach forty hours a week at a school for underprivileged boys, he might only have written half as many books as he did.  But, after all, there were some we could have done without.

[Thanks to Mark Richardson for passing along the Epstein article.]

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12 Comments

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12 responses to “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Digital Future

  1. tbm

    Freeing authors of fiction from the bonds of real-world drudgery has had some negative consequences.

    Somewhere in Orwell’s Collected Journalism volumes there’s a questionnaire response he gave about writers and writing, in which he arrives at much the same conclusion – basically, that writers should have a day job, among other reasons to keep them in touch with the real world. But (he says), preferably one that’s not too demanding.

    Re “disruptive literacy,” Epstein has this to say:

    Digitization makes possible a world in which anyone can claim to be a publisher and anyone can call him- or herself an author. In this world the traditional filters will have melted into air and only the ultimate filter—the human inability to read what is unreadable—will remain to winnow what is worth keeping in a virtual marketplace where Keats’s nightingale shares electronic space with Aunt Mary’s haikus.

    This makes me think of I.A. Richards’s experiment in Practical Criticism, where he had students read poems stripped of all the “status” clues we often use to interpret literature, with interesting results. The flood of writing on the internet is diluting our traditional status markers (“it’s in the New Yorker, so it must be good”), throwing the reader back on the resources of his own judgment, also with interesting results. I find a blog, more or less randomly, and if it holds my attention with what seems to me good writing, I come back. No masthead there to reassure me in my judgment, nor to cow me if I happen to think the writing is just a lot of hokum.

  2. Gaw

    The sense of entitlement is amusing. I don’t see why authors are bound to get paid enough to live on. As you and your previous commenter state, it’s not as if this has always been the case.

    If text becomes ubiquitous and mostly free perhaps we’ll see a revival of the Homeric bard? It would partly be a response to the need to somehow monetise your audience and partly as authenticity will be more highly valued. In Wales, until the modern era, poets had lived off live, Bardic performances for centuries.

    A parallel development has occurred in the music industry (which in many ways prefigures the future of publishing) where live performance has never been so popular and remunerative. Martin Amis playing the Wembley Arena and Madison Square Garden…

  3. Ian Wolcott

    TBM:

    That Orwell bit rings a bell, now that you mention it.

    Regarding “disruptive literacy” – I sometimes want to cheer on the chaos and yet I admit that I do fear, a little, the total democratization of text. I think about blogs, for instance – not my own so much as those like Patrick Kurp’s Anecdotal Evidence. There’s some very good writing out there that I think ought to be preserved, one way or another. I’m afraid it will only get buried in the digital morass. The medium is so fragile. In the new order of things a Johnson or a Hazlitt could earn a few hundred readers a week for a year or two and then lapse into total obscurity. Who, I wonder, will collect this stuff? Who will anthologize it and preserve it for the future? And in what form?

    Gaw:

    Really, the parallel with the music industry is interesting and I’ve wondered about the same thing. But isn’t the author is at a disadvantage? A talent for literary creation (which, as Epstein says, is a very solitary endeavor) doesn’t often coincide with a talent for public performance. It might drive authors into new (or old) forms, I suppose. But we’re already culturally accustomed to shelling out for the privilege of attending live musical performances. Readings are sparsely attended, when they occur, and more often free. The only person I’ve seen able to tour and sell tickets for that sort of thing in recent years (on my side of the Atlantic) was David Sedaris. It’s hard to imagine Philip Roth following suit.

  4. Excellent good (as the English used to go)––the posting and what has followed from it. Thanks, Ian.

  5. Gaw

    I’m flying quite an unrealistic kite, so to speak. But without buying into a whole Marxist interpretation, I do think artistic creation organises itself around those forms from which a return can be generated. So if the writing equivalent of ‘stadium bands’ make money and the equivalent of the ‘studio bands’ don’t we’ll see more of the former. However, I agree the more likely outcome is probably what you and tbm said previously: the majority of writers won’t be able to make a living from writing. They’ll either give up after a short period of penury or continue but earn their living somehow else.

    BTW I had some interesting commentary on the future of criticism from a reader called Recusant when I posted on this topic.

  6. tbm

    Mr. Wolcott (Ian):

    I think your response to mine touches on a fascinating aspect of publishing. Seriously – I wish doctoral students were writing dissertations on this (maybe some of them are, and it just gets drowned in the flood of postmodern nonsense).

    Basically – I agree with your objection to the chaos of the web (myself almost a technophobe, as well as anti-demotic, if truth be told); I simply wonder if the world of 18th and 19th century publishing was less chaotic.

    I own (insofar as is possible for the layman) most of Johnson’s oeuvre, and I happen to have the (gorgeous) Nonesuch edition of Hazlitt’s Selected Essays beside me, checked out from the university library (the checkout clerk actually remarked that it was the first time this had been checked out, and that from the library of a major university. but that’s neither here nor there).

    Bottom line – I appreciate the value of writers such as these having been championed, in a sense, by publishers so that they are passed down to you and me, and I think your concern about the long term viability of web writing is valid. I just wonder how Johnson, Hazlitt, and writers of their caliber rose above the chaff of the many, many other writers working in their own eras (enter doctoral dissertations here, to explain), and whether that process may not operate on web writing as well.

    My query is not polemical; it’s seriously open. I don’t know how it will all play out. I found Patrick Kurp, somehow, around 2006, and I’m now starting to see him mentioned, unexpectedly, on other sites, so maybe that’s a good sign. I think I found your blog, directly or indirectly, through Kurp’s (perhaps via Elberry, that queer, lovable animal), and I wouldn’t be surprised (all flattery aside) to see your own writing showing up somewhere else in the next few years.

    But I think it’s valid to wonder – how much, and which, of all this writing will be preserved for posterity, and how? O brave new world…

  7. Gaw

    I think we need to look how the new criticism will develop if we’re to understand how the new online literature will be organised. Dr Johnson and Hazlitt may be more pertinent even than we suspect.

  8. Ian Wolcott

    TBM:

    “…I simply wonder if the world of 18th and 19th century publishing was less chaotic.”

    I wonder too. I’m sure it was much more chaotic than most of us non-specialists imagine. I’d be interested to learn more about this, really. I mean, there was such a thing as self-publishing then: pamphleteering and whatnot. (Didn’t Johnson himself basically self-publish the Rambler essays – or am I mixing things up?) Still, I’m sure the barriers to entry, so to speak, were higher than they are today, when anyone with an internet connection (which is practically everyone) can become a pamphleteer without any up-front expense. Still, now as then, not everyone is interested to do the sort of thing vaguely defined as ‘literary.’

    Gaw:

    “…how the new criticism will develop”

    Perhaps the days of the professional critic are limited, too. A new criticism for a new medium?

  9. Hello Ian (et al),

    Ian conjectures & asks: “Perhaps the days of the professional critic are limited, too. A new criticism for a new medium?” As to the conjecture, the “perhaps,” cf. Frank Donoghue’s recent (and bleak & true) book “The Last Professors”:

    http://www.amazon.com/Last-Professors-Corporate-University-Humanities/dp/0823228606/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1268547416&sr=8-1

    Of course, there is “academic” literary criticism, from which people do not, for the most part, make any money except insofar as it secures them tenure & promotion. And then there is that more belletristic thing we sometimes call literary journalism. Many of us regret that the climate post-1960 or so made careers like Edmund Wilson’s inconceivable. The academy absorbed most of that, & then credentialed it, & then made it “caviar to the general,” as Hamlet says: unreadable (w/ pleasure) by most people not inside the discipline, and irritating to many within it. (Isn’t it Hamlet who says that, or rather is given it to say?)

    As to the new medium & a new sort of literary criticism for it, this is a much-debated topic amongst MLA sorts, & on tenure & promotion committees: how to handle & assess “web-based scholarship,” or contributions to journals that exist exclusively on-line, or the work faculty members do in that area now blandly called “teaching with technology.” Real prestige still chiefly attaches to hard copy, to print. I suspect that will continue for a decade or more, but who knows? I work in the academy and am beginning to keep an iron in each fire.

    But it is true, isn’t it? Here we are talking about literature and literary criticism in a forum no one even imagined possible when I was a grad student. There are no Deans kicking around.

  10. Lee

    Independence is money in the bank: one of the main reasons indeed not to be be paid for writing. I took this decision several years ago and have not regretted it.

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  12. Gaw

    Ian, I link to your first comment above in this post as Newspaper Club presents an interesting way to turn blogposts into a characterful physical artifact.

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