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stricter international copyright protections and the deletion of superfluous middlemen (warehousers and distributors superseded by electronic delivery and print-on-demand) authors will be liberated.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.]