February 15th, 2011 18:18 EST
The Literary Playing Field is Being Leveled By The Internet: Just Like Politics
The perils of literary gatekeeping
The tedious fuss over the role of electronic and demand-print books obscures the more important issue of who will be our literary arbiters. The sidestepping debate about the place of such books in our culture is over.
The persistent critical neglect of these new-technology books is the relic of a rearguard action by a critical establishment which itself is changing. It remains true that whatever the Big Six houses publish is more likely to gain attention in prestigious media than the digital and demand-print output of small presses. That is because the media derive advertising revenue from the Big Six and precious little from small presses.
We have yet to have an honest discourse about this, let alone the more significant issues it raises, such as the way money corrupts taste-making. Our best known critics, after all, are paid from advertising revenues, and they and their corporate bosses have little incentive to pay serious attention to books that are unlikely to pay their rent.
Under the circumstances, what we need is innovation, not bromide. We have had more than enough self-serving snideness about being swamped by bad writing and poor editing churned out by demand-print publishers, more than enough about the loss of vetting and sensitive editing. The big houses have forefeited their right to level these criticisms, having themselves inundated us with bad writing and bum editing.
What we need is an alternative critical establishment. And we`re beginning to see alternatives emerge, but they soon confront the same problems facing the big houses and the digital and demand industries "the available business models are either shaky or failing.
To see the problem more clearly, let`s turn, improbably, to the housing bust. Speculative overbuilding was endemic, and the press knew it, but the press was deriving heavy advertising revenues from developers and predatory lenders, just as politicians were being bribed by developers to allow inappropriate building. In other words, the self-righteous press was as corrupted as the politicians, beguiled into silence by money. Everybody concerned was asking, Where`s my cut?
Back to books. If a small press in a small town publishes a great book, the chances of its getting serious attention in the hifalutin journals and newspapers are slim, because there`s no money in it for them. No money to lavish on advertisements, no money to pay Barnes & Noble and Borders to stack the book on a table in the front of the store, no money to pay publicists and generate buzz. And the minute the idea of publishing a book on the web or on small demand-print presses emerged, the book publishing industry recognized the threat not only to its moneymaking machine but also to the taste-making machine at its service. And that is why we had a pooh-pooh barrage, disparaging e-books and POD books. When the new technology could no longer be ignored, simply because traditional publishers weren`t doing all that well, the big guys said to themselves, Well, at least we still have the budgets to buy the taste-making apparatus.
And that`s where we are now: the taste-makers more and more unsuccessfully try to ignore or downplay what isn`t published by the big houses, and their task gets more and more difficult as the small presses learn how to use the Internet to their advantage. As for the mainstream press, it won`t cover this evolution because it`s beholden to the big guys. And with Borders seeking bankruptcy protection because it can`t pay the rent for its cavernous stores, the maligned e-book now looks like a savior.
The real revolution is not merely technological, although that is how the press has presented it to us. The real revolution is cultural and intellectual. It has been convenient for the literary establishment to frame our discourse by ignoring the future of tastemaking, because real discourse would inevitably raise challenges to the way we decide which books are important and deserve attention. We have conducted tastemaking like we conduct racing and casinos, defining it as a race to the top. The top of what? Bad taste? We have an opportunity now to reexamine this crass culture.
When I was a book editor for a daily newspaper some years ago, I received packages every day from the publicists "review copy, photo of the author, press release, book tour schedule, a contact for interviews. I was struck by how my fellow book editors were all reviewing the same books because we were all being hand-fed by the same publicists. But that was only half the story. Our publishers were all hoping to sell ad space for these same books. Market, not merit, reigned supreme, but we were constrained by convention to pretend that merit was our singular concern. It was a strain not to feel soiled. There was no way for us not to know that many books were being published that would sink out of sight without coming to our attention simply because their publishers lacked market clout. We were measuring market clout and calling the outcome a meritocracy. We knew better, but our careers depended on playing the game.
Some critics argue that too many books are being published. How can that be a legitimate argument? We don`t have to read them. And judging by the return rates reported by Barnes & Noble and Borders, sometimes reaching 90 percent, we`re not reading them. But how can a society be too culturally engaged? What cockamamie arbiter can argue that with a straight face? Doesn`t it mean simply that the existing critical establishment is not up to the job of vetting the output of the small independent and university presses, not willing to concede that great literature will come from obscure places? And isn`t this a defensive posture, an unconvincing apologia? So what if the establishment isn`t up to the job? Why lie about it? Why not just develop new venues? No shame, no blame.
Do the small presses turn out crap as well as passable but essentially mediocre work? Yes. And so do the big guys. But the more important issue is who calls it crap or anything else, for that matter. With the new technologies should come new critics, new venues, new kinds of reviewing. Perhaps we should even reexamine the word review. Perhaps we should talk about discourse and inquiry instead. Perhaps our entire critical apparatus needs a forensic inquiry. Perhaps in this more accessible environment so-called reviewers will come to be perceived as giving themselves airs. Some, many perhaps, will say that without a gate-keeping elite to impose standards, literature will decline. I have no ready retort, but I`m not impressed by Chicken Little. Our standards are pretty low now, and I hardly think our gatekeeper elite is credible, considering much of what it habitually takes seriously.
Now we`re caught in a kind of time warp in which the Big Six and their critical establishment engage in a symbiotic relationship that continues to make the case that digital and demand publishing is alternative publishing at best and vanity publishing at worst. And our culture continues to tolerate this self-serving blather because the media that report what passes for discourse about such issues are as dependent on advertising revenues as the periodical reviews. In other words, our current discourse is commercially compromised to some extent; we can`t trust the people who are reporting the issues to us because they`re vested in a view in dispute.
There are vanity presses aplenty. There are hybrids, such as the cooperative presses to which an author contributes a portion of the publishing costs. There are vanity presses that conceal their underlying business model. There are many variations. But it`s a cynical disservice to paint all print-on-demand publishers as vanity operations. This label was pinned on them in the days when the conventional publishers were busy tarring the new technologies instead of figuring out how to embrace them. Many small presses simply recognize that demand-printing is compatible with their business model which requires them to be careful not to overreach.
We can argue, and it is being argued, that a capitalist society can`t ameliorate such circumstances. If that is so, and it`s arguable, we can at least acknowledge imperfections instead of clinging to notions that became subject to challenge the minute digital and demand printing emerged in the 1990s. We have a choice of going where we`re going blindly or turning over the familiar rocks as we go and taking a hard look at what`s under them.
Until recently a handful of big publishing houses, served or disserved by agents who are often lawyers, has been able to define literary merit. Their ability to do this has been rooted in their advertising support of periodicals that write about books. Our task now is to widen the beam of critical attention to embrace the e-world and print on demand. One reason for the elevated status of the agents is that the corporate bosses of the publishing houses have instituted so many cost-cutting procedures that the publishers have become reliant on the agents when deciding what they ought and ought not to publish.
The influence of the cartel, which is for the most part controlled as are our newspapers by much larger corporate entities, has been mitigated somewhat by university presses; they have largely but not always published the work of people associated with the academy, and the academy has a vested business interest in the ever-growing MFA industry. The corporate media and the university together squeeze out a great many outsiders. A finer culture would suspect the idea of outsiders. Who, after all, determines who is an outsider? The answer is someone who has gotten his and is taking part in a decision as to who will or will not get his. This insider culture is challenged by the web, just as insiders in Egypt have been toppled by a web-savvy youth movement. A culture that creates outsiders is of its nature jettisoning much of its own potential.
Now print-on-demand publishing enables small presses to challenge the old equations. In so doing, they threaten to become literary gatekeepers in their own right. They do not have the bestseller lists, which are really measures of advertising dollars, to help them, but they do have the ability to keep their books in print. (And so do the big traditional houses, thanks to electronic and demand publishing, but will they stop remaindering books after a few months on the shelf? We`ll see).
Chris Anderson, editor of Wired, and e-commerce guru Seth Godin have changed the rules of engagement. The web is now the primary marketing arena. The big houses not only have no monopoly in this area, they often fumble around in it.
When print-on-demand emerged in the 1990s few people foresaw the power of the web. The idea of the e-book was exotic and was dismissed as a gimmick. Today a new technological publishing environment exists and is expanding. It faces these challenges:
* Trouble getting into bookstores
* Trouble getting reviewed
And it has this advantage: born in the age of the worldwide web, it is far more adept at marketing on the web than the traditional offset publishers. The web is the ocean, and the Big Six are still dipping their toes in it while many small presses have long since learned how to swim in it.
But this is only the beginning. Web and digital technologies are fast evolving. We are looking at the equivalent of prop-driven airplanes when we look at demand printing. Tomorrow the game will change yet again.
We are fixated on the changes and our nostalgia for a more genteel time, while we should move on to questions of how we determine merit and significance, how we level the playing field so that the public can decide rather than the marketers. No amount of fondness for the propeller-driven airplane could have forestalled the advent of jet aviation, and no sentimentality about what was always a deeply flawed publishing industry will stop a new version from coming into being. We have an opportunity to redress some of the flaws and to broaden opportunities to get into the game, and they will only be delayed by obsessing about the demerits of the new models. The Gutenberg press was hardly the perfect successor to calligraphy "it put a lot of marvelous artists out of business "but it also put the dark ages out of business.
We have accepted the dictum that the market decides because we are a market economy, but the dictum has always been bogus. Publishing houses decide where to put their money, how much money to spend on certain books and when to pull the plug on them. In this sense, the market is rigged. This is not taste-making by the most refined and literate people but rather taste-making rooted in Wall Street`s casino mentality. What is at stake here is moving from a casino literary market to a vast and fairer web-based market.
Djelloul Marbrook is a retired newspaperman. His second book of poems, Brushstrokes and Glances, will be published by Deerbrook Editions on December 20, 2010. His first book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. It won the International Book Award in 2010. His novella, Artemisia`s Wolf, will be published by Prakash Books of India in December. His novella, Saraceno, was recently published as an e-book. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal LattÃ© first prize in fiction in 2008. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999.
Del`s book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm
New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/
Artists Hill, Literal LattÃ©`s fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/
His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com
His mother`s art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com
His aunt`s art: http://www.irenericepereira.com