1.29.2009

A Welcome Madness?

"None of this is good or bad; it just is. The books of the future may not meet all the conventional criteria for literary value that we have today, or any of them. But if that sounds alarming or tragic, go back and sample the righteous zeal with which people despised novels when they first arose. They thought novels were vulgar and immoral. And in a way they were, and that was what was great about them: they shocked and seduced people into new ways of thinking. These books will too. Somewhere out there is the self-publishing world's answer to Defoe, and he's probably selling books out of his trunk. But he won't be for long." TIME, 1/21/09


An article in TIME, posted last week, has started its predictable march through the book blog world, and the issues it raises are best discussed here. After all, book bloggers are the types of folks who are thinking, writing, discussing, issues about books and publishing - both old and new. I've posited here in the past how I believe the internet has helped to increase reading and the pleasure of reading for many, including young people. As I said, the internet makes reading a communal activity and that can be a great thing.

TIME's article delves into the murky business of trying to tell the future of publishing, as it forecasts the eventual diminuation of publishers' hold on the gates between 'good' and 'bad' literature. Historically, publishers filtered the great stuff from the bad stuff and helped readers find books they would love. Clearly, everyone has different ideas of good and bad writing - witness the popularity of Harlequin romance novels - but, nonetheless, publishers provided SOME mediation in what was deemed quality and what wasn't.

Now, the internet, is having a grand old time doing away with that. Have you tried querying 5oo agents with no response? Forget it. Self-publish. Do you think you've got a great sequel to the Harry Potter series? Awesome. Get on fanfiction.com and write it. If your friends think it's cool, it may actually rise to the top of the pile. (J.K. Rowling won't let you publish it, but that's another post.)

TIME has likened this transformation to the 18th century emergence of the novel, a thing made possible by an increasingly literate population with money to spend, oh, and a printing press that could get new books out there. Richardson, Defoe, Behn and others jumped to the chance to tell bits of whimsy for a few coins, and fiction was born. People at that time were weary of the novel (they didn't like telling lies, hence the epistolary conceit), with a whole group of books - cautionary tales - cropping up to warn young women away from bad behavior and reading. All the heroines of these fascinating tales had two things in common: they let guys get into their pantalets before marriage and they read stories. The authors - clearly not recognizing the irony - associated one with the other. The moral fabric of this time could be ripped asunder by young people learning horrible things from books. The church folks loved to get worked up about this. History tells us that no one really listened.

Over time, it has been determined that reading these bits of whimsy is actually good for us. Our brains love the mental exericise of reading. The critcial thinking and memory skills cultivated through reading are the best and cannot be honed any other way. Yet, all reading was not created equal.

Reading on line is changing the way we read. We read faster now, we like shorter sentences (sorry RRL loves longish ones:), and want to absorb simple arguments. It's hard to read sustained, hard prose online. We want to skip around, ask Google for help, and post something pithy on Facebook. In response, the internet is giving us what we want and modern writers are also doing the same.

Just as television changed writing styles in the mid-20th century, so the internet is changing writing styles now. Books are prized for short, easy sentences. Fun, engaging plots and characters are more popular that ones that make you "work." Many authors are fighting the good fight and putting amazing prose out there - some doing the best stuff in years - Julie Leigh, anyone? - but the marketplace is not recognizing these artists. (Not that this is a surprise, high art has never made money like it should - again, another post.)

What I think is at issue here is the dedication to quality that publishers provide, along with the ability to arbitrate, edit, and set standards. Without the publishing world doing their job, we fall into a messy world inundated with thousands of stories with no way to determine real quality. I love playing on YouTube as much as the next person, but it's nuts how much stuff there is out there. It's a black hole of mediocrity. When TIME suggests that we will one day find good books in a similar manner, I cringe.

In the end, I'm going to fall back on my post-modernist, relevatist (it's so easy and painless) cultural education, and hope that the middle ground stays where it is. Let the folks play on fanfiction.com and do what they do with their favorite characters from Twilight, but let's also keep the publishers doing their work, finding great writers and setting standards for quality. It'll do our brains good.

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