Are We Riding Waves of Literature or Are We Drowning in Crap?

An American 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 was this:

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. . . . Good enough becomes the great leveler. . . . The standard of good enough is not a high enough standard for literature.

He has one comment so far, which I believe brings up a valid point:

It seems that you are pointing out the loss of our culturally accepted “gatekeepers.”

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. . . . 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.

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.

I believe both points of view are valid and true. Literary gatekeepers—the editors and publishers—do filter out the fine from the flawed. But they also use other filters to choose manuscripts that have little to do with literature and everything to do with business survival such as the bottom line. If it means publishing forgettable but popular books, they do. And it is unquestionable, at least to me, that some manuscripts worthy of becoming Literature are bypassed not because they don’t meet “gatekeeper standards” but because they won’t sell enough.

On the other hand, I miss newspaper book sections far more in theory than in fact. The New York Times has shown its biases for its own writers and for male authors. The Los Angeles Times  was, frankly, boring in many cases. Its reviewers often seemed more concerned with their own self-knowledge than with the book under review. Losing them is a loss to the literary community. But while the world of literary websites, forums, and blogs offering “judgment by the many” may lack the professionalism and standards that “judgment by the few” possess, they have something rarely seen in those newspaper review sections: enthusiasm. Ground-floor passionate enthusiasm for books and reading that encompasses everyone. Many more books get talked about and become known to readers. They are helping to stimulate reading! And no amount of grousing by the “old guard” is going to change that—even thought their standards are worthy of being emulated.

Aside from the interest the article generated for me, I think it is timely. Last week I talked about why BiblioBuffet has a policy of not reviewing self-published or vanity-published books. It really comes down to two reasons: (1) too many books, not enough time, and (2) needles are really hard to find in haystacks. On rare occasions, however, a self-published book (never a vanity one, in my experience) comes along that is breathtaking. Amazingly, I saw two—a coffee-table cookbooks and a book of historical fiction about Somalian immigrants—this past weekend at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. What made me stop was that they were virtually indistinguishable not only from a regular trade book but even from a top-of-the-line publisher like Knopf. I ended up buying one of them there and ordering the second when I got home. These are books I would like to review.

In fact, Nicki and I are currently discussing BiblioBuffet’s current book submission policies. What if anything will happen is unknown. But I see all this change in the publishing industry as creating tidal waves of changes in books. Hopefully, we won’t drown in crap but instead find ourselves riding our literary horizons gently onto the worldwide shores of Literature.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Are We Riding Waves of Literature or Are We Drowning in Crap?

  1. BiblioBuffet’s policy of not reviewing self-published or vanity press books (I’m not certain what distinguishes the latter from the former) is exactly why literary gatekeeping — even with its flaws, such as keeping an eye on the bottom line — is so important. What will you review when there are no literary gatekeepers? And how will you choose among the hundreds of thousands of non-gatekeeped ebooks that will be available? Or will you simply stop reviewing altogether? I know that it is politically correct to want equal opportunity and equal access for all authors, but all authors are not equal. In addition, your comment about how difficult it is to find that needle in the haystack supports, I think, the value of literary gatekeepers even though the system is flawed.

    • Good morning.

      Wonderful comment, thank you! We have not yet made any decisions. Our purpose in reviewing books issued exclusively from trade and university presses is precisely to control the incoming flood of awfulness that is overwhelmingly seen in self-published and vanity-published print books. (As this time, we do not review e-books nor do we intend reviewing them any time in the forseeable future.) We agree on that. However, as I noted I ran across two self-published books at the book festival. They were superb, of very high quality in all ways. In addition, another book has arrived that is also self-published; in fact, it is the eighth book by this author, all of them again very well done, both in editorial and design.

      We have no intention of becoming a place where the dreck of the writing world can find a reviewing home, but it is possible that we might consider the rare exceptions like those three noted above. I too believe in the value of literary gatekeepers, but I also think that the first comment made some good points. I worked for a while as the books editor for my city’s weekly newspaper, and since the publisher wanted to keep the advertisers happy in the last (struggling) year of the paper’s life he began to insist that local books or books with a local angle–the majority bad and badly “published”–be reviewed. It left a bad taste in my mouth, one that I remembered all too well when the idea for BiblioBuffet was born, and I wrote the Book Submission Guidelines for it.

      Our current policy has served us well. I don’t really forsee a change. But I do wonder if a little flexibility on rare occasions might be in order. We are still talking about it. And even if we do make a change, it will never lower the standards we require of books we review.

  2. Re two self-published books: “What made me stop was that they were virtually indistinguishable not only from a regular trade book but even from a top-of-the-line publisher like Knopf. I ended up buying one of them there and ordering the second when I got home. These are books I would like to review.”

    I think this is amazing, especially following so quicly on the heels of your other post.

    And this: “But I see all this change in the publishing industry as creating tidal waves of changes in books.”

    Scary…and exciting.

    It’s so much fun to be able to witness your process on all of this.

    • Thank you. I agree, it is both scary and exciting to see the changes but I admit to a fondness, perhaps excessive, for the traditional. It’s probably why, if the book is not new, I strongly prefer to own an old copy. Old books make the best friends, don’t they?

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