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.