Guest Post: Michelle Kerns on the Next Decade in Book Culture

by Michelle Kerns | Dec-26-2009

As we wind down the "aughts" decade,  the NBCC seeks the best guest posts about the future of book culture, including essays, interviews and free-range opining. The topic: How do you see book culture evolving over the next decade? This just in from Michelle Kerns:

Goodbye to Fifth Avenue; Or, Duck, Folks! Here Comes Literary Diversity --Finally

Anyone with two brain cells to rub together can see where the book world is headed in this new decade -- towards an inexorable collision with the Mega-Novel, the Book to End all Books, the Book of Books. It'll feature wand-wielding, love-crossed young vampires who uncover dark conspiracies within the Catholic church, sport extraordinary tattoos, and speak deeply ofbtipping points and scientific discoveries of ye olden days.

And now that I've disclosed the plot of my Great American Novel, I should just exile myself to an inhospitable forest where I can preserve the virgin purity of True Literature by memorizing and reciting the Complete Works of Shakespeare as if I am living in some frightful scene from Fahrenheit 451.

That's precisely how a goodly number of publishers, book enthusiasts,insert-the-book-reviewer/publication-of-your-choice-here see the future of all things bookish. As if we are living in the Last Days. As if literary quality and innovation is gasping on its deathbed due to the ravages of that rapacious, hulking beast, the Internet.

The Internet has changed how people think about books! No one knows what good literature is anymore! If we're not careful, people will be reading and loving the newest Dan Brown novel! On Twitter! And calling it good writing! Bypassing established book review publications to see what an anonymous book blogger has to say! The horror, the horror!

Far be it from me to lag behind in the headlong rush to judgment, but I simply cannot agree. When I gaze into my crystal ball, I don't see the Internet destroying books or dragging down the overall quality of literary criticism. Instead, I see the Internet giving literature -- and the entire literary discussion -- something that it has sorely needed for some time: diversity.

For, lo, these many long years, every aspect of the book world has been dominated by the East Coast and New York City in particular. A relatively small group of people have determined what is published, who is published, what gets reviewed, what gets lauded as a tour de force, and what gets panned as pulp. Or ignored.

The flaw in this brilliant little system is that the majority of things bookish end up filtered through the perspective, the life experience, the belief systems of a distinct group of people who are definitively not representative of the rest of the reading public. In terms of diversity in the literary process and discussion, it's a joke. True diversity in the book world doesn't exist. Yet.

The book world needs to clean house and move out of its fortress of power in the East, and the Internet will compel it to do just that. The Internet, that Great and Terrible Equalizer, can do something no other form of print communication is capable of -- it can give literary opinions that have gone unheard until now equal weight with the opinions of the Old Guard. It can give us real literary diversity.

And because these new voices won't be shackled in any way to connections in the Alabaster City, they are free to question and explore. They will force the Old Guard to rethink and revise everything they have ever taken for granted, bookwise: Why are reviews written in this way and not that way? Why is this genre considered better than that genre? Why are Manhattan and Brooklyn featured prominently in every third book published on the face of the earth?

Won't this laissez-faire approach to books result in the publication of utter trash and idiotic reviewers saying absurd and reckless things? Oh, sure. But probably not, proportionally, much more so than happens already.

And to say that, in defense of the art, these voices should be silenced or undervalued is simply not staying true to the ideal of diversity: that all voices, everywhere, have a right to be expressed and heard.

None of this is going to be easy for the Old Guard. They should, however, take a lesson from that old master, E.B. White. In his 1957 essay "Good-bye to Forty-Eighth Street," Mr. White compares moving -- from places, from perspectives -- to a molting lobster: "And in every place he abandons he  leaves something vital, it seems to me, and starts his new life somewhat less encrusted, like a lobster that has shed its skin and is for a time soft and vulnerable."

This new decade is going to see the long-established book world scraping off a lot of its encrusted ideas, whether by choice or by force. They're going to feel -- and be -- vulnerable. But they're going to find that, in the long run, they are stronger, smarter, and better off for the experience.

The discussions will be controversial. They will be provocative. They will push literature and literary discussion into realms that it would never have bothered to venture into before.

I say, bring it, baby. I can't wait.

 




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