As we leave behind the “aughts” decade, the NBCC seeks the best guest posts about the future of book culture, including essays, interviews and free-range opining. How do you see book culture evolving over the next decade? Attorney and law professor Peter Friedman, who blogs daily at Ruling Imagination: Law and Creativity on the ways law affects creative endeavors and the way creativity informs the practice of law, sent this response to Katharine Weber's guest post in this series.
Katharine Weber details, some of the changes wrought by the internet on book publishing and concludes, among other things, “That literary work will continue to lose value as it is seen even more as just another form of communication, rather than as a work of art with its own integrity.” Weber is by no means alone in prophesying literature’s doom, but I could not more strongly disagree with such Cassandras. The fact so many people are freaking out is, in my opinion, an obvious one: we’re living through a technological revolution.
The ways we produce, copy, and disseminate information have entirely changed. Anyone sitting in a coffee shop can produce a document that looks as if it’s been typeset. (And I’m sure my students have no clue what typesetting is.) That document can be copied at virtually no cost, and disseminated world-wide at virtually no cost. So, guess what? The entire publishing industry as we’ve known it is a walking corpse. You can almost imagine it as a zombie — composed of parts of Sarah Palin, Oprah, Dan Brown, and Tiger Woods — lumbering down Manhattan’s avenues.
That these material changes will change book culture is a sociological truism, but the culture’s reactions to the changes will also have an effect on the material reality. Prophets of doom tend to prescribe remedies intended to recall comforts forever past. That’s why a cultural freakout is not a healthy thing. It leads to bad decisions. Had Jack Valenti and the entire film industry had their way, there would be no VHS machines, no CD and DVD burners, etc., etc. But it turned out that the VHS was the biggest financial boon the film industry had ever experienced.
Readers will still buy books. They’ll read books on electronic readers a lot and in codex form a lot – I’m pretty sure demand for the scroll and the inscribed tablet has vanished entirely. And there will be some illicit copying and distribution. It's understandable that those who work for publishing houses and anyone who’s convinced her livelihood is dependent on publishing houses is freaking out. Like the businesses that once dominated the film and music industries, the monopoly held by the industry over production and distribution is now in the hands of any kid with a laptop. The film and music industries are still making money. But that money is now made in a far wider variety of ways, and is split among more parties. It’s no wonder these industries are therefore decrying their deaths. They are dying. But their ways of producing and distributing art (be it film, music, or books) for the past 100 years has as much relevance today as the horse and buggy industry’s ways had after the automobile had come into wide use.
The ways of making money producing books may have to change. “Freemium” models like those offered by some musicians and filmmakers no doubt will become more common. We may well see a renaissance in the lost art of book-binding as book sellers look to distinguish their wares to book buyers. New technologies will lead to new media too, including novels and histories that incorporate video and audio. And, as Katherine Weber predicts, each text will “much more potentially [be] integrated into every other text.” Weber, however, sees this “breakdown in boundaries between communication and literary work” as a threat to the integrity of the literary work. In fact, it may revive older notions of literature as the collaborative effort of entire communities of crafts-people and audiences modern modes of production had effaced.
There’s been literature for what, at least 3000 years? The fall of the structure which produced and sold it in the 20th Century capitalist West won’t mean there won’t be great literature. There may be more. I really think so.
I recently bought and re-read Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes this World. The Trickster is the character who operates between realms, at doorways, through openings that others don’t cross either because they don’t see them or they’re afraid of what’s on the other side. (The intro to Hyde’s book is available as a pdf here — provided by Hyde himself.) And the trickster is the artist. If there’s ever been a doorway to a new reality in the world of literature, we’re facing it head on. Let’s break on through to the other side!