“But it seems to me that ebooks are now a subject almost wholly unrelated to books. It’s about money and it’s about “the industry” and it’s about form, but not content.” – Catherynne Valente
“Everyone I see is now talking about writing as a craft, selling as a business, etc, etc. Whatever happened to the poetry of what we do?” – Paul Jessup
A few days ago there was a provocative confluence in the aether; two highly opinionated authors ended up in a serendipitous dialogue about the impingement of commerce on the art of fiction-writing. Catherynne Valente produced a lengthy discourse on the alienating commodification of the novel via ebooks, while Paul Jessup, after discussing the erasure of art from the idea of being a writer, then discussed the problem of writers losing sight of artistry. I found both of these to be powerful discussions, because they illustrate the latest iteration of an eternal problem that has been magnified by our particular economic system.
The quotation from Valente above deftly codifies the problem: in a system that has steadily been used to further commodify, streamline, and standardize the novel as a product, there has been an increasing emphasis on the format of a book rather than what work is contained within that format. E-books as the bold future, publishers and paper books as anachronisms, and in the present writers stuck in ongoing debates about how to navigate a market that is changing more rapidly than it has in at least a few generations. These changes have some promise (such as easier access to titles and some flexibility for new writers), but the thrust of this shift has been to accelerate the pace of turning individual works of art and craft into an undifferentiated commodity, to the point where that conversation overtakes those about the individual works themselves. The Ebook has managed, through dint of its ease of replication and distribution and its relatively modest production price, to turn books into homogenized commodities, into digital packets that one can buy for next to nothing and store out of sight, an ultimate sort of impulse buy. The individual book ceases to matter as much and can become even more interchangeable, easier to lose in the increasing flood of stories being released in such profusion that the intent often seems to be to intentionally overwhelm readers so that they will overbuy, further erasing the distinctiveness of each book.
In another way, the latest move by Amazon to create its own publishing arm demonstrates this trend, particularly in the creation of subsidiary branches such as their SF/fantasy/horror imprint 47North (a name with as much forethought as naming a cooking imprint “The Corner of the Office Kitchen Where The Microwave Is Kept”), whose products are almost all action and thriller variations. While there are several flavors of genre presented, the works described are adventures and mysteries whose difference is primarily setting (for example, all of the main protagonists are males in an adventure or suspense plot, except in one work where there is a star-crossed couple). Certainly a focus on thrills and mystery is not new in the book industry, but the increasing focus of new publishing ventures seems to be to promote and sell works whose variation is more flavor than substance, to put forth vast numbers of similar things.
This is an acceleration of trends in book publishing; for years the market was flooded with cheap paperbacks whose covers could be ripped off and returned while the bulk of the book was just disposed of (and hopefully at least recycled). With the ebook, that process behind that wasteful practice is being superseded and intensified; without physical items to ship or throw away, the book enters a new stratum of commodification which permits an increasing proliferation of offerings but that simultaneously demands a level of homogeneity from many of them. And thus the conversation is more about form than content because form is what is being sold, sheer units with cosmetic differences. Discernment of the consumer needs to be worn down so that they buy more units, and the writer needs to be informed that what they produce is not primarily art, that it has to be less distinctive and essentially fit the new format of books and the new ways of selling them.
The physical book has its problems, and certainly the ebook has a democratizing potential. But its indistinctness of form and ease of reproduction makes me wonder if a virtual Benjaminian crisis of reproduction is in the making. Ebooks erase distinctiveness in several troubling ways even as they create new opportunities for dissemination. To focus on ebooks as commodities first is perhaps inevitable, because they are so interchangeable and easy to possess yet the terms of possession are more ephemeral. The dislocation of the text from a physical object creates a specter of a book that can be taken away in some cases, its uses (such as lending) severely limited, or can just disappear when the technological bearer of it malfunctions. Thus the idea of what constitutes “a book” is being gradually altered.
Removing books into an aethereal format has an impact on how we think about books as objects, but also as subjects of our attention and imagination. What effect this has on our reception of the text is hard to say; my personal experience is that the words can still be effective, although I find less pleasure and more eye strain reading an electronic text than one on the physical page. But what both Paul and Cat point out in their discussions is that the evolving style of commodifiction of the ebook is changing the conversation about fiction as art. Paul’s shorter discussion is more a series of queries and wonderings, but his focus on the question of poetry, on how the conversation moves away from the interpretive and ineffable qualities of literature, is a very important one to bear in mind. He also demonstrates in the contrast between his two posts the increasing dissonance in conversations about who a writer is, what skills they require, and just what they are producing. As ebooks proliferate and as companies such as Amazon take steps to expand the market (and their market share), will the idea of what a book is, and what an author is, begin to alter? Has that already begun? Given what Cat and Paul are saying, I think it has.