On The Business Of Literature

This post, by Richard Nash, originally appeared on The Virginia Quarterly Review site.

The following piece by Richard Nash will appear in our Spring 2013 issue, as the lead in a portfolio focused on the business of literature.

ONE OF THE REMARKABLE deficits in contemporary accounts of both book publishing and Internet business is sociohistorical awareness.

That it should be so with the Internet is unsurprising, prone as so many popular tech commentators are to triumphalist or progressive teleologies—one technology replacing another, one company killing another, IBM’s dominance unquestioned, then Microsoft’s unquestionable, followed in turn by AOL, MySpace, Facebook, etc. The implacability of Moore’s law is extrapolated from processing power to the social order. Similarly, most current discussions of the book economy rarely reach back earlier than the Golden Era of American publishing in the 1950s, the British one dating back perhaps a little farther, to the 1930s.

While many histories of the book incorporate serious empirical research—Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change is an epic example—three have arguably done the best job in applying that rigor to contemporary publishing: J. B. Thompson’s The Merchants of Culture; Ted Striphas’s The Late Age of Print, a series of case studies with particular focus on retail; and Laura Miller’s Reluctant Capitalists, which was almost purely about the retail side. Most other accounts of the contemporary business of literature are autobiographical, hagiographic, or histories of literature, avoiding the business and economics of it all. So why study a business that is sui generis, that isn’t even really a business—that, like America, is exceptional?

It is the Exceptionalists, the ones who claim the mantle of defender of the book, who undermine the book by claiming that it is a world unto itself, in need of special protection, that its fragility in the face of the behemoth or barbarian du jour (Amazon, the Internet, comic books, the novel, the printing press, illiteracy, literacy, to name but a handful of purported sources of cultural decline) requires insulation, like the skinny kid kept away from the schoolyard and its bullies. Who are these Exceptionalists? I think we’ve all read them, so I’ll restrict my strawhorses and offer as an example Sven Birkerts, who, in his introduction to the reissue of The Gutenberg Elegies, writes that “fiction is under assault by nonfiction”—this despite all the data that demonstrates fiction is disproportionately flourishing in the digital format. More problematic, though, is his characterization of the book as “counter-technology.” One may counterpose the book to many things, but technology shouldn’t be one of them. The book is not counter-technology, it is technology, it is the apotheosis of technology—just like the wheel or the chair.

Publishing is a word that, like the book, is almost but not quite a proxy for the “business of literature.” Current accounts of publishing have the industry about as imperiled as the book, and the presumption is that if we lose publishing, we lose good books. Yet what we have right now is a system that produces great literature in spite of itself. We have come to believe that the taste-making, genius-discerning editorial activity attached to the selection, packaging, printing, and distribution of books to retailers is central to the value of literature. We believe it protects us from the shameful indulgence of too many books by insisting on a rigorous, abstemious diet. Critiques of publishing often focus on its corporate or capitalist nature, arguing that the profit motive retards decisions that would otherwise be based on pure literary merit. But capitalism per se and the market forces that both animate and pre-suppose it aren’t the problem. They are, in fact, what brought literature and the author into being.

THE STORY OF THE book as technology—the book as revolutionary, disruptive technology—must be told honestly, without triumphalism or defeatism, without hope, without despair, just as Isak Dinesen admonished us to write. A great challenge in producing such an account is the “availability heuristic.” This is a model of cognitive psychology first proposed in 1973 by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky, which describes how humans make decisions based on information that is relatively easy to recall. The things that we easily recall are things that happen frequently, and so making decisions based on a large sample size would seem to make sense. The sun rises every day; we infer from this that the sun rises every day. A turkey is fed every day; it infers that it will be fed every day—until, suddenly, it isn’t. Heuristics are great until they aren’t. A person sees several news stories of cats leaping out of tall trees and surviving, so he believes that cats must be robust to long falls. These kinds of news reports are far more prevalent than ones where a cat falls to its death, which is the more common event. But since it is less reported on, it is not readily available to a person for him to make judgments.

Read the rest of the post on VQR.

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