(In which we institute another occasional series, this one devoted to taking second, more considered looks at articles previously linked.)
There is much that is sensible, if scarcely groundbreaking, in Lev Grossman’s recent Time Magazine essay on publishing and the digital age. To be sure, the business of publishing has always felt the effects of technology; and there is a good deal that is wrong – ridiculous, even – about the way parts of the business of publishing are conducted.
But in his defense of self-publishing, Grossman makes what seems to me a fundamental error when he conflates sales with quality:
In theory, publishers are gatekeepers: they filter literature so that only the best writing gets into print. But Genova and Barry and Suarez got filtered out, initially, which suggests that there are cultural sectors that conventional publishing isn't serving.
Grossman tries to hedge things here a bit, suggesting that “best” might not speak to all “cultural sectors,” but one can reasonably argue with the overriding implication that the self-published success stories to which he alludes deserved a place among what he calls “the best writing” (a designation loose enough to be nearly meaningless but one we can take at face value for the purpose of this discussion to mean writing of the highest quality, cavils about cultural sectors notwithstanding).
But a look at any week’s best seller list is unlikely to turn up much in the way of “the best writing” – commercially successful writing, yes – but, as often as not, it’s writing that provides easy and familiar consolation, and after the financial rewards are spent, these works are unlikely to be remembered for the quality of their writing.
From everything I have seen, when agent or an editor chooses to take a chance on a book, it represents a calculation of some sort, a best-bet hunt for that elusive nexus of creative and commercial value – with a large dose of gut check. Given the costs of publishing, and the often small rewards, it’s understandable all sorts of authors, including those Grossman notes, might get passed over. But to sign someone who has successfully self-published is not necessarily a validation of overlooked good writing (though it’s possible) – it can simply be a no-brainer business decision, publishing's closest thing to a sure bet..
As I said at the outset, there is much that rings true in Grossman’s essay, and no one doubts that the next ten years in publishing will be, in the words of the apocryphal Chinese curse, an interesting time. But the biggest problem with Grossman’s essay is that he sidesteps almost entirely questions of quality. There are passing nods to “gatekeepers” but he seems to suggest that cell phone novels, fan fiction and other self-published efforts should be taken as seriously as, say, Ian McEwan and Zadie Smith, simply because there are people willing to read these things (and sometimes pay for the privilege). He doesn’t even gesture toward the notion that all books are not created equal, doesn’t once concede that much of his “wild diversity” consists of dreadful writing. When he suggests that “Novels will compete to hook you in the first paragraph and then hang on for dear life,” he is describing Hollywood, not literature – and certainly not “the best writing.” And with his formulation of Old Publishing – read: hidebound corporate behemoths – versus New Publishing – read: agile digital niche marketers – he leaves out a vital center. Companies like Soft Skull and Europa, to name only two, do not follow his model – they eschew big advances and are flexible in ways closer to their digital counterparts. There’s nothing “entrenched” about them.
I do agree with Grossman that the future will be found in various digital formats. I see it in my nephew and niece who text and surf and are wholly at home in an online world. But I’ve also seen the pleasure with which they kick back and open the pages of a physical book – “bespoke, art-directed” all the way – and I know that there is more to publishing’s future than is dreamt of in Grossman’s philosophy.