By Porter Anderson | @Porter_Anderson
From December 27, 2012
Part of my series of columns on publishing, Writing on the Ether, appearing Thursdays at the invitation of Jane Friedman at JaneFriedman.com
Tim O’Reilly’s Context for the Comment
Skinnier, narrower, fainter: 2012 is mercifully starting to blur and go wonky, breaking up into wavy lines and scooting colors. Daily it gets harder to care, even about all those Top 10 lists dumped on us in the past weeks.
And now, even better, we’re declaring the Prediction Period to be closed.
You know this time of year in publishing. It’s as if the Holy See in Rome had issued Predictions for Publishing Urbi et Orbi – the cardinals are everywhere. ‘Tis the season when publishing people are seized, red-faced, with great spasms of prognostication nobody asked for. Everybody’s a psychic.
Listen to Jonny Geller. UK bookshops have been halved in seven years. There’s our present tense and tension. More than enough without what-if-ing about the future that lies before us. Let’s try understanding what’s already happened first.
I must say, the O’Reilly “I don’t give a shit” line has been the perfect distraction from all the soothsaying.
It’s the diss heard ’round the Predict-o-Rama, one of our best leaders in the business, the visionary Tim O’Reilly of O’Reilly Media, in a fine interview with Steven Levy for Wired — so many good things to say — and suddenly, boom, emphasis mine:
I don’t really give a shit if literary novels go away. They’re an elitist pursuit. And they’re relatively recent. The most popular author in the 1850s in the US wasn’t Herman Melville writing Moby-Dick, you know, or Nathaniel Hawthorne writing The House of the Seven Gables. It was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow writing long narrative poems that were meant to be read aloud. So the novel as we know it today is only a 200-year-old construct. And now we’re getting new forms of entertainment, new forms of popular culture.
Careful, you could be trampled by English teachers running screaming into the night.
Tim O’Reilly’s Key to Creating the Next Big Thing is a fine interview.
For example, on Apple, O’Reilly tells Levy:
They’re clearly on the wrong path. They file patent suits that claim that nobody else can make a device with multitouch. But they didn’t invent multitouch. They just pushed the ball forward and applied it to the phone. Now they want to say, “OK, we got value from someone else, but it stops now.” That attitude creates lockup in the industry. And I think Apple is going to lose its mojo precisely because they try to own too much.
Amazon is clearly trying to own the entire stack. They ate most of the retail part of the stack, and now they’re trying to eat the publisher part of the stack. On the other hand, Amazon is doing so many good things—their cloud-computing initiatives have been earthshaking, and I give Jeff Bezos great kudos for getting the publishing industry to move seriously toward ebooks. I am so impressed with them. I just wish they were a little less ruthless.
And about the Web, itself:
I had no idea it would be as big as it became. I still remember in 1993 my partner Dale Dougherty originally wanted to do Global Network Navigator as a quarterly online magazine. And I remember saying to him, “Dale, I think people will have the web browser open on the desk every day. We have to think about them accessing it every day.” I had no idea that it would be every minute.
Now, O’Reilly jumps onto Google+ to announce:
And to top it off, I’m wearing OATV portfolio company Betabrand’s “Executive Hoodie” in the photo :-)
Pinstripes, no less. And this is the same Tim O’Reilly, remember, who in a personal bio on the O’Reilly.com site wrote:
I read a lot (I recently counted more than 5000 books in my house) — science-fiction, historical fiction, classics, and books about big ideas. I buy business books but rarely read past the first chapter. I read enough technical material at work that I try to avoid it at home. One of my favorite kinds of book to discover is the bestseller of a bygone era, the books that didn’t quite make it to classic status but still reached millions of people. They can often tell us more about the unique sensibility of an era than the timeless classics.
So what gives with his apparent denunciation of literary fiction?
Sure enough, O’Reilly addressed it in a private industry email exchange. He has given me permission to use what he wrote there about the comment. (Journalists who follow this list agree to request permission of list members to use their comments in public settings.) One reason I’m glad O’Reilly spoke to the remark is that, in doing so, he pointed to a strong Charlie Rose Show, a conversation aired in November. O’Reilly wrote:
If anyone saw the session I did on Charlie Rose, you will have some context for this remark (which was part of a larger discussion, excerpted for maximum impact, as I should have expected…). Ken Auletta and Jonathan Safran were hand-wringing to the tune of “who will pay for the kind of things we do if the big publishers go away.” Jane Friedman and I were responding: “If people want what you do, you’ll find a way to get paid. But no one owes you continuation of the current players and business model.” And I was pointing out that popular art forms come and go — classical music was once pop (Franz Liszt elicited reactions akin to those to the Beatles), and that the literary forms of today might one day be less important.
Here is the Rose show in question, and if you have 33 minutes, it’s a good one to watch. It’s no secret I’m a fan of Rose’s work, and O’Reilly here is part of the kind of show that demonstrates why.
The conversation unfolds on levels that are excellent for laypeople outside publishing to hear but fully viable for us bookish folks who follow the predictions and pratfalls of the digital dynamic with excruciating, incremental care.
(For all of us who hate our colleagues’ endless social-media entreaties to “Buy my book!” there’s a nice moment in the show’s setup at 4:36 with Yale’s David Kastan, in which we read the producers of the 1623 Shakespeare folio insisting that the reader purchase it: “What ever you do, buy.”)
In the wide-ranging discussion on the show, O’Reilly says to Rose and the other guests at 28:28 in the tape:
There’s this cultural significance of the quote-unquote “literary author.” It really matters to a relatively small number of people. It’s an elitist thing. There’s popular fiction, there is serious nonfiction which is in the same category as serious reporting of all kinds.
What I mean is the notion by some group that their favorite activity is so important that it needs to be protected.
What if it were defined differently, as a group that says, ‘This is part of…preserving the culture?’”
Take classical music. What we call classical music today used to be popular music. Franz Lizst was like the Beatles. And now classical music is in this ghetto of this very small number of people who are playing for each other and saying, ‘We should be subsidized because we’re this important cultural phenomenon.” And the fact is that the music that will be remembered from our era and will be the, quote, “classical music,” is the popular music of today.…Look at classic authors. Dickens. Literally there were riots when the new edition of a book came out, people trying to get it in faraway places, (when) the new fascicle came out from Bleak House.
One of the things they do [“they” being PBS and NPR] is basically subsidize, in part, the culture with some government support.
The amount of government support for PBS is relatively small. A huge part of the support comes from people who care about it. It’s not actually a subsidized activity so much as it’s subject to market forces and there’s a set of people who say, “I want that, I like it, I want to pay for it.” And you see this with new technology platforms like Kickstarter where people are saying, “Hey, would you like this? Would you pay for this?” It’s this incredible new direct mechanism for authors and other creators to say, “Would you care about what I want to produce?”
Friedman picks up the conversation and goes back to the use of the term “elitist.” She says to Auletta:
Ken, I think the elitist element was that books were selected, and it was the editor who selected it, and then it was put into certain bookstores, and the independent bookstore, which I am a fan of, was a little intimidating for people who didn’t know how to find the book that they wanted. Then the superstores tried to make that better…True literature and fine nonfiction have always been thought of as a very small universe. And what e– has done now — and [to O’Reilly] I’m so glad you mentioned Kickstarter, which I think is brilliant, because why shouldn’t people pay for a book that they want to be written? It’s a theory that anyone who’s grown up in publishing thinks is absolutely cuckoo, but it’s not. Because you’re now having the consumer say, “That’s a very good idea, and if a publisher won’t give you that $10,000 advance, we will put up $100 and reach that $10,000.”
Auletta points out, “You can have both.”
Friedman agrees with him, saying that yes, we’ll have both:
There will be for the foreseeable future be printed books. But I think that the move to electronic distribution of information and education and entertainment is going to come from the e-space.
Auletta ties it by saying, “You’re always going to have an economic issue. And the economic issue is how do you support things that are important?”
This, unfortunately, is where the edit of the show had to end the conversation.
Auletta is voicing a genuinely valid point that serious observers of culture do worry about — and that doesn’t mean they can’t agree with O’Reilly, as well. I’m comfortable with the perspectives both men raise here, and neither should be dismissed.
The idea of what Friedman terms “true literature and fine nonfiction” having to fight for itself in a market-driven setting is not necessarily wrong.
Many times in my work in theater criticism, for example, I’ve wished that the U.S. “legitimate stage” had been required to survive from the outset on box office sales rather than staggering along on a nonprofit model combining ticket sales and often heavy contributions and subsidies of various sorts. If this had happened, the most important theater might have found its commercial legs, of necessity, instead of suffering for so many decades as “the fabulous invalid” of American entertainment.
While I’ve never come to a point of saying I “don’t give a shit if serious theatrical production goes away,” to paraphrase O’Reilly, I do understand how he comes to a thought like this about literary work.
In his remarks on the email exchange about the Wired interview, in fact, O’Reilly adds:
I do regret the turn of phrase that Steven captured in the Wired interview. Especially since I do love literary novels and other forms of “high culture.” But I do get irked by the sense of entitlement of some of the practitioners.
And maybe this is one reason I’m put out with the Parade of Publishing Predictors each year at this time. You can hear in so many of these folks that same air of entitlement in how they weigh in, unbidden, to announce to us “My Big Predictions for Publishing in 2013,” etc. This looks like the attitude O’Reilly is getting at, the smug pomposity of fading control, old gatekeepers and their busy defenders showing off what they think is their still-expert analysis of what’s ahead.
Although each day may seem about three weeks long to us in the business, the undermining of the kingmakers has occurred quickly. These prophets are crying in a wilderness none of us can read in advance.
And what we can take away from O’Reilly’s excerpted comment may actually be the best de-facto prediction of all. Maybe it’s the only one worth carrying with us as we make our fateful crossing into a new, looming year: The kinds of literature we may have deemed most valuable so far? –finally must be made to stand up on their own in the marketplace.
We can’t shove aside the old guard but still beg for their tweedy fiats when we need a meaningful book positioned for the public.
A profound work of literary fiction today could lose its readers to a Christmas present of soft pornography, a three-book set originally concocted as vampire fan fiction.
Sacred cows may find scant footing on the slippery slopes of 2013.
So write your stuff well: the new year will arrive quickly enough.
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