Ursula K Le Guin v Amazon

Cross posted from PepperWords.

A Facebook post sent me to this essay by Ursula K Le Guin about how Amazon promotes a disposable culture.

The argument goes more or less like this: Amazon [and other publishers] are now solely interested in the next big best seller. They don't care if the books themselves are any good; they only care whether the books will sell. It's a lowest common denominator kind of market, really. Le Guin likens it to fast food and sweets. People love the taste, and these things are cheap besides, but are these aren't the makings of a good diet.

She's got a point. And I think there are a number of cultural problems in the same vein, but that's another discussion altogether.

Really, churning out only what people "want" to read leads to a homogenous literary culture, and one that, again, is high in calories and low in mental nutrition. There's a place for those kinds of books, of course, but we need a diversified "diet." We need literature, a wide variety of it. Instead, what we get these days are basically different toppings but it's all pizza underneath.

Meanwhile, as far as Le Guin's essay goes, I'm mostly surprised at how many of the commenters (a) profess to love Ms. Le Guin then (b) go on to tell her she's wrong.

A lot of the commenters admit to being self-published through Amazon, so one might cite bias. They argue, not entirely incorrectly, that Amazon allows more voices versus fewer because it gives everyone a voice (via self-publishing). So maybe it's the traditional publishers that are serving up such poor menus. After all, these are the ones who want only more of the same stuff because it's that "same stuff" that sells. (And based on my experience in trying to sell a very different kind of book, I'd say there's merit to that argument; I've been told flat out my manuscript is "great" and "well written" but, the agents say, "I can't sell it.")

Still, Le Guin's essay appears to largely target marketing. Yes, Amazon allows anyone and everyone to publish his or her masterpiece, but it does little to nothing to promote good literature. Because in the end it is a commercial company mostly interested in its bottom line. And this is true of all other publishers as well. In this day and age, none of them want to take risks on something new or different, on an unknown author. They swear up and down they LOVE debut authors, but really, they only love the ones they believe can be the next big hit. Not even a modest hit. Not a steady seller. No, this is: go big or go home.

But again, I think cultural issues are to blame for most of this. The root is in what is being demanded by readers. Most readers seem to want . . . Well, whatever is selling these days. The market doesn't leave room for narrow channels, those few readers who like a very small and specific genre. While television has increasingly gone narrower and narrower as channels split so that there's something for everyone (history buffs, people who like cars, cooking, soap operas, etc), publishing has gone the other way. We have fewer "channels" and those channels (publishers) are inclined only to choose "shows" (books) that appeal to wide audiences. Because that's how they make money: selling books. They aren't in it for the art. [I've had this same discussion re the tidal wave of blockbuster movies and the hope that eventually we'll all be sick of them and clamor for something else. But as long as we keep going to see those movies, and as long as those movies keep making billions of dollars, that's what studios will make.]

Ms. Le Guin can bemoan the lack of audience for better books—if more people were demanding them, maybe they would get published. She can equally bemoan that publishers and big corporations like Amazon won't publish and promote better, smaller books—if they did, maybe those books and authors would develop bigger platforms. But no one is willing to put in the time and effort, or wait that long for results. As she points out, it's all about get the book up the charts then toss it aside and make space for the next big thing. Books, ahem, no longer has as much of a shelf life.

And neither, it seems, do actors or musicians . . . Again, I would argue that our pop and celebrity culture chews up and spits out much faster than ever before. We are voracious but nothing sticks to our ribs. Sure, Amazon and publishers contribute to this because it's good for their businesses—to say they should change "for the good of the people and the sake of our culture" is like asking a hungry bear not to eat a fish because "that isn't nice to the fish"—and they will continue in this way until our demands change. But will that ever happen? Until we rally at large for lasting works of art (be it in words, music, or movie form), why should they give us any such thing?

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