Are Books Dead: Implications for Korean Translation (Part II and Partial Mailbag)?

David Romanticizes His-self^^

In response to Part I of this series – The Guardian asks, “Are books dead?” If so, what that might mean for Korean literature: Part I – reader and author David Wills replies with a bit more optimism than the Guardian could muster. David is the author of a book about Korea, or more appropriately about the experiences of a misanthrope in Korea^^, entitled The Dog Farm.  You can check that out on David’s personal website, http://davidswills.com/.

I should note that the Guardian itself soon produced a less alarmist take on the eventual fate of the book entitled, The death of books has been greatly exaggerated.

But here is what David had to say:

I read that the other day and didn’t really feel it was much better than most of the million and one articles on the subject that are published every year. It feels to me like “authors” are giving up and just writing about the decline of their profession. And getting paid for it.

Personally I do feel that the book will continue to reinvent itself and that authors will continue to persevere. Bad times will probably lie ahead… but in the end it will continue as a viable profession for a few. I think one of the problems is that there are now more authors than ever. Over the past 100-odd years it seems everyone has tried their hand at writing, and inevitably it’s become unsustainable.

Anyway, good writing is good writing and it will survive. And appealing shit will survive too. It’s just that there will be a little less of both, and only the best will make the cut.

……   …….

(I’m not just saying this because I have a book out next month…)

Of course it is transparently obvious that David is saying this because he has a book out next month; it’s  a case of literary whistling past the graveyard.^^ But I also think in some aspects he is correct. About the “book” (whatever that might have been in terms of Platonic concept) we will shortly be crying, “The book is dead. Long live the book!” And the new book will continue, just as lines of regents did. In a way, it reminds me of Benjamin Franklin’s self-penned epitaph:

The body of
B. Franklin, Printer
(Like the Cover of an Old Book
Its Contents torn Out
And Stript of its Lettering and Gilding)
Lies Here, Food for Worms.
But the Work shall not be Lost;
For it will (as he Believ'd) Appear once More
In a New and More Elegant Edition
Revised and Corrected
By the Author.

What we will see is an erosion of the position of books that have previously achieved “so-so” status, and the general elision of the role of the author. David’s point that “Over the past 100-odd years it seems everyone has tried their hand at writing, and inevitably it’s become unsustainable,” is what is going to continue in spades. What we are going to see is the literary semi-equivalent of Gresham’s law, as bad writing (to some extent) drives out good writing, or merely drowns it in fecundity. Good writing will become more difficult to find as the gate-keepers of the publication threshold lose their power. Of course there will also be some ‘positive’ results as groups that previously could not surpass the threshold – furries, terrorists, emo kids, etc. – will now be able to publish and read exactly what they want to.

I made some terrible graphics to demonstrate. Back when it was more difficult to publish, the barrier to publication meant that a smaller number of works were published. This increased the chance that any one work might be successful, because it had, 1) fewer competitors to overcome, 2) Some imprimatur merely by nature of having achieved publication, and 3) Less noise (this is related to point #1). Consequently, authors that did come into the public eye were esteemed, if only by virtue of their relative scarcity.

Before

As, however, the publication threshold has loosened, more and more works are published in the space at the bottom of the book food chain. At the lower levels, this reduces the cachet of the author (which was based, really, on the cachet of publication).

After

Note that I’m guessing that the overall volume of works read will NOT increase to the same extent that books published will – Some “Bestsellers” may still sell at their old rates, but the books at the bottom of the old foodchain will lose market share, even if market share grows as reading becomes more accessible (easier to access from multiple platforms). That is to say, I believe that with barriers to publishing lowered, the number of authors in the world will be far more elastic than the number of new readers.

Thus, as David notes, books will not die, but in general authors will not be able to attain the same peaks as they had in the past. The upshot will be fewer rich authors, and more detritus out there to wade through for readers.

This, however, is GOOD news for Korean Literature, for reasons I will discuss in part III of this series of posts, The Power of Literature on the Margin.

4 thoughts on “Are Books Dead: Implications for Korean Translation (Part II and Partial Mailbag)?

  1. “Of course it is transparently obvious that David is saying this because he has a book out next month; it’s a case of literary whistling past the graveyard.^^”

    Guilty as charged. However, I do have a lot of friend with books out at the moment. Some have been on the market for years and some have been released this week. Some self-published, some indie-published and a few at Penguin and Harper. I hope for their sake that the book industry is not dying, and perhaps that makes me biased as it skews my perceptions to make me argue the apparently futile point that the book will survive.

    I think your brilliant (!!) graphics illustrate a fairly hard point to argue with. The volume of books exposed to the common reader will likely decrease. We’re seeing it already. Like I mentioned, I have friends with books out. I know this because they tell me. I don’t necessarily see these books in the window of B&N or Waterstones. I do certainly see them on Amazon, but again that’s the trickery of the internet, pointing me towards what my computer’s cookies tell them I’m most likely to buy.

    It seems most likely that the books that will reach the public are the ones that have commercial appeal, and with the watering down of our culture we will more than likely see the quality of these book diminish. But I am confident that good authors will continue to be published simply because there are people out there who want to read their work. As noted, these poor bastards will have to work their day jobs even harder to make ends meet, and the good men and women at indie presses will have to remortgage their home for the umpteenth time… but the cause of literature will ensure that good books make their way into the hands of at least some people.

  2. PS. That’s not me in the picture above! It was not drawn by me, either (although I used Photoshop to add green to the soju bottles). It was done by a French illustrator who has never even seen a photo of me. It does, however, bear an undeniable resemblance…

  3. David,

    I think we’re agreed in large part on what will happen with respect to books and authors. But I am boggled that the illustrator managed to get that close to representing you without having seen you. As to adding green to the Soju bottles, is that part of your hatred of Jeju-do soju and it’s crystal clear bottles?^^

    Send me a copy of your book if you want me to review it – it’s not exactly Korean translated fiction, but it would be fun to review.

    Charles..

  4. Sure thing. I’ll get a copy sent out later this month.

    The book isn’t actually about me… it’s really just a novel about ESL teachers in Korea. But yeah, it’s very amusing that it looks so much like me (or rather, a very young me). The artist and I have spoken a lot in e-mails but never met.

    On the book cover everything is black & white, but for the website I gave it a little jazzing up with green for the bottles. I actually quite like it! I’ve had a couple bottles of soju (the Busan brand, I can’t recall the name) since arriving in China. Believe it or not, I actually crave it from time to time…

Leave a Reply