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.
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).
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.