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Marko Sijan

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How E-Books Are Ruining the Next Generation of Writers

Posted: 08/08/2012 4:59 pm

Literary writing is a worthless profession. Few who write novels, stories and poems make a living from them. This has been true for millennia.

Lately the Internet has regressed into a society of feudal manors lorded over by tech giants like Amazon, Apple and Yahoo, who sell e-books for 99 cents or give them away for free. Their "competitive pricing" is threatening traditional publishers and physical books with extinction, though those are curated and edited by seasoned professionals steeped in knowledge of the literary tradition. Abominations like Crowdsourcing couple writer with readers, who, for a fee, together bear a monster for the mass market.

Self-publishing venues throw out disposable books forgotten faster than they're consumed, if at all. The long tail strangles the chance for writers to find a publisher to nurture their talents over time and finance the marketing of their books, often with a hand from the state. Taxpayers don't know or care about the profitless fiction the state subsidizes on their behalf, maintaining life support for an aging nationalist enterprise that may be euthanized under Prime Minister Harper and his ilk. These men worship one god: Mammon. Big name authors around the world like Ewan Morrison complain "there will be no more professional writers in the future."

In short, to me it's an ideal time in history to create literature.

Portending the death of literature isn't new. Nearly 200 years ago, Saint-Beuve supposed that "perhaps an age is coming when there will be no more writing." After all, the mass-produced book via the five century-old printing press, like all forms of organic and inorganic life, fall prey to the fatal law. The same goes for the Internet. For all its revolutionary benefits, the internet has let writers relapse into vassalage. By literature I mean the work of a singular imagination that enriches readers' intellects with thoughts printed in crisp language, banknotes from a vault of the infinite. In fact the reverse is true of the current age: our thoughts shrink to fatten the bank accounts of a few men like Jeff Bezos.

With the rise of e-books, companies like Amazon peddle mostly tin-eared tripe like Twilight. Writing in 1822, Arthur Schopenhauer complained that "life nowadays goes at a gallop -- and the way in which this affects literature is to make it extremely superficial and slovenly." If he was right, imagine how empty and sloppy books are today.

To avoid the plague of literary sloth I imagine myself a "serious writer," in contradistinction to Morrison's "professional writer," getting paid for his work less often than not, indifferent either way. Convinced that money corrupts his capacity to pursue excellence, through years of patient labour, he chooses his words carefully and hopes to have something important to say, something that adds to his tradition(s).

Being a straight white Canadian-born male of Serbo-Croatian stock, my traditions include three millennia of dead white men and women of the Western canon, as well as works of the former Yugoslavia and the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires that occupied and interbred with my ancestors; and the Canadian canon, though few are sure if such a thing exists, our nation still much the provincial backwater it was in 1867.

Everything we have didn't exist until we imagined it. All our inventions, like money and its evil twin usury, are as much fictions as the fictions we invent to chronicle the ongoing folly of our species. Narrative history down the ages forms a warped chain of contradictory accounts. My task, as I see it, is to commit my brief life to recording for posterity the dungheap of our cultural reality. A writer probably can't do this in a market that endlessly replicates the cheap, stupid and profitable. Literature belongs outside the market and in the solitary imagination.

On the surface it seems swell that Amazon will publish books in addition to selling them, offering authors the chance to bypass the old middlemen -- agents and traditional publishers -- and earn up to 50 per cent of profits. But Amazon isn't interested in books that last, just ones that sell by not making its overworked readers think or feel too much, something like a novel (whose plot is stolen from a movie) about sexy teenagers on a remote island, flirting and chopping each other up. Amazon wants big mass-produced best-sellers by movie stars and athletes, paint-by-numbers genre fiction, self-help books that promise to help us unleash our creative potential and extort millions from our neighbours, perhaps even a how-to book called Fishing With Grenades.

The entrepreneurial spirit of the age encourages writers and creative types to market themselves not as humans but as brands. We aspire not to sentience, but corporate psychopathy. It follows then that lords of online manors should charge extra fealty when a writer submits content, because in fact he's buying ad space for himself, the only product he wants to sell.

All the while we waste hours every day on social networking sites, like Facebook and Twitter, who rake in millions selling our personal information to other millionaires, who then persuade us to buy their stuff at a colossal markup, plunging us deeper into debt our descendants will pay for. In the current economic and intellectual climate, by working for a living and not attaching money to writing, I feel I have nothing to lose. I hope the creative freedom that flows from this feeling lets me write at my best, which may amount to nothing.

The manorialism of the Internet is bringing about a paradigm shift in the way books get written and published. A writer who wants an audience has few other options but to toil on his virtual fief. Meantime, I work my day job while taking my writing seriously, but not our medieval digital age.

 

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