Article published on June 8, 2015.
LEMONADE IN AUGUST
Bert Wright, our deep-thinker, argues the case for and against a well-known on line bookshop.
<<copy Dare we use the Amazon logo as our visual???>>
The digital revolution has crept up on us so quickly, many of us are struggling to keep up but amid the mayhem some subtle changes have escaped scrutiny. Foremost among them has been the dramatic shift in focus from the author to the reader.
The Romantics elevated the individual imagination to a position of pre-eminence from which all literary art was presumed to spring. Inspiration befell individual geniuses who, like Stephen Dedalus, forged art in the smithy of their souls. No longer! Henceforth, books will be forged in the smithy of Amazon’s algorithms; and not by individual geniuses, but by gimlet-eyed opportunists eager to gratify target audiences whose tastes and habits, thanks to Amazon, are uniquely and minutely accessible. Roland Barthes prematurely declared the death of the author in the sixties but Amazon’s customer-centric fixation might just finish the job.
In Amazonia, the publisher’s primary function will simply be to align the priorities of buyer and supplier and to eliminate the friction formerly caused by those taste-making editors, now derided as “gate-keepers”. Amazon, of course, pretends that this realignment will prove favourable to both parties; no entry-barriers for suppliers and dirt-cheap books for buyers. What’s not to love?
Here’s what’s not to love. Amazon is great for cheapskates who think books are worth very little. It’s also great for DIY dabblers, or, as one Amazon hack described his tribe, “proud Grub Streeters with only marginal pretences toward literary finery.” Flogging what the same writer called “genre pulp which sells like lemonade in August” may be keeping a host of modestly-talented writers off the streets but by elevating the cult of the amateur, what is it doing for literary culture?
Remember the nine hundred writers who petitioned Amazon? All established professional writers with long successful careers behind them. Remember too, the counter-petition supporting Amazon? Who signed that one? Have a guess. That’s right, the proud Grub Streeters who owe their mostly modest living to Amazon.
The plain truth is that in an X Factor culture, Jeff Bezos is a Simon Cowell clone cleaving to the same set of cynically depressing faux-democratic principles. The problem is that if Bezos becomes the dominant publisher, as well as the dominant bookseller, we’ll all be drinking lemonade in August, and from plastic cups.