VQR » What Is the Business of Literature?

A fantastic article by Richard Nash ostensibly on how books and associated technologies have evolved and may continue to evolve, but really a meditation on the nature of culture, technology and society. The punchline is that the business of literature is blowing shit up, but here are a few quotes to give a flavour of this long and thought-provoking article…

The book is not counter-technology, it is technology, it is the apotheosis of technology—just like the wheel or the chair.”

Heuristics are great until they aren’t.” (a reference to the skewed view we all get of literature from what is published)

What is published is published, and from that pool we choose to celebrate what we celebrate, and we say the system produced these celebrated works because, well, they’re available.”

Pre Gutenberg – “Writers were the machines through which the word of God was reproduced and disseminated.”

the printing press essentially made science possible by allowing experiments to be replicated through the introduction of falsification, the ability to prove something wrong.”

A variety of copyright-like regimes sprouted throughout Europe, the first purpose of which was censorship—to thwart the “greate enormities and abuses” of “dyvers contentyous and disorderlye persons professinge the arte or mystere of pryntinge or selling of books,” as England’s Star Chamber pronounced. The second purpose was to achieve the commercial equivalent of copyright for a cartel of businesses agreeing not to compete with one another, so as to increase their prices when it came to reproducing writing.”

Pope’s view of himself was still as a transmitter of culture, not its originator. To originate, we invented genius. “

the book is a technology so pervasive, so frequently iterated and innovated upon, so worn and polished by centuries of human contact, that it reaches the status of Nature.”

Abundance, it turns out, is a much bigger problem to solve than scarcity”

The economics of the analog reproduction of culture lead inexorably to the exhibitionist….The most profitable print-publishing business of all would be in a society where everyone reads the same book.”

The non-mainstream was abetted by the growth of the superstore model of bookstores. The traditional independent bookstore stocked 5,000–10,000 titles, and so could only handle the new and backlist output of a limited number of publishers. But a Barnes & Noble or Borders superstore could have 50,000 or 60,000 or even 70,000 titles! Indeed, it needed those non-mainstream offerings to fill its shelves. Ironically, while indie, alternative, and literary presses frequently decried the predations of the superstores, the superstores were critical to their existence. “

Copyright, though nominally instituted to encourage the creation of a work, has as its only logical purpose the encouragement of the reproduction of the work.”

“[the business of literature is] not about making art; it is about making culture, which is a conversation about what is art, what is true, what is good.”

“… relying on the notion that one deserves to get paid will fail every time. Imagine that as a dating strategy: I deserve to be desired by you.”

Selling a book, print or digital, turns out to be far from the only way to generate revenue from all the remarkable cultural activity that goes into the creation and dissemination of literature and ideas.”

Book culture is not print fetishism; it is the swirl and gurgle of idea and style in the expression of stories and concepts—the conversation, polemic, narrative force that goes on within and between texts, within and between people as they write, revise, discover, and respond to those texts.”

The publisher is an orchestrator in the world of book culture, not a machine for sorting manuscripts and supplying a small number of those manuscripts in improved and bound form to a large number of people via a retailer-based supply chain best suited for the distribution of cornflakes, not ideas. “

“A business born out of the invention of mechanical reproduction transforms and transcends the very circumstances of its inception, and again has the potential to continue to transform and transcend itself—to disrupt industries like education, to drive the movie industry, to empower the gaming industry.”

The business of literature is blowing shit up. “

Marvellous. 

Address of the bookmark: http://www.vqronline.org/articles/2013/spring/nash-business-literature/

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

Leave a Reply