On Elitism and Culture

I’m going to describe a phenomenon which I suspect reflects a deep social divide, like left vs right politics, or religion vs reason. There are those who think that literature, like every other art, is something everyone can produce with a little intelligence and hard work, and there are those who think great art is a talent; an unteachable flame of inspiration that only a lucky few can produce.  It’s a divide recently exhibited by Elif Batuman and Mark McGurl in their exchange over the value of creative writing MFAs: Batuman feels MFA programs are pulping out legions of under-read hacks (to put hyperbolic words in her mouth – she’s much more even handed than I am), while McGurl feels “a more democratic culture is possible” and that the “workmanlike” literature produced by these programs benefits society in more diverse ways than simply, say, producing a great book.

I don’t think you have to think too hard to see how this same rhetoric is also cropping up in discussions of ebooks vs paper books, most recently evoked by Natalee Caple in this essay for the National Post.  “Is this literature, you might ask? No, I do not argue that it is. Instead, it is something more radical. It is free thought; it is democracy.” says she.  Ebooks (like MFA programs) have widened the field, and can give everyone a voice.

Putting aside the fact that ereaders, like MFA programs, aren’t actually especially accessible to genuinely disenfranchised people, I think the argument anyone can (or should) be a writer is misguided. Literacy is a beautiful thing and a true pillar of democracy. It lets everyone have access, in theory anyway, to the same ideas, the same education, the same public sphere. It lets everyone potentially in on the important, society-changing movements.  The ability to decode texts is absolutely, unquestionably valuable to democracy.  And then, for the most part, the right to say whatever you want in the public sphere is also a vital part of democratic life.  Voices should not be silenced and marginalized: therein lies control and potential abuse. People should have the right to write.

But let’s be honest here: ebook publishing and MFA programs are not about freedom of expression.  They are about producing a marketable product.  You don’t enroll in an MFA program because you need to make charges about people in power or because you have a great new approach to irrigation you’d like to make available.  There was nothing about the old publishing structure that was preventing marginalized or radical people from expressing their ideas. Plenty of old-school publishers were happy to put their money where your mouth is, publishing revolutionary tracts and out-of-the-way stories.  To boot, they’d edit, develop and promote your idea, helping it find a bigger audience than you could have on your own. If your ideas are so out in left field that you can’t find a publisher, well, you could always self-publish them. Even without the money for a vanity publication, you could print your pamphlets at Kinkos.

But it’s easier with an ereader, you say! Is it now? I will tell you something from a bookseller’s perspective: we won’t carry self-published work that doesn’t have proper distribution, no matter how it was printed. Similarly, we’re happy to carry cheap little tracts – so long as they come through the usual channels.  I don’t believe for one second that Amazon, Chapters or Apple are much more generous than we are.  They will not sell your book if the content offends them. Even if you’re listed, there’s no guarantee of “spotlight” status. “Ranked” search engine results and hard-to-search-for designations like “adult” status can keep your book out of sight indefinitely.  Its simply having been published using the right software doesn’t give you the right to be sold through their stores.  It’s the same game in the end: whether or not you are read is not about being able to set words on page or screen.

I don’t believe ebooks make voices from the margins any better heard than, say, html documents did back in 1995.  Or the photocopier did in 1959.  The problem was still how to make people read marginal texts.  Will it be easier to get a copy of a marginal ebook than it was to access a marginal webpage? Do MFA programs map a solid path from the classroom to the front table at Chapters? The answer to both questions is of course no.

What they do offer is, perhaps, a better model for getting paid if you are self published.  In both cases, however, the path to money has nothing to do with democracy; if anything, it is undemocratic. An MFA program will teach you to write the way publishers want you to. They’ll help you develop a voice that sounds a lot like the big prize winners from the last ten years.  Self-publishing an ebook, especially if you do it through (Amazon subsidiary) Lulu, will give you the right to be sold on Amazon.com, the Apple ebook store, or Chapters (unless of course they object to what you’ve written.)  Both phenomena might help you get sold (and then presumably read) if and only if you play the game nicely and produce a product they think will sell.  On Caple’s continuum between democracy and capitalism, this lands squarely at the capitalism end of the spectrum. MFA programs are a tool to get published and sold, and ebook platforms are a tool to get big chains to distribute your book to be sold.

Booksellers (small and large) might be the “hegemony”, but we’re better representative of readers’ tastes than McGurl or Caple give us credit for. We’re not part of a big machine standing in the way of fresh new thoughts and voices (well, Amazon might be).  If a crummy book isn’t being read, it is not our fault.  The myth that learning to write program fiction, self-publishing and selling on Amazon is going to bring the limelight to countless marginalized voices is just that: a myth. Readers don’t read at random, and don’t read indiscriminately.  Simply showing up in Amazon’s vast database does not guarantee you any more readers than putting up a website or going out to trade shows or press fairs would. If anything, the increased self published noise out there is going to make it harder than ever to stand out in the crowd.  You need the bookseller: you need a mechanism to sort through the noise.  Booksellers read, Amazon’s search engine does not.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that I come down on Batuman’s side with regard to the creation of great literature too. Not everyone has a writer in them. No creative writing class or self-publishing tool is going to turn any literature student into Tolstoy.  The reader has no responsibility, democratic or otherwise, to read mediocre literature. And lastly, democracy does not guarantee anyone the right to make a living doing anything they please.  That there are tools available to help people make a buck by buying into an expensive system dictated top-down by corporations isn’t democratic. It’s a pyramid scheme. Nobody is making more money in this system except the people who were making money already.  The rest of us are being sold snake oil.

Thanks to Kerry Clare (and her more even-handed approach) for getting me thinking about this this morning!

5 Responses to On Elitism and Culture

  1. “The reader has no responsibility, democratic or otherwise, to read mediocre literature.”


    Zadie Smith wrote a great piece a few years back for The Guardian called “Read Better” about the reader’s responsibility (part two to her “Fail Better” essay aimed at writers). I can’t find a link right now, but this excerpt from an interview touches on the idea:

    “But the problem with readers, the idea we’re given of reading is that the model of a reader is the person watching a film, or watching television. So the greatest principle is, “I should sit here and I should be entertained.” And the more classical model, which has been completely taken away, is the idea of a reader as an amateur musician. An amateur musician who sits at the piano, has a piece of music, which is the work, made by somebody they don’t know, who they probably couldn’t comprehend entirely, and they have to use their skills to play this piece of music. The greater the skill, the greater the gift that you give the artist and that the artist gives you. That’s the incredibly unfashionable idea of reading. And yet when you practice reading, and you work at a text, it can only give you what you put into it. It’s an old moral, but it’s completely true.”

    full interview can be found at: http://www.kcrw.com/etc/programs/bw/bw061109zadie_smith

  2. Natalee Caple says:

    Thanks for reading and responding to my article. Of course Zsuzsi is right readers have no particular responsibility at all to read anything they don’t want to and the existance of works they are not interested in will not compell them to read those works. Readers will go on recommendations as they always have and perhaps choose only ebooks that come with reviews the like are b authors they like or come through publishers they like. Let me be perfectly clear I ADORE BOOKSTORES AND TRADITIONAL BOOKS. But anyone who thinks trhat publishing is not changing is not paing attention. Editors and publishers are the ones increasingly under pressure to trim their lines and publish only best sellers. A good friend sof mine who is a very famous Canadian author and sold 9000 copies of her last book was told recently that that was not good enough and the press s/he had a 25 year relationship with would not be allowed to publish her anymore nor ewould any of the other presses under the umbrella of a particular conglomerate (now American owned). Canada council IS essential to teh livelhood of Canadian literature and cuts damage teh ability to produce any books much less fine literature. No one in publishing wants to stand in the wa of fine or experimental literature but economic pressures and a terrible attitude in givernment towards the value of our values force us to consider what can be done.

    • Charlotte says:


      Thanks for reading! I absolutely agree with all of your points – but I don’t think ebooks are the solution. At least, not the way they are currently produced, distributed and sold. The publisher’s costs haven’t been reduced significantly (printing & warehouse-based distribution typically amount to 25% of the total cost of the book) – all that’s happened is the retailer – i.e. Amazon – is making a bigger percentage of the whole. (I wish I could cite this more properly, but the Globe and Mail had a lovely pie-chart breaking down the costs about a month ago which is now hiding somewhere behind a pay wall – the irony.)

      Publishers are still going to be unfairly plowing all the promotion and advertising dollars into their bestsellers and handing out silly advances to manuscripts tagged for future bestseller status. Amazon and Chapters are still going to feature those bestsellers on their front tables/pages. The “review” system on Amazon.com is filled with little inequalities like “perks” for reviewers who produce positive reviews and a ranked review system where the “regular” reviewers (frequent recipients of perks) show up at the top of the list. Mid-list and struggling authors will be just as obscure as ever, getting smaller advances, smaller percentages and increasingly expected to sell their own product online for it.

      What worries me about the ebook paradigm is not the technology itself (though the archivist in me flinches at the idea that we’re consigning the literature of the future to a completely intangible format, but that’s another thing) but the fact that, right now, the technology is completely controlled by huge corporate interests who do not have the best interests of anyone, least of all culture, in mind. Nor have I seen any resistance to the way things are going, or any organized effort to advocate on behalf of the rest of the players in literary culture. I resist the new technology not just for aesthetic reasons, but because it’s inaccessible to me. It means buying in to Amazon or Chapters, bodies making decisions I do not wish to support.

      I don’t mean to rant. 😉 I’ve written about this before – it’s a subject close to my… er… spleen…

    • Finn Harvor says:

      “A good friend sof mine who is a very famous Canadian author and sold 9000 copies of her last book was told recently that that was not good enough and the press s/he had a 25 year relationship with would not be allowed to publish her anymore nor ewould any of the other presses under the umbrella of a particular conglomerate (now American owned).”

      This is a pretty alarming anecdote, but I’ve heard other ones like it. It — along with the plastic language increasingly employed by the guardians of the literary gates (“not a good fit with out list”, “interesting, but not for us”) — is depressing. I imagine that the experience for a lot of writers is they are dealing with an industry that traditionally has had one set of standards, and now these standards are shifting … or just being eliminated.

      I do wonder, however, at the phrase “would not be allowed to publish”. Would you please clarify? Did people at the press decide not to publish her anymore? Was it a group at the press — i.e., new acquisition editors, marketing people? Or since the press is now part of a larger conglomerate, did it receive orders from a head office? And if so, were these orders directed at particular authors, or kind of a cut-off line for sales figures?

  3. Linc says:

    This is fantastic. I’m not a bookseller, but I am a bibliophile, and you’ve given me much to think about. Thanks!

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