Saturday, September 14, 2013

Jonathan Franzen and the Book Publishing Apocalypse

It doesn’t take a lot for Jonathan Franzen to fly into a rage, or is it a fit of pique. By his own testimony he was “an extremely angry person.”

Now that he is a rich and famous author, he has taken it upon himself to emit a long wail of complaint about the modern world. He is especially lathered up over techno-consumerism. He has even identified the new antichrist—Jeff Bezos, of Amazon.

You see, according to Franzen, Amazon is ruining the book publishing industry. It is causing book publishers to trim their staff. It is putting book stores and book agents out of business.

Nothing says that the publishing business will not reconfigure itself and thrive again, but, as of today, things look bleak.

On this score, Franzen is correct.

Yet, his apocalyptic rhetoric is excessive. Apparently, he is worried that in the new techno-world people might be less inclined to read a Jonathan Franzen.

It seems a bit rich for someone who became a millionaire on Oprah’s say-so to complain about the influence of the popular media. Keep in mind, Franzen responded to Oprah’s largesse by attacking her book club for its low-brow taste.

If there’s a circle of Hell for people who manifest the appalling ingratitude, Jonathan Franzen’s place is already reserved.

Franzen yearns for the good old days when the world of ideas had gatekeepers. He preferred the time when editors selected the best manuscripts, when book reviewers told us what to read and when book stores induced us to buy the best literature.

There may have been a time when merit reigned in the publishing world, but that time has long since gone. One hates to say it, but most of the profits in publishing come from precious few books. Those are the books that are promoted and hyped. This being the reality of publishing, midlist authors have been exiled to a bookworld Siberia.

If anything, Amazon has provided more access to more books for more people than ever before. Explain to me why that’s a bad thing.

In the bad old days a book’s success or failure depended largely on the New York Times Book Review. A good review made your book, a bad one turned any remaining copies to pulp.

If Franzen believes that the influence of the army ofprofessional book reviewers matched that of the NY Times Book Review, he’s dreaming.

In the small world of New York publishing, comprising agents, editors and publishers, book reviewers and media outlets there was every possibility for selecting the wrong books. Why does Franzen imagine that the gatekeepers of publishing were always selecting the right books?

This world made Franzen himself as one of its darlings. Even before Oprah made him rich and famous, Franzen was touted in publishing circles as the next great thing.

Nothing guarantees that the grandees of the New York publishing world will choose rightly. Today, when their decisions are based as much on marketability as on literary quality, they have fewer opportunities to take a chance on a book that they like but that they will have difficulty selling.

Dare we mention that in an era of political correctness and identity politics the notion of merit has become something of a joke.

Despite the whining of Franzen and other overrated authors print media is not going away. After all, Franzen’s antichrist, Jeff Bezos, just bought the Washington Post.

In truth, Amazon has brought the free market to book publishing. It has diminished the power and the influence of the elite gatekeepers. It may be the case that in a free market books by Franzen might fall through the cracks, but perhaps they do not deserve better.

When you arrive at Franzen’s level of dyspepsia—it used to be called angst-- you tend not to see clearly. Franzen believes that Amazon shoppers rely merely on reader reviews, but that is surely untrue. He imagines that the open reviewing on Amazon is an invitation to corruption—as though the old system where one book review publication could make or break a book did not hold out the risk of being corrupted.

Allow Franzen to lay out his dystopian fantasy:

In my own little corner of the world, which is to say American fiction, Jeff Bezos of Amazon may not be the antichrist, but he surely looks like one of the four horsemen. Amazon wants a world in which books are either self-published or published by Amazon itself, with readers dependent on Amazon reviews in choosing books, and with authors responsible for their own promotion. The work of yakkers and tweeters and braggers, and of people with the money to pay somebody to churn out hundreds of five-star reviews for them, will flourish in that world. But what happens to the people who became writers because yakking and tweeting and bragging felt to them like intolerably shallow forms of social engagement? What happens to the people who want to communicate in depth, individual to individual, in the quiet and permanence of the printed word, and who were shaped by their love of writers who wrote when publication still assured some kind of quality control and literary reputations were more than a matter of self-promotional decibel levels? As fewer and fewer readers are able to find their way, amid all the noise and disappointing books and phony reviews, to the work produced by the new generation of this kind of writer, Amazon is well on its way to making writers into the kind of prospectless workers whom its contractors employ in its warehouses, labouring harder for less and less, with no job security, because the warehouses are situated in places where they're the only business hiring. And the more of the population that lives like those workers, the greater the downward pressure on book prices and the greater the squeeze on conventional booksellers, because when you're not making much money you want your entertainment for free, and when your life is hard you want instant gratification ("Overnight free shipping!").

Franzen is offended by the fact that everyday citizens can write Amazon reviews. He is horrified that the same citizens can exchange their views with their friends and acquaintances on social media sites.

Why does Franzen believe that the free market does not eventually allow for quality control? Perhaps people are fed up with an elite few making their decisions for them. Professional book reviewers might do a good job on some novels and certain forms of general non-fiction, but what happens when they run into specialized non-fiction.

Why is Franzen so offended that people might actually make up their own minds? Why is he so horrified that they might not allow the New York media elite to think for them?

Because that, after all, is the point. Members of the media elite—Franzen  among them—do not trust individuals to make up their own minds. For the same reason they have no use for the free market. They cannot imagine that individuals making up their own minds can allocate resources as well as a group of great thinkers sitting in the bowels of a bureaucracy.

If some reviews on Amazon come from dubious sources, why not think that most people can tell the difference. If they cannot tell the difference, they will eventually learn the lesson.

Franzen believes that, eventually, people will “clamour” for more professional reviewers.

But so the physical book goes on the endangered-species list, so responsible book reviewers go extinct, so independent bookstores disappear, so literary novelists are conscripted into Jennifer-Weinerish self-promotion, so the Big Six publishers get killed and devoured by Amazon: this looks like an apocalypse only if most of your friends are writers, editors or booksellers. Plus it's possible that the story isn't over. Maybe the internet experiment in consumer reviewing will result in such flagrant corruption (already one-third of all online product reviews are said to be bogus) that people will clamour for the return of professional reviewers. Maybe an economically significant number of readers will come to recognise the human and cultural costs of Amazonian hegemony and go back to local bookstores or at least to, which offers the same books and a superior e-reader, and whose owners have progressive politics. Maybe people will get as sick of Twitter as they once got sick of cigarettes. Twitter's and Facebook's latest models for making money still seem to me like one part pyramid scheme, one part wishful thinking, and one part repugnant panoptical surveillance.

In truth, the internet provides people access to more professional reviewers. It provides access to newspapers and magazines the world over. It provides search engines that can call up as many reviews as you want, both professional and amateur.

In truth, people like it. Before labeling Jeff Bezos as the antichrist Franzen should have reflected on the fact that consumers have made Amazon what it is. People shop there because they like to shop there. Is that a crime?

Franzen is yearning for the old days when people did not have Amazon. Some of his less enlightened brethren would probably like to shut the whole operation down.


Anonymous said...

I noticed Franzen lists one reason for shopping at Barnes and Noble is that its owners have "progressive politics."
I'm sure glad I haven't spent a penny there in years (and don't intend to ever again). The faster they go belly up, the better.
However, if Jeff Bezos isn't a progressive, I am badly mistaken. It would be too much to hope that now the Washington Post would stop cheerleading and abetting the collapse of our Republic.
Franzen and his ilk can starve for all I care. When I want literature, I read Austen and her contemporaries (and occasionally Anatole France). For entertainment, I read SciFi on my Kindle.

Sam L. said...


Hoyt is an author who is much happier with publishing today, as I read her.

Bizzy Brain said...

All I know about Amazon is that when I signed up for an accounting class at the local community college, the text from the school bookstore was listed at $230. The same text from Amazon was $88 (new). Guess where I bought my book?

David Foster said...

Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Franzen...seems like I've written something about him not too long ago. OH, YEAH:

David Foster said...

", which offers the same books and a superior e-reader, and whose owners have progressive politics"

Barnes & Noble is a public corporation: its owners are the shareholders. Is Franzen so ignorant he doesn't understand this?

Sam L. said...

DF, maybe Anon was talking about the CEO and upper management. I do seem to recall comments from times past about B&N not displaying books by conservatives, and the leftie books were up front and stacked high.

David Foster said...

The statement about the owners came from Franzen, who Anon was just quoting.

I have often found that "progressives" don't have a very clear understanding of the difference between the executive of a corporation and the owners.

Scott B said...

Never heard of Jonathan Franzen before this column. However have discovered and enjoyed reading many new and sometimes indie authors via my Amazon and especially Kindle that allows me to borrow for free via my instant gratification Prime account. Such a whiner, likely a feature in his writing so I'll just read something else.

Dennis said...

David Foster,
Progressives have selective knowledge. Any knowledge that counters their dogma is by definition not knowledge.
One would think that it would be a good thing for this country that people have access to all kinds of books, many free, at a very reasonable price. The value of "the theater of the mind" cannot be overestimated for its causing people to think.
Is this man so insecure that he fears the reading public if his friends are not the arbiters of the literary bailiwick?
Support your local library by giving the books you have already read including ebooks to them. A library is like having the combined knowledge of humanity at one's beckon call through interlibrary loans et al and in most cases the library provides internet access to those who do not have the means themselves.