A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Tuesday, 17 September 2013


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!').

JONATHAN FRANZEN Saturday Guardian Review 14-09-13


Goat said...

Read that yesterday as well! Ironically, I found the interview via...Twitter!

I read a couple of Franzen books a few years back and found them depressing. Maybe that was the point. Still, doesn't detract from his observations here. And he's right, apparently there is a lot of paid reviewing (as in: paid for a good review) on Amazon - who can you trust?

As for Twitter, I can see where he's coming from, but it does point me towards a lot of interesting articles. Most of the celebs (of various types) I've followed on there eventually bore me and I let them go.

George said...

This post, like the Rebecca Solnit article in the London Review of Books, provides yet another example of how our culture is changing. I'm saddened to witness the corporate destruction of independent book shops. Likewise, I'm disturbed by the redistribution of wealth from writers and other creative artists to corporations. By the same token, I must confess to being complicit in these injustices, for I purchase a lot of books from Amazon, simply because of the convenience and price.

Wendy said...

This is great, great food for thought... being, as I am, a writer who loves the capabilities and qualities of written language but finding myself in the Age of Amazon.

Honestly, the recourse is, no matter the way my words make their way into the world, to make them the best I possibly can.

One fundamental problem with publishers as gatekeepers (contrapuntal to the benefits of, say, quality control) is that they hold on to the majority of profit that the work of writers creates. How few writers, no matter how very skilled they are, actually made a living with their writing in the publishing-as-it-was paradigm? Wouldn't that be something we wish for though? To make it possible to write and self publish (as Mark Twain did, for example) and reach your ideal audience and not have to work 2 day-jobs to make ends meet?

I love a good book. A real book. But I'm excited too about what can happen when the "playing field" is open to more players.

The Solitary Walker said...

I haven't read any of Franzen's novels, but he's notoriously outspoken and opinionated about stuff like the decline of America, social media and other topics.

I think my own position is this. The culture is changing very fast, and we need critics of the culture to assess what's going on, to point out possible dangers and outcomes.

Franzen does this in an acerbic and exaggerated way. Others, like Rebecca Solnit in a recent article, do it in a more detailed, reflective and measured way. The article George mentions by her is well worth reading and you can find it here: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n16/rebecca-solnit/diary

Like most of us I am hooked in to Google and Amazon. You can't not be. They are massively powerful and influential, and their tentacles spread everywhere, and this is only the start. I buy books from Amazon. My poetry book was published with CreateSpace, an Amazon company. Google own YouTube and Blogger, which I use every day. They also have big investments in Chrome and Android. Amazon is the biggest online retailer in the world, and own LoveFilm, The Book Depository etc.

However, I think it's important to question the implications of having such monopolies and such issues as the quality and reliability of information, the value or not of round-the-clock communication, the nature of that communication, the instant, blunt, sometimes erroneous and prejudicial judgments made on Twitter and promoted globally in seconds, the bullying facilitated by Facebook and so on.

I take your point, Wendy, and I'm all for publishing and getting published in whatever ways are available. The Internet has enabled many authors to get noticed who wouldn't otherwise have been, and a few have made good profits out of it, though the big majority, just as the big majority in the days of traditional publishing, make little money and need to keep the day job! (Incidentally traditional publishers themselves don't really hold on to most of the profit made by authors — it's passed on to distributors, booksellers, publicity agents etc.) Quality control and rigorous editing are, I think, supremely important, however — something that often tends to go by the board in the cyber-domain.

Things always change and we adapt — even some of the more astute traditional bookstores are making a bit of a comeback (as are independent small retailers of all kinds), despite the doomy predictions. Nevertheless, there are serious concerns around the corporate power and influence of mega-companies like Google and Amazon, which we should be aware of and worried about.

Ruth said...

An excellent and important conversation here.

Rubye Jack said...

I've found no need for Amazon, or Facebook for that matter, and half the time can't remember if if it's Tweeter or Twitter. However, I'm totally stuck on Google. Ah well...
All I can say is thank god for public libraries because I sure can't afford Amazon and really don't see the benefit of what do you call those things - ipads or something?
Or even Kindles.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for dropping in on the discussion, Ruth and Rubye.

I used to work in public libraries, so I'm very much for them, and strongly support their democratic and idealistic ethos, and still use our local one regularly.

Wendy said...

To even out the coverage a little bit, consider reading Jennifer Wiener's response to Franzen's article (where he does use the term "Jennifer Wienerish self promotion"). :-)


The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for this, Wendy. Will check it out.

Goat said...

Add also in the interests of balance, I came upon this article today negating much of Franzen's argument. Apparently independent bookstores are on the RISE: http://qz.com/127861/its-time-to-kill-the-idea-that-amazon-is-killing-independent-bookstores/.

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, thanks for this, Goat. As I said in a comment above, 'the more astute traditional bookstores are making a bit of a comeback'!