By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
By Roy Edroso
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
By Zachary D. Roberts
That may finally be changing.
"It used to be common wisdom in the retail industry that two things were immune to recession: books and booze," notes Avin Mark Domnitz, chief executive officer of the ABA. "I don't know about booze, but I can tell you that books are no longer immune."
Domnitz attributes the industry's losses to the fact that books are "no longer sold as a work of art. They're now a commodity, just like any other commodity"—and with the loss of the small bookstores, that situation has been exacerbated. The struggle of the independents is more desperate than ever, but now their plight has redounded on the industry as a whole. The last two weeks have witnessed a raft of firings and reorganizations at publishing houses all over town—and more are expected. At least four different heads of major houses are already out the door, and even prominent editors with long histories of signing bestsellers and award-winning books have been canned. It seems increasingly unlikely that some of the most venerable firms in the business will survive, never mind the book tour.
Getting off the tour, at least, might not be the worst thing. Publishers may finally be forced to focus on the selling alternative staring at them through their computer screens. Just look at how effortlessly the blogosphere euthanized the moribund political analysis of the mainstream media this past election cycle. But the question, even for boosters of the Net's potential, is establishing some kind of rules of the road . . . or rules for a knife fight, for that matter, just so long as the result is worth reading.
"A lot of those people almost ruined that experience for me," notes Robert Mackey, a writer for The New York Times website, referring to writing The Climb, a blogged account of his time riding much of the Tour de France route this summer as a novice cyclist. While the overwhelming number of comments were positive, Mackey found that a group of self-described "bike snobs" kept sparking dozens of "weird, angry" comments that he had to edit, including the bizarre contention that he had no "right" to do what he was doing, or even that he should hand over his bike to a poorer, more "worthy" cyclist—a demand made by the cyclist himself. It was a black-hole conversation, one that produced infinite heat and no light.
"It was an unbelievable experience—like editing graffiti," remembers Mackey. "It makes you feel awful about the world."
This was, ultimately, Strauss's complaint. In the end, it all worked out. He was able to score appearances on Good Morning America and The Craig Ferguson Show—not easy gigs for a literary novelist these days. More Than It Hurts You did well and is now in its third printing. The only thing missing, as so often is the case in fin de Bush America, is any intellectual engagement: No wider argument about his indictments of American culture or his writing; no discussion on whether or not Munchausen's-by-proxy is a real, widespread mental disorder.
"The state of publishing is such that you can get all these great things, but people don't talk about the work. They talk about you," says Strauss. "There used to be serious critics and an audience. . . . Now, the audience is also in the critic business." The model becomes Amazon, "where any cranks complaining about books can have the same weight as The New York Times."
This should provide an example of Web democracy in action. But consider the fact that every writer I know nudges his friends and relatives to offset the mob rule by sending their own glowing reviews to Amazon and similar sites. The result is a culture where everything is a five-star book, and everything is fraudulent. It's not so much democracy but a corruption of the public square, one that doesn't so much improve writing as it forces each writer to become his own corporate PR department.
For Strauss, the result is a sort of vast, cultural "rot," extending across art, music, and cinema, as well as writing. "We have created sort of a post-talent age," where what began as the heroic overthrow of cultural elites has now devolved to the craven capitulation to the mob: "It's commercial elitism as opposed to intellectual elitism."
Others still find hope in the revolution, even while admitting how much static there is to tune out. "Every piece you write now becomes a conversation. Everything you write now has this long tail of antagonism and anxiety," concedes journalist Jack Hitt, who has had his own tangles with bloggers over the years. "A little pleasure and praise, but mostly ad hominem [attacks]. All of a sudden, we have to argue with our bitterest detractors."
Yet Hitt still feels that the potential of the blogosphere to revive an older, more valid form of argument far outweighs the weird, angry graffiti.
"The Internet's returned us all to these sort of 19th-century critics who are trying to judge us by our voice, who are trying to hear the way our soul came through," says Hitt. "Television just turned us all into courthouse gabbers. [That sort of] punditry is much more awful than anything the blogs have to offer."
Judging him by his voice, judging him by the way his soul comes through would be fine for Darin Strauss—just so long as he is not misunderstood.