Bad boy Amazon and George Packer’s latest salvo

Until five or so years ago, every time I read yet another article about the perilous state of literary fiction I’d see complaints about how publishers ignore it in favor of airport thrillers and stupid self-help and romance and Michael Crichton and on and on. On or about December 2009 everything about the book business and human nature changed. Today, I read about how publishers are priestly custodians of high culture and the Amazon barbarians are knocking at the gate. Although George Packer doesn’t quite say as much in “Cheap Words: Amazon is good for customers. But is it good for books?“, it fits the genre.

Packer is concerned that Amazon has too much power and that it is indifferent to quality. By contrast, the small publisher Melville House “puts out quality fiction and nonfiction,” while “Bezos announced that the price of best-sellers and new titles would be nine-ninety-nine, regardless of length or quality” and “Several editors, agents, and authors told me that the money for serious fiction and nonfiction has eroded dramatically in recent years; advances on mid-list titles—books that are expected to sell modestly but whose quality gives them a strong chance of enduring—have declined by a quarter.”

Maybe all of this is true, but here’s another possibility: thanks to Amazon, people writing the most abstruse literary fiction possible don’t have to beg giant multinational megacorps for a print run of 3,000 copies. Amazon doesn’t care if you’re going to sell one million or one hundred copies; you still get a spot, and now midlist authors aren’t going to be forcibly ejected from the publishing industry by publishing houses.

Read Martha McPhee’s novel Dear Money. It verges on annoying at first but shifts to being delightful. The protagonist, Emma Chapman, is a “midlist” novelist sinking towards being a no-list novelist, and pay attention to her descriptions about “the details of how our lives really were” and how “not one of my novels had sold more than five thousand copies” and that “the awards by this point had been received long ago.” She makes money from teaching, not fiction, and her money barely adds up to rent and private schools and the rest of the New York bullshit. Under the system Packer describes, Emma is a relative success.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASince Dear Money is a novel everything works out in the end, but in real life for many writers things don’t work out. Still, I would note that self-publishing as the norm has one major flaw: the absence of professional content editors, who are often key to writers’s growth can often turn a mess with potential into a great book (here’s one example of a promising self-published book that could’ve been saved; there are no doubt others).

Still, Amazon must save more books than it destroys. If you read any amount of literary criticism, journalism, or scholarly articles, you’ve read innumerable sentences like these: “[Malcolm] Cowley persuaded Viking to accept ‘On the Road’ after many publishers had turned it down. He worked to get Kerouac, who was broke, financial support.” How many Kerouacs and Nabokovs didn’t make it to publication, and are unknown to history because no Cowley persuaded a publisher to act in its own best interests? How many will now, thanks to Amazon?

Having spent half a decade banging around on various publishers’ and agents’ doors I’m not convinced that publishers are doing a great job of gatekeeping. I’d also note that it may be possible for many people to sell far fewer copies of a work and still be “successful;” a publisher apparently needs to sell at least 10,000 copies of a standard hardcover release, at $15 – $30 per hardcover and $9.99 – $14.99 for each ebook, to stay afloat. If I sell 10,000 copies of Asking Anna for $10 to $4 I’ll be doing peachy.

Amazon has done an incredible job setting up a fantastic amount of infrastructure, physical and electronic, and Packer doesn’t even mention that.

Amazon also offers referral fees to anyone with a website; most of the books linked to in this blog have my own referral tag attached. Not only does Amazon give a fee if someone buys the linked item directly, but Amazon gives out the fee for any other item that person buys the same day. So if a person buys a camera lens for $400 after clicking a link in my blog, I get a couple bucks.

It’s not a lot and I doubt anyone quits their day job to get rich on referral links, but it’s more than zero. I like to say that I’ve made tens of dollars through those fees; by now I’ve made a little more, though not so much that it’ll pay for both beer and books.

Publishing’s golden age has always just ended. In 1994, Larissa MacFarquhar could write in the introduction to Robert Gottlieb’s Paris Review interview that in the 1950s—when Gottlieb got started—”publishers were frequently willing and able to lose money publishing books they liked, and tended to foster a sense that theirs were houses with missions more lofty than profit.” Then Gottlieb is quoted directly:

It is not a happy business now [. . .] and once it was. It was smaller. The stakes were lower. It was a less sophisticated world.

Today publishers are noble keepers of a sacred flame; before December 2009 they were rapacious capitalists. Today writers can also run a million experiments in what people want to read. Had I been an editor with 50 Shades of Grey passed my desk, I would’ve rejected it. Oops.

But the Internet is very good at getting to revealed preferences. Maybe Americans say they want to read high-quality books but many want to read about the stuff they’re not getting in real life: sex with attractive people; car chases; being important; being quasi-omniscient; and so on. Some people who provide those things are going to succeed.

More than anything else, the Internet demonstrates that a lot of people really like porn (in its visual forms and its written form). People want what they want and while I not surprisingly think that a lot of people would be better off reading more and more interesting stuff, on a fundamental level everyone lives their own lives how they see fit. A lot of people would also be better off if they ran more, watched reality TV less, ate more broccoli, and the other usual stuff. The world is full of ignored messages. In the end each individual suffers or doesn’t according to the way they live their own life.

I don’t love Amazon or any company, but Amazon and the Internet more generally has enabled me to do things that wouldn’t have been possible or pragmatic in 1995. Since Amazon is ascending, however, it’s the bad guy in many narratives. Big publishers are wobbling, so they’re the good guys. We have always been at war with East Asia and will always be at war with East Asia.

Packer is a good writer, skilled with details and particularities, but he can’t translate those skills into generalities. He fits stories into political / intellectual frameworks that don’t quite fit, as happened last his Silicon Valley article (I responded: “George Packer’s Silicon Valley myopia“). Packer’s high quality makes him worth responding to. But Packer presumably ignores his critics on the uncouth Interwebs, since he occupies the high ground of the old-school New Yorker. Too bad. There are things to be learned from the Internet, even about the past.

Coders at Work: Reflections on the Craft of Programming – Peter Seibel

Coders at Work is consciously modeled on the Paris Review Interviews with famous writers and comes out better for it. The interviews are deep, thoughtful, wide-ranging, and show strong opinions without pedantry or needless prejudice. Many such opinions aren’t unique to programming or can be transferred easily to a wider domain area; Dan Ingalls, for example, says that “[M]y feeling about the powerful ideas that are necessary to lead a good life, it’s not clear how many of them are in this space,” this space being the intersection of computers and math. The expression is a bit awkward, which shouldn’t be surprising given that these interviews were conducted in person, but the idea of tremendous respect for powerful ideas is an attractive one that’s expressed over and over in these essays.

Coders at Work is surprisingly fun and useful, even for people whose connection to computer science is tenuous, chiefly because its metaphors and ideas about work and beauty travel. The author’s bio says, “An English major and would-be journalist in college, Peter was seduced by the web […]” and eventually became a hacker. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, I see a lot of ideas that one can apply to writing in this book. Joe Armstrong says that writing is an essential skill for programmers, and he says that writing is “actually very difficult to teach because it’s very individual.” Since I teach writing, that resonates with me, but it seems that coding is equally difficult if not quite equally individual, but the difficulty in learning both seems like a similar problem space. I write this from the position of someone with about a dilettante’s Computer Science 102 view of these things, but I see nothing in Coders at Work that’s incompatible with such a view. Both hacking and writing seem like what I call “10,000-hour problems,” or those that will require that much time to master. Ingalls implicitly agrees:

[…] I still love to just take a problem and sit down and pore over it until it’s right. There’s an analogy here: I tried to learn to play the piano fairly late in life. People said, “Oh, you should learn when you’re young. You learn so much quicker.” Although I didn’t go very far, my conclusion was that it isn’t that young people learn that much faster; it’s just they have more time. When I would put time in, I made progress.

I feel a bit the same thing with programming. When I look back on earlier times in my life, I had all the time I wanted. I would just work and work. Now there are other things going on in my life and I’ve got responsibilities that aren’t just programming. That undermines a bit of that intense focus.

Replace “programming” with “writing,” and I think the ideas about the process of learning stand. Ideas about beauty seem to transfer as well. L. Peter Deutsch says, “[… I]t’s just seeing anything around me that’s being done badly has always offended me mightily, so I thought I could do better.” Perhaps not surprisingly, Deutsch also says:

As crazy as it may seem now, a lot of my motivation for going into software in the first place was that I thought you could actually make the world a better place by doing it. I don’t believe that anymore. Not really. Not in the same way.

Maybe not: but I suspect that we make the world a better place by becoming really, really good at something—so good that no one else can do it as well as us, or some small coterie of skills that interact with one another—and then ultimately teach others that skill or suite of skills too.

The dominant idea in Coders at Work is not how to apply the skills once you have them, but the challenge and process of acquiring those skills. The coders interviewed acquire and apply them in diverse ways, but the dominant theme in all of them is starting early and intense, dedicated work. There is no other way to learn and to develop “Taste for Makers.”

One question is why more people don’t find and excel in coding, or in any particular, demanding field. Donald Knuth speculates that only about 2% of the population has the aptitude and desire for coding. Maybe. And maybe some segments of the population are turned off by the culture or cultures of coding. In a blog post, Seibel wonders whether there are “Enough women in Coders at Work?” The obvious answer from a gender parity perspective is “no,” but from a practical prospective I’d observe that a) there has been an overly low proportion of women in computer science for as long as one can remember and b) many of the interviewees came of age in the 60s and 70s, when the problem was even worse than it was now because of other institutional and cultural barriers.

Fran Allen takes up some of these issues. But Seibel is also a writer, and not directly responsible for the number of prominent, expert women coders; the fact that the issue arises is a sign of progress. Still, it is not effective to order people to learn to code or to like to code any more than it is effective to order people to become writers; the best you can do is give them an environment conducive to growth and remove institutional barriers and see what happens. Maybe some of them will learn taste and, better still, beauty.

(You can—and should—also read Joel Spolsky’s take on Coders at Work. His point: sometimes you need people who get things done.)

Harold Bloom on word processors (and, for good measure, editing)

Interviewer: Do you think that the word processor has had or is having any effect on the study of literature?

Bloom: There cannot be a human being who has fewer thoughts on the whole question of word processing than I do. I’ve never even seen a word processor. I am hopelessly archaic.

Interviewer: Perhaps you see an effect on students’ papers then?

Bloom: But for me the typewriter hasn’t even been invented yet, so how can I speak to this matter? I protest! A man who has never learned to type is not going to be able to add anything to this debate. As far as I’m concerned, computers have as much to do with literature as space travel, perhaps much less. I can only write with a ballpoint pen, with a Rolling Writer, they’re called, a black Rolling Writer on a lined yellow legal pad on a certain kind of clipboard. And then someone else types it.

Interviewer: And someone else edits?

Bloom: No one edits. I edit. I refuse to be edited.

This passages comes from The Paris Review Interviews Vol. II, which is much recommended, and should be considered in light of my recent post on The computer, operating system, or word processor a writer or novelist uses doesn’t matter much, although I still like Macs. If Bloom, Freud, and Shakespeare could get by without debating the operating system or word processor being used, so too should you (this isn’t the same as saying you shouldn’t use a word processor, but rather that you should spend the minimum amount of time worrying about it, and the maximum amount of time worrying about your writing).

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