Books: Art or Commodities

Let me preface this article with Ursuka Le Guin’s powerful speech when she accepted the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the 65th National Book Awards on November 19, 2014.

Transcript:

“I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and it’s obsessive technologies to other ways of being and can even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries. The realists of a larger reality. Right now we need the writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sale strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.

Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial. I see my own publishers in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an ebook six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience, and writers threatened by corporate fatwah, and I see a lot of us, the producers, who write the books and make the books accepting this. Letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant and tell us what to publish and what to write. Well…books they’re not just commodities. The profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art.

We live in capitalism. It’s power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. And very often in our art, the art of words. I have had a long career and a good one in good company. Now here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want and should demand our fair share of the proceeds. But the name of our beautiful reward is not profit. It’s name is freedom. Thank you.”

 

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What led me to thinking about the space books occupy was actually a kerfluffle that happened months ago between an author and some reviewers. The author (whose name I have forgotten) pointed out that art should not be critiqued (which really is balderdash) and the reviewer retorted that since she/he had paid money for it, the book was hers and if she wanted to review a product (a consumable good) she had bought, it was entirely her right. For example, if she could criticize a washing machine’s performance, why could she not do the same to a book that she had paid money for. The analogy is mine but you get the point I’m try to make (I hope).

Ms. Le Guin’s points are very relevant at this point in time when there is a severe need for some discourse on what writing and the making of books are. The lines have become blurred enough that the integrity of the venture is at stake. These may seem like dramatic statements but honestly, discussion is important. In this age of “free speech” and the liberty to air opinions* however one may please, it is easy to forget that once people died for making their opinions, thoughts, research known via the written form (actually, I’m pretty certain people are still dying for this but I have no statistics). We’re in a time when rejection letters contain contents that do not find fault with your writing or the quality of your art but the reason that your work is too new and may not sell. We’re in a time of packaged books: ideas and a formula handed to writers who, with little to no motivation, write books that are designed to exploit the minds and purses of its targeted audience. When writers write not because they have stories to tell but because they want to sell something. We are in a time when books become movies and sometimes are written precisely for that purpose: to gain a following before the movies hit the theaters. When empty insubstantial books are hyped up, packaged in shiny paper and sold like candy to babies.

We live in a time when ghost writers do the writing and books are sold on the strength of a person’s celebrity status whether the celebrity knows how to string a sentence together or not. Where people like James Frey has a stable full of writers whom he uses to churn out the next bestseller without giving them the appropriate acknowledgement.

As Ms. Le Guin said above, we live in a capitalist age and money tends to corrupt (or at least pervert the meaning and nature of) anything it touches. Money has also taken away the very thing writers search most assiduously for: the truth, and the freedom to tell the truth. Money hobbles writers: one cannot be true to their vision when one bows to the demands of the publishers who want what sells (unless what ones to write is what the publisher wants and what sells).

However, what is the alternative? Everyone needs to eat and most people would choose a comfortable lifestyle rather than one of a starving artist. There are bills to pay, children to see for and a future to save for. We live in a society that is unforgiving of people who refuse to sell and/or compromise their integrity and art for profit. How do writers remain artists without becoming corporate employees? How do we critique the system while oiling the cogs of this system so it runs smoother? How do we keep truth in our sight when profit clouds the horizons?

As usual, I have no answers. But I figure the discussion needed to start somewhere so here are the questions. Do you have answers, thoughts and/or opinions? Let’s discuss!

  • Yash

    I’m glad I gave up my Friday to you- you’ve come through brilliantly, as usual! For me, I find it interesting to see whose books are treated as commodities and whose books are treated as art. I look at my own shelf and I have to acknowledge that if I want “lure” “literary” “readers” (*phew* lots of sarcastic quotation marks) into reading YA, I have to pick the more “artsy” types like Neil Gaiman, Bernard Beckett, and Patrick Ness … all of whom are male. And then I look at my shelf and I JUST KNOW which of the writers most people would consider as “genre” writers, “pulp” writers, or “sellouts”. (HINT: Predominantly women.) Which is why I think it’s also interesting that fanfiction exists and that (even though it is not “literary”) it is a space that (I think) allows female/feminine voices to speak up, does so for free, and does inspire a sort of freedom- whether in expression and representation of gender, or sexuality, understanding trauma or abuse, or even (though rarely) of racism.

    Anyway, sorry for my rambling comment. There was no point or question I was trying to make. Just some observations. Clearly we need to meet up for tea soon! Cheers! <3

    • Given Janet’s current interest in the Faerie Queen, maybe you two should tag team a defense of Fan Fiction as Literature through use of classical examples throughout history, beginning with some of the major epic works of poetry in english that were adaptations of earlier latin and italian works, which were adaptations of earlier latin and greek works, so on and so forth.

    • Well said. One only needs to look at the canon of western literature to notice how it fails to correctly represent women and POC. So I think we can’t just revert to the old ways where the art of writing was limited to a few white men while everyone else wrote trash (I remember how novels were said to be trashy female literature when the medium first became popular). What is necessary is discourse on what writing is, what it was and what it perhaps can be while being inclusive of all people who write.

  • While I love LeGuin, I have a hard time agreeing with her when the blame is laid on capitalism. To me, it’s more of the paradigm that has sprung up because of the old publisher/author relationship which is significantly outdated. The publishers are struggling, throwing anything against the wall that they think can stick, because they are too slow and reactionary to effectively adapt to the market. Because of this, however, more agile businesses and innovative individuals have the opportunity to move in and claim marketspace. THAT is capitalism. Because most library systems are state-owned, usually run by their local municipalities, the relationship between publishers and libraries can hardly be upheld as an example of the failing of a free market.

    • I don’t think she blames just capitalism. She also mentions that most authors choose to accept (and perhaps even promote) the status quo instead of striving to find a better medium. For the publishers, it’s purely business, for the authors it’s a mixture of the two and I don’t think the discussion of books as art or commodities (can it be both?) will ever find an amicable resolution.

  • Janet

    The article about Zoella/ghostwriting quotes a passage from The Guardian writer Catherine Bennett. I’ll add it here, if you don’t mind:
    “[A certain book] seems designed to reassure modern girlhood that, whatever it may have recently heard to the contrary, fulfillment still depends on bewitching a handsome prince.”
    I think that just about describes the message in the “empty insubstantial books” you mention, which are most definitely commodities (albeit trashy commodities not worth paper in the form of money or paper in the form of the trees they are printed on) and not art.
    I think part of the divide between commodity and art is the intention behind the writing – to say, or to sell? Execution, however, is also important. A poorly written story, however earnest and true, is often little different (externally) from a commodity-tale. And if I may drag authors in, the attitude and character of the author sometimes signals their intention (arrogant or warm?) – although this isn’t reliable.

    • Valid points. I think, also, another distinction between writing as art and writing as commodity is endurance. Which books stand the test of time and which books are relegated to footnotes (if even that) of history will draw the line.

  • Janet

    My muddy thoughts above set aside, I’ve found this helps me think with light and warmth about writing:

    “It seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies somewhere in the art’s heart’s purpose, the agenda of the consciousness behind the text. It’s got something to do with love. With having the discipline to talk out the part of yourself that can love instead of the part that just wants to be loved.”
    – David Foster Wallace.

    • Words to cogitate over. Thanks for this, Janet.

  • Well said. I remember reading an article by an Australian publisher on viewing the differences of how the American YA market functions in comparison to the Australian market. In regards to art vs. commodities, I think the section from p.18 (about blockbusters vs. award winners as categories in the American market) onwards would be interesting to connect to this discussion: http://www.publishers.asn.au/news/beatrice-davis-fellowship-full-report

    • Thanks for this Glaiza. I shall check it out!

  • Very thoughtful post and question. If freedom is to be free, then people need to be free to make a living through publishing. New technologies have created a boom in publishing outlets unseen since Gutenburg’s day. Ebooks create a new path for publishing that expands the universe of authors without agents attracting attention of established publishing houses. Not all great literature was written by starving artists without regard for financial gain. Dickens was paid by the word. His book chapters were serialized in newspapers in London. What good would it serve to discount his art (and political commentary) because he was making a living in the process?

    The need to make a living has served as inspiration for the creative process as well. Famed childrens book author (Bemelmans) created the Madeline character because he was broke and his other career ventures were not paying his bills. Would we want to reject intrepid Madeline because financial gain rather than pure artistic intention was her inspiration?

    Your posts asks hard, good questions. The answers, like life, are far more nuanced and defy easy binary outcomes. Loved the post and the commentary. Well done!

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