Much as I hate to dredge up Updike and his crusty rejoinder to Kevin Kelly’s “Scan this Book” at last month’s Book Expo, The New York Times has refused to let it die, re-printing his speech in the Sunday Book Review under the headline, “The End of Authorship.” We should all thank the Times for perpetuating this most uninteresting war of words about the publishing future. Here, once again, is Updike:
Books traditionally have edges: some are rough-cut, some are smooth-cut, and a few, at least at my extravagant publishing house, are even top-stained. In the electronic anthill, where are the edges? The book revolution, which, from the Renaissance on, taught men and women to cherish and cultivate their individuality, threatens to end in a sparkling cloud of snippets.
I was reading Christine Boese’s response to this (always an exhilarating antidote to the usual muck), where she wonders about Updike’s use of history:
The part of this that is the most peculiar to me is the invoking of the Renaissance. I’d characterize that period as a time of explosive artistic and intellectual growth unleashed largely by social unrest due to structural and technological changes.
….swung the tipping point against the entrenched power arteries of the Church and Aristocracy, toward the rising merchant class and new ways of thinking, learning, and making, the end result was that the “fruit basket upset” of turning the known world’s power structures upside down opened the way to new kinds of art and literature and science.
So I believe we are (or were) in a similar entrenched period like that now. Except that there is a similar revolution underway. It unsettles many people. Many are brittle and want to fight it. I’m no determinist. I don’t see it as an inevitability. It looks to me more like a shift in the prevailing winds. The wind does not deterministically affect all who are buffeted the same way. Some resist, some bend, some spread their wings and fly off to wherever the wind will take them, for good or ill.
Normally, I’d hope the leading edge of our best artists and writers would understand such a shift, would be excited to be present at the birth of a new Renaissance. So it puzzles me that John Updike is sounding so much like those entrenched powers of the First and Second Estate who faced the Enlightenment and wondered why anyone would want a mass-printed book when clearly monk-copied manuscripts from the scriptoria are so much better?!
I say it again, it’s a shame that Kelly, the uncritical commercialist, and Updike, the nostaligic elitist, have been the ones framing the public debate. For most of us, Google is neither the eclipse nor dawn of authorship, but just a single feature of a shifting landscape. Search is merely a tool, a means: the books themselves are the end. Yet, neither Google Book Search, which is simply an apparatus for extracting new profits off of the transmission and search of books, nor the present-day publishing industry, dominated as it is by mega-conglomerates with their penchant for blockbusters (our culture haunted by vast legions of the out-of-print), serves those ends very well. And yet these are the competing futures of the book: lonely forts and sparkling clouds. Or so we’re told.