Daniel Menaker on threatened gatekeepers

In The Slate writer and literary editor Daniel Menaker considered the traditional gatekeepers of the literary world.

He discussed two conflicts: Amazon v Hachette and the perennial struggle in publishing between the aesthetic and the commercial.

But at the heart of these matters there is nothing new. The push-me pull-you tension between creativity and money is ancient. The one generally, and often uncomprehendingly, envies the other, wants what the other has, wants to materially or aesthetically gain from the other.

Business titans (Jeff Bezos in particular), he said, embody the commercial imperative (but perhaps covet the curatorial prowess of aesthetically inclined editors). However…

The modern, often online and anonymous, neo-Levellers who object to the “elitism” of publishing arrive at their position from the other side, the populist. They are often writers who have failed to get published by mainstream publishers, even good independent presses. Or readers who decry “snobby,” difficult books. One of the loudest voices in this group denunciation belongs to Barry Eisler, a self-published author who told the Guardian that the signatories of the Authors United letter to Amazon were in “the top 1 percent” who “have no interest at all in improving publishing for everyone. Only in preserving it for themselves.”

This Menaker challenged. And then he arrived at an interesting conclusion. If we are to lose or redefine or transform the gatekeeping role of traditional publishing, something will have to replace it. Otherwise welcome to your four hundred thousand forty cent four star soft porn vampire e-book future (not that there’s anything wrong with soft porn vampires in moderation). It’s not that good work wouldn’t be produced in this dystopian world. The problem would be finding it under all the shit. Manaker said all this better:

Even if all the professionals and connoisseurs and curators are temporarily leveled into the ground by geeks wielding pixels, new ones—new, techno-adept experts, people who know what they’re talking about, culturally speaking, will spring up from the seemingly undifferentiated digital soil like Cadmus’ army sprung from dragons’ teeth. Or old ones will adapt. (For an almost impossibly erudite and complex elaboration on this point see Leon Wieseltier’s piece in the New York Times Book Review.)

I’ll follow that link in a later piece no doubt. The trouble with Menaker’s conclusion is that he bailed on us just when things began to get interesting (just as Will Self did in his Guardian piece). If, as seems likely, we will need new ways to locate value (and not just high literary value), it might be useful to speculate on the form these mechanisms might take. This, Menaker left to the figurative barbarians:

It’s not incumbent on those who defend the publishing industry/business/art and book reviewers to justify the gatekeeping services they perform, however imperfectly. It’s incumbent on those who want to fire the gatekeepers and tear down the very gates themselves to explain what, if anything, will replace them.


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