Monday, March 25, 2013

Did You Just Call Me a "Content Container"?

The amazing Melville House blog gets better and better. For a few years now I’ve greatly appreciated their relentless resistance to the civic and cultural irresponsibility, rapacity, and general megalomania of Amazon.

Now we all owe further thanks to Melville House, and to their blogger Dustin Kurtz, for brilliantly resisting “the propagation of [a] powerful and quite dangerous idiocy, the irruption of the language of venture capital into the province of the book.”
Kurtz cites Tim Sanders, of the “team publishing” website NetMinds, speaking to the New Yorker: “We believe a writer is not necessarily a writer. They are content containers.” And Peter Armstrong, founder of Leanpub, who states: “a book is a startup” and who equates the long, solitary process of writing to the “stealth mode” that precedes an entrepreneurial launch.
NetMinds and Leanpub both aim to provide writers (via social network) with early audience critiques of works in progress, in order to maximize the mass appeal/profitability of those works; i.e., to help the writer “pivot until you have the right book and build traction once you do.”   

Welcome, Ladies and Gentlemen, to the brave new world of book-via-virtual-focus-group, where the sins of idiosyncrasy, subjectivity, or good old-fashioned style are, if not expurgated altogether, then "remixed" to the mercenary end of mass appeal. (I’ve touched on aspects of this subject elsewhere. See: “There’s a Crowd on My Desk” or "Why It's Desirable to Be Eccentric".)
“[Armstrong] talks about the ‘success’ of a book. What he means is that the book pays out. Many publishers might agree with that standard, but how many authors?  And that phrase ‘stealth mode?’ Are we to the point where the act of being alone, writing to an imagined audience and not a real responsive audience is akin to hiding?
“As for the real winners, the claims that made me actually clench my teeth and take a deep breath when I read them—Armstrong and his phrase about creativity, Sanders and that terrible terrible terrible sentence about ‘content containers’ what’s to be said? Anyone who could think such things is quite specifically part of The Problem in the starkest sense.”
For me, all this brings to mind these words of Stephen Spender, written back in 1949:

The general effect of increasing commercialization and of the compulsion to sell ever larger and larger quantities of a few books to a public which does not really care about them, must surely be that the position of the writer who writes as well as he possibly can ‘to please himself’, becomes less tenable. … The American malady is a spiritual one, the commercialization of spiritual goods on an enormous scale, in the same way as material goods are commercialized. … In the country where culture is ‘sold’ enormously, it is sold as something other than culture and tends to become something else in the process.”
The slogans and euphemisms that characterize what I recently heard dubbed "dot-communism" are the latest symptoms of our long-standing American malady. Kurtz beautifully articulates what's at stake when we embrace such ways of talking about creativity:
These guys are not harmful, as I say, but the spread of this type of jargon is. Language shapes, language is, thought, and the more comfortable we grow talking about nascent books as ‘content’, about drafts as ‘iterations’, the more we trivialize those books that don’t benefit from focus groups. These guys, this language, is hurting literature by changing how we think about books in general. It is a spreading disregard, not even conscious or apt enough to be malign. And I don’t think it likely to stop.”
Read the Melville House post here. And consider adding the Melville House blog to your list of essential web-reading.