This is my first entry on a subject that I want to address: the future of the book. It’s something that matters to me very much, of course. Many internet enthusiasts maintain that the book is dying, which I think is naive. The book is suffering right now, but it’s not going to die. The internet will die before the book ever does. I’ll go into why I think that’s true in future posts. For this first post, I want to look at a brief exchange in an interview with the poet and ecology activist Gary Snyder that I saw on YouTube. This extract confirms a hunch I’ve had about one of the beliefs of cyber-intellectuals, a belief they tend to keep in the background. I’ve put into italics the specific point that I’m referring to.
Interviewer: Do you think that there is any literary vocation, in the largest sense of the word—literary, not poetical—one that may be assumed by so-called prose writers?
Gary Snyder: Maybe. I don’t know. The publishing business is falling apart. Books are not selling. Bookstores are closing. Everybody is saying the Internet is the new thing. What do you think? It’s your generation. What do you think is going to happen?
Interviewer: I think we will still need literature for some reasons.
Gary Snyder: By literature, you mean books or do you mean writing?
Gary Snyder: Is it okay for writing to be online?
Interviewer: Honestly, I do think so.
Gary Snyder: Do you think writers should be paid?
Interviewer: Um… Well, that’s a difficult issue.
Gary Snyder: Well, you can’t be a writer if you can’t make a living.
Interviewer: Yeah, that’s true. Um…
Gary Snyder: Unless you want to be an academic, but that’s not a real writer.
Interviewer: But would you say it’s just to write for a living? To earn money?
Gary Snyder: Whatever you do you have to earn enough money to feed your family.
Interviewer: Okay. So you’re a pragmatist.
Gary Snyder: Of course I’m a pragmatist. I’m a grown up. You know? I’m an adult. I know that I have to feed a family.
The interviewer is around 20 years old, a student in Krakow, Poland. I’ve looked into him a little. He’s an urban technofile. I’ve long had the sense that the real attitude of these people toward writers, musicians and other “content providers” is that they should be doing their work for free in their spare time, that to make a living doing creative work is elitist. I feel that my hunch has been confirmed here — “Well, that’s a difficult issue.” For cyber-intellectuals, the internet fanatics, the most vital aspect of the digital lifestyle is gadgetry. You need content to give the gadgets something to do, but that’s secondary. This is another example of form over content — the medium is the message — which is backwards. We live in a backward, or an upside down, era. (I’ll do a future post on Marshall McLuhan, of whom I used to be a big fan.) Listening to the interview, when the interviewer agrees with Snyder’s assertion that you can’t be a writer if you can’t make a living at it, he’s not being sincere. It’s merely a tactical retreat. A grown man has challenged him over something he has not thought through, so he backs off. But his real attitude, which he’s not willing to push too hard here, is one of the most widespread that those who write books, make films, take photos, or make music have to deal with nowadays: Your work should be free, and if you’re not willing to give it to us, then we’ll simply take it from you. Can someone offer support for this idea? I’d be interested in hearing from you.
You can watch the entire 25-minute interview here.