Saturday, July 17, 2010

Oh, really ...

... The Trouble With Amazon.

The loss of serendipity that comes with not knowing exactly what one is looking for is lamented by ex-Amazon editor James Marcus: "Personalization strikes me as a mixed blessing. While it gives people what they want—or what they think they want—it also engineers spontaneity out of the picture. The happy accident, the freakish discovery, ceases to exist. And that's a problem."

This morning, the intrepid Dave Lull sent me a link to a piece in the Guardian detailing various summer reading choices. Looking through it I learned that J.A. Baker's diaries and another of his books have been gathered together into a single volume that also includes his preternaturally wonderful The Peregrine. I just went to Amazon UK and ordered a copy. All of this seems to me every bit as serendipitous as stumbling upon it while browsing in a book store, which might never happen anytime soon in this country.
The notion that the more the choices you have the worse choices you make is risible on its face. It all depends on who is doing the choosing and what mental and experiential equipment one brings to the task.


  1. Hi Frank,

    I'm a longtime follower of your blog, and I appreciate your writing. I am in complete agreement with you that online purchases can be just as serendipitous as good old fashioned bookstore (or library) browsing. Book reviews, word of mouth, and web surfing may provide an even greater degree of serendipity than mere window shopping in the stacks.

    However, I disagree that "the notion that the more the choices you have the worse choices you make is risible on its face." On the contrary, option paralysis is a well-studied and readily observable characteristic of general human psychology. Your readiness to dismiss the notion as laughable is (I believe, personally) a reflection of your biases as a newspaper book-review editor. You admit that the quality of the choice depends on the person doing the choosing, and this is certainly true. But I suspect that your well-developed judgment, ability to discriminate with ease, and talent for seeking out what best suits your time and interests are features of your vocational life that have perhaps become second nature to you. There are a huge number of readers out there who don't know what to read, or why, or how to find it, and I worry that their numbers can only swell as time goes on.

    This has been on my mind a lot lately, because I recently wrote a vitriol-spewing post about the digital self-publishing trend, which emphasizes Laura Miller's predictions for the glutted online marketplace. In that rant, I make a case (okay, a lovefest) for the agents, editors, reviewers, and readers whose job it is, in part, to facilitate good decision making for the general public. There are too many people entirely too willing to take that professional service for granted, and I beg you not to be one of them.

  2. Annika,

    Arguing for the gatekeepers of publishing (the editors, publishers, etc.) is to once again deny that the general reader is capable of deciding what's good for themselves. Arguing for the gatekeepers is elitist at best—not that I necessarily condemn elitism—and snobbish at worst. Such arguments usually reduce to saying to the general reader, in effect: Our artistic taste is more certain than yours, and you're too stupid to know the difference.

    Granted, many people choose not to use their native intelligence and common sense a lot of the time, and go along with the herd—but the same is true of publishers and booksellers who neither publish nor stock works of great merit that simply won't sell a million copies. Most best-sellers are unreadable crap, and always have been. The gatekeepers of the past have frequently given awards to "great books" that have not survived the test of time. (Meanwhile JA Baker, and even John McPhee, have only minimal readerships.) The gatekeepers do not determine taste because taste cannot be determined by lowest common denominator factors such as mass marketing—except accidentally and coincidentally.

    The gatekeepers of publishing are not altruistic protectors of high culture, they are sellers of pop (as well as high) culture whose primary motivation is making a living from their profits. It's idealistic to the point of naiveté to claim that editors and publishers "facilitate good decision making for the general public." That comes across as the same old anti-populist anti-Internet whine, and it's purely unconvincing.

    I speak as a former publishing insider, a book designer, graphic artist, and typographer, who has worked in magazine and book publishing most of my career. There were plenty of times I saw great books overlooked because no one knew how to sell them. Period.

    Option paralysis is relevant in certain specific conditions of sensory overwhelm and overstimulation, but it does not describe an existential state of being that is either universal or permanent. (Yes, I read psychology, too.) In other words, you can't generalize the particular case in which an observed paralysis is valid to try to make it into a daily dilemma. For most people, it's not, and never has been.

  3. Art,

    You got me. I will be the first person to admit that I am naive, that I idealize the industry, and also that I am probably a smidge stuck up about it. (For what it's worth, I'm planning on tempering the vitriol in the above-mentioned post in the days to come, for those reasons.) You're absolutely right. Your eloquent response seethes precisely the kind of experience that I lack, and I'm grateful for your having posted it. I am wiser for it. But please let me defend myself a little bit.

    It was not my intention to argue that general readers are too stupid to make informed decisions for themselves. I count myself as a general reader and, as such, I value the work of reviewers and editorial staff who have the talent and expertise required to add details to choices that I am not necessarily capable of making entirely on my own. It's something they've made a life out of doing, where I have not. When I go to a bookstore, or to Amazon, or to the library, my decisions about what to read are easier and more informed because those writers do the work that they do. Would I be completely stupid without them? Probably not, but that shouldn't devalue their place in the process. And they shouldn't devalue the quality, usefulness, or significance of their own judgment, either (which is a part of what I was objecting to in Frank's post).

    As you point out, much of what is talked up in the press (or even on the internet), and much of what sells well, is unreadable crap. Someone else's expertise is not to be substituted for one's own judgment, but it can be a helpful supplement either way, can't it? I certainly don't think it should be taken for granted, or done without. That's all I mean when I argue that editors, reviewers, bloggers, and so on facilitate decision making--they make it easier for me to call my own shots. And to my (naive, inexperienced, very small) mind, these people are providing a service in the public interest. Ed Champion interviews Fiona Maazel; I go read Last Last Chance; everybody wins. My objective is not to be anti-populist or anti-Internet at all. I'll grant that I whine. Unconvincingly.

    I line- and copy-edit for a living, which is to say, I take writing that is already ostensibly good enough to publish, and I make it more readable for a general audience. I "facilitate" the reading experience, and it is this that I generalize to the work of so-called gatekeepers. I'm not inherently better than anyone else; I've just spent hours and hours honing my skills at a particular series of tasks that most would prefer not to bother with--in the interest, ultimately, of benefiting the reader. You've pointed out a number of variables that make it perhaps an inappropriate generalization (money and marketing, for example). Some part of me refuses to believe that these variables would wholly drive a practice that should, at best, aim to serve the best interests of the readership, but that's my naiveté, isn't it?

    I don't know. As I said, thank you for your reply. I am wiser for it.

  4. Hi—

    No offense was intended. No need to defend a single thing.

    I was responding with generalizations TO generalizations. I actually like passion and strong opinions, and folks can take as good as they get. I don't think you should tone down your vitriol or rant. I'm the first to say that venting is healthy. :) Just don't be shocked if you get equally passionate disagreements in response. Such as mine. Sorry if I misinterpreted anything; as you know, in this medium we can only read what we can read.

    I value great book reviewing, and I value many of the reviews Frank links to here, as well as what Ed Champion, Nigel Beale, and others recommend. (And I join in too, sometimes, obviously.) I definitely value hearing what people think about what they've read, and I certainly get pointed towards great writing as a result. Just today Frank mentioned the new edition of JA Baker, which I intend to seek out, as it's very much the sort of thing I must read.

    So I certainly listen to reviewers I respect, and they serve a valuable function in choosing what one wants to read. There are certain film reviewers whose opinions I pay attention to precisely because whatever they hate is likely something I'm going to enjoy watching. LOL (In game theory that's called misére, or negative play, but it can be just as reliable as positive play.)

    But good reviewers are often (usually?) from outside the publishing industry per se; often the best ones are either independents, or themselves writers. For example, I don't trust blurbs written by publishing insiders, because it's often impossible to sort their motives for giving a good review: because they were paid to do so? or because they genuinely liked the book?

    Noel Perrin's collections of reviews are stellar. Jim Harrison is a gifted writer who also sometimes can be cajoled into writing gifted reviews. Ed Champion is a great reviewer, even when I sometimes disagree with him. Ron Silliman is a great poetry reviewer, who I respect very much, and I almost always disagree with him.

    I am not one of those who is enamored of James Wood, or Harold Bloom for that matter, for my part purely because he wants to be a Critic, which is not the same thing as a reviewer; he DOES want his personal taste to prevail upon the masses, and those who are his apostles often seem to want the same thing. There is indeed a tang of snobbery in such projects.

    But most honest reviewers don't seek to be Critics, and they don't seek to be the gatekeepers of Taste that many self-proclaimed Critics do seem to want to become. Tastemakers, like kingmakers, are almost never trustworthy.

    (continued, due to Blogger's size limits)

  5. (continued)

    The gatekeepers of publishing are neither all brilliant nor all stupid. The problem is that they're in a position to believe their own PR as tastemakers, that their taste is somehow surer than yours or mine—when that is demonstrably easy to disprove. Economic decisions trump aesthetic decisions; perhaps not all the time, but most of the time. The publishing industry is an industry, i.e. a business. The music industry suffers from exactly the same kinds of joys and problems as does the publishing industry. Again, the key word in both cases is industry.

    What I primarily object to is those within the publishing industry who portray themselves as the Great and Powerful Oz of cultural taste, of cultural goodness, of cultural elitism. It's usually a good plan to be skeptical of those who tell you that they know better than you. (Just as you are wise to be skeptical of my opinion as well; nothing succeeds like one's own personal experience.) Whenever someone claims the gatekeeping authority, specifically in matters of quality (as opposed to the mechanics of craft, which as a copyeditor is what you're dealing with), encourage the little dog to reveal the man behind the curtain.

    None of that benefits the reader. Not everyone WANTS to read HIgh Art. Some readers WANT to read clichéd best-sellers. Because for those readers it's not about the quality of the Art, or of Literature, it's about escapism. And more power to 'em. The best-seller list is certainly full of crap, and crap that panders to the lowest common denominator. But that's okay. Personally, I'd rather read something a little more artistically written, but that's MY personal taste. The most I would ever suggest in a book review is that I think someone else might like it, too, and say why; or say why not.

    But I'm not trying to be a tastemaker, or a gatekeeper. And I don't think most general readers (whoever they are) care, either way. They just want to have a good reading experience.