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The Return of Print?: Contemporary Australian Publishing

CHAPTER THREE

The Changing Literary Ecology

MARK DAVIS

Capitalism without hope, hopeless capitalism, endgame capitalism. (Simon During, Exit Capitalism)

The universities are not yet ready for burning. The humanities have not yet become useless in principle. Godot has not arrived, does not arrive. Post-humanism has not been achieved; we can only ever be on the way. (Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak 518)

There is something already nostalgic about recent evocations of the lingering power of literature to spark cultural and social transformation. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, for example, has recently proclaimed the benefits of an aesthetic education as an antidote to a data-based information capitalism that has ‘ruined knowing and reading’ (Spivak 1). And Simon During has positioned literature as a possible site of resistance against what he calls ‘endgame capitalism’ (Exit Capitalism vii). According to During:

[L]iterature’s abiding conservatism is now a reservoir, if not exactly of hope or radical will, then at least of experiences and values at odds with (or even incommensurate with) current social conditions … literature may become an instrument to distance or remove us, if only virtually, from the flawed regime that now, in its various modes and structures, covers the globe. (Against Democracy viii)

A similar faith in the transformative power of literature underpins debate about the limits and possibilities of world literature (Apter; Casanova; Damrosch; Prendergast). As Emily Apter has summarised, with scepticism:

Both translation studies and World Literature extended the promise of worldly criticism, politicized cosmopolitanism, comparability aesthetics galvanised by a deprovincialized Europe, an academically redistributed area studies and a redrawn map of language geopolitics. Partnered, they could deliver still more: translation theory as Weltliteratur would challenge flaccid globalisms that paid lip service to alterity while doing little more than to buttress neoliberal ‘big tent’ syllabi taught in English. (157)

This same faith in literature no doubt underwrites the founding of new literary journals such as The New Inquiry, The Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB) or The Sydney Review of Books (SRB). The LARB ‘About’ page promotes the journal as a vehicle for:

… the best that is thought and written, with an enduring commitment to the intellectual rigor, the incisiveness, and the power of the written word. (LARB website)

Everywhere, it seems, literature is being understood, even revisited, as a genre of writing that might be able to ‘do something’, that may even provide an antidote to the suffocating, inequality-generating ‘endgame’ making-machine (to follow During) of neoliberal capitalism.

I say ‘already nostalgic’ because even as these hopes were being given voice the climate was shifting. The literary ecology is changing. Recently, for the first time in the history of modernity, literary texts have become non-container specific and the genre has unmoored itself from the codex book as its necessary point of origin. Whereas past technological innovations such as cinematic adaptations and audio books depended on the primacy of the codex, ebooks and online publications do not recognise any such primacy. At the same time, the consecratory power of traditional literary institutions such as the academy, newspaper review sections, and so on, has declined. New avenues for writing, publication, criticism and marketing have opened up, and the systems of publishing, gatekeeping, criticism and audience formation that underwrote literary cultures are being upended. The relatively stable ecology of relations between authors, readers and mediating institutions (such as publishers, newspaper review pages, literary journals, literary festivals, literary prize-givings, the adaptation industry and the academy) is being transformed.

This new literary ecology demands to be understood through digital media theory as much as literary theory. The 22,425 reviewers who have contributed reviews of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch to Goodreads.com as at the time of writing arguably have had no less to do with its reception than the serious-minded critics who published critiques in highbrow literary review sections. Recent developments that demand consideration include the live-tweeting of literary events by patrons; the emergence of mobile phone microfiction; the explosion of self-published ebooks; the ability of readers to see each other’s favourite passages on their Kindles; the use of collaborative online content creation platforms such as CommentPress; the emergence of online book marketing tools such as Netgalley.com and Bookbridgr.com; and the emergence of ‘social reading’, whereby readers collectively engage with and mediate each other’s responses to texts using platforms such as Goodreads.com, Librarything.com, Readups.com, Thecopia.com, Wattpad.com, Amazon’s Shelfari.com and Penguin Books’s Bookcountry.com. Together such developments speak to the possibility—much vaunted in popular discussion of digital media—that a ‘bottom-up’, reader-driven literary culture that circumvents traditional gatekeepers has begun to emerge. This has occurred at the very moment when ‘top-down’ state, academic and the broadsheet media supported curation of the literary field has around the world almost conclusively ebbed away.

Yet this very possibility of digital ‘democratisation’ immediately requires interrogation. Tempting though it may be to frame this transformation as an instance of the seemingly inevitable ‘disruption’ of ‘old’ technology by ‘new’ (Christensen), the democratising triumph of bottom-up culture over top-down, and the ‘death of gatekeepers’, this changed ecology demands to be understood in terms that reach beyond such assumptions. The changing literary ecology isn’t so much to do with the technologically inevitable emergence of new horizons of democratic enfranchisement and participation via the collective digitised ‘wisdom of the crowd’ (Surowiecki), ‘smart mob’ (Rheingold), or ‘produser’ (Bruns). Instead, this changing literary ecology can be better analysed through the lens of critical network theory that understands contemporary network discourse as an expression of late neoliberal capitalism (Andrejevic; Fisher; Hassan; Mejias). The transformed literary ecology thus demands to be understood in the context of a profound transformation of public culture—a long-term transformation whose roots are both political and technological. This transformation brings together digitally mediated forms of pleasure, community and participation with ever more finely tuned regimes of flexible labour, de-institutionalisation and the private ownership and commodification of knowledge. As such, there is no easy ‘outside’ space that literature can occupy from which to mount a critique, even if, as During suggests, such a space must nevertheless be cleared.

In thinking of recent changes in the literary ecology as involving far more than a recent technological revolution, we are able to understand them as related to long-run changes in capitalism itself. The gradual transformation of the literary ecology dates back to at least the 1960s. The public listing of shares in Random House in 1959, and Penguin and Pocket Books in 1960, marked the beginning of a trend to public ownership of large publishers that changed the way books are published. As Random House founder Bennett Cerf has said:

[T]he minute you go public, outsiders own some of your stock and you’ve got to make periodic reports to them. You owe your investors dividends and profits. Instead of working for yourself and doing what you damn please, willing to risk a loss on something you want to do, if you’re any kind of honest man, you feel a real responsibility to your stockholders. (In Whiteside 12–13)

The 1960s also saw the emergence of a ‘blockbuster culture’ that developed alongside rising education levels; the rapid growth of chain stores, especially in the US; a rapid growth in readerships, especially women; and the computerisation of inventory and distribution systems. This increasingly tied fiction to media such as television and cinema and to a high-advance culture dependent on agents and cross-media promotion (Thompson; Whiteside). And it helped foster a trend to acquisitions and mergers (in the 1960s there were 183 mergers and acquisitions in US publishing alone (Greco 52)), driven in part by the rush of shareholder money into newly vertically integrated publishing companies that, under pressure to match the returns routinely generated by other media holdings, sought to generate market share and revenues by acquiring competitors (Thompson).

Arguably, one casualty has been the decline of the fiction ‘mid-list’, made up of middle-selling titles, which has traditionally functioned as ‘publishing’s experimental laboratory’ (Robinson), with larger publishers ‘swinging for the fences, focusing on acquiring big bestsellers’ (Deahl). This effect, in turn, has been attributed to management strategies such as the handing over of publishing decisions to ‘publishing boards’ in which finance and marketing staff are highly influential (Schiffrin 105), and which since the early 2000s have increasingly based their decision-making on data from sources such as Nielsen BookScan and more recently Amazon.

Several commentators, including myself, have recently sought to track the fortunes of literary fiction publishing in Australia, focusing on the new commercial pressures that have been brought to bear on publishers in an era of corporatisation and the impact this has had on the way that publishers build their literary lists (Bode; Carter; Davis). While different studies have arrived at different findings depending on approach and methodology, there is a consensus that structural changes in the book publishing industry and its audiences have impacted on the publishing of literature in mostly negative ways. Recent trends in book retailing have arguably consolidated these trends. Since 2011 and the collapse of the REDGroup-owned Borders and Angus & Robertson chains (though many individually owned stores survive), the market share of large chain stores has decreased and that of discount department stores (DDS) has increased. In 2014 the largest bookseller by volume in Australia was the Big W DDS chain (Webster). These stores stock only a limited number of mostly front-list, high-volume, high-turnover titles. Their buying power means that their stock buyers often reserve the right to have final say over such things as covers (Kong). In this retail environment only high-profile literary titles with proven middlebrow appeal tend to break through. Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief is a recent example of a literary title that sold well in DDS stores as well as in chain and independent stores—a rare feat in what tends to be a highly channel-segmented market (Webster).

It’s in this context that we can begin to enumerate the most recent wave of change to impact the book publishing industry. Books have been ‘born digital’ for several decades now, via digital production processes and computerised warehousing and distribution systems. Only belatedly has ereading extended the digital life of books into the realm of consumption. Meanwhile, digital devices have themselves become publishing platforms, available for use at low cost to anyone who wants to publish a book, review, comment, blog, photo or song, which has in turn blurred the boundaries between production and consumption, and between amateur and professional.

This can be seen in the popularity of digitally enabled ‘social-reading’ sites such as Goodreads.com, Librarything.com, Readups.com, Shelfari.com and Bookcountry.com, which facilitate collective reading and sharing of comments and reviews of books read, along with a recognition of ‘belonging to a reading network’ (Barnett 142). Such sites operate in the tradition of longstanding social-reading practices such as book clubs, the reading aloud of print books, the collective listening of audiobooks, and so on. Most sites allow users to send automatic email notifications of their activity and post to sites such as Facebook and Twitter. As the blurb for ReadUps puts it: ‘A ReadUp is a social reading experience. Think of it as meeting up inside a book.’ In a nod to the site’s ambitions to emulate everyday conversations about books, ReadUps describes itself as ‘free’ and ‘ephemeral’, even as it also tags itself with the hashtag ‘#disruptive’ (ReadUps website).

The highest-profile social-reading site is Goodreads.com, which at the time of writing hosted over 34 million reviews of books by its 30 million members (Goodreads website). Like most social-reading sites, Goodreads encourages users to build social capital by displaying a virtual bookshelf of titles owned or read, which can be added using the barcode reader built into the Goodreads iOS and Android applications. As Lisa Nakamura has said:

The pleasure of scanning paper books from a home bookshelf into the iPhone app, hearing its gentle ‘bing’, and viewing the vividly colored book covers as they pop up in an expanding palette of readerly acquisition provides the psychic payoff of shopping without the cost. … While Facebook offers up our list of friends as visual evidence of our social graph, letting us create and display our connections, Goodreads foregrounds reading as a spectacle of collecting. (239–40)

Such sites help to address the ‘discoverability’ problem that has arisen with the rise of online bookselling, the growing popularity of ereading and the shrinking of newspaper reviewing space. At the same time, such sites extend on traditional social-reading practices because they generate a data stream that is available for publishers. As such, social-reading sites help to enact the commodification of reading. As Nakamura writes:

By submitting our favorite book titles, readerly habits, ratings, comments, and replies (or ‘UGC,’ user-generated content) to our social network of readers, we are both collecting and being collected under a new regime of controlled consumerism. (241)

Together, these developments signal the development of new regimes of what might be called ‘readerly capital’, whereby the literary field, theorised by Pierre Bourdieu as being structured around legitimating flows of power and prestige and their associated ‘cultural capital’ and ‘social capital’, is subject to, and destabilised by, new forms of ‘reader power’, since readers have a newfound ability to consecrate texts in the marketplace through their production of book-related public conversation and data streams. ‘Readerly capital’ can be described as the social capital produced by the online communication of ‘likes’, comments, star-rankings and the proliferation of online reader reviews that have arguably undermined the consecrating power of traditional literary institutions. The reader has remained mostly absent from appraisals of the contemporary publishing field—even as sophisticated critics of publishing culture such as John B Thompson have sought to describe the complex institutional relations that underpin contemporary publishing using Bourdieu’s model of literary production to elaborate the forms of economic, human, social, intellectual, and symbolic capital in play (Thompson 3–14). Yet as John Frow has argued, following Tony Bennett, readers perform a crucial function in the creation of textual meaning since ‘every act of production is grounded in a reading of the textual situation that precedes it and is in turn renewed by new readings giving rise to new acts of production’ (‘On Midlevel Concepts’, 246).

A major challenge for theorists of the reshaped literary ecology will be to account for the various ways in which the reading activities of online communities track back to processes of literary production. For example, such processes can potentially be understood as a vindication of the middlebrow reader in an era of digitally measured reading. Sites such as Goodreads.com arguably further industrialise and rationalise the processes by which middlebrow culture is developed and the processes by which cultural capital is generated by and for its readers. If, as Janice Radway has famously argued in her account of the US Book-of-the-Month Club (1997), middlebrow culture is a pivotal site for the commodification of culture, then this process is exponentially multiplied by social-reading sites, which transform reading into saleable data, even as they also enumerate a sheer diversity of reading and interpretation practices not anticipated by any single model of reading practice.

These changing dynamics of reception are writ large in platforms such as Netgalley.com and Bookbridgr.com, where publishers make use of free labour voluntarily provided by online users to promote new titles, even before their publication, through the provision of such things as digital pre-publication galleys, free review copies, participation in virtual author tours, access to author interviews, and ‘stars’ and other markers of kudos to bloggers and others who take up the opportunity to review and comment on books. The rise of such sites can be set against the decline of stand-alone newspaper book-review sections, which no longer appear in major US papers such as The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, among others, while The New York Times Book Review has shrunk by two-thirds (Robinson). This is a deficit that new online journals such as the LARB and SRB locate themselves against. As the LARB website puts it:

LARB was created in part as a direct response to the disappearance of the traditional newspaper book review supplement, and with it the great tradition of the comprehensive American book review. (LARB website)

The SRB touts a similar statement of intent:

We decided to embark on this project because of our concerns about the reduced space for serious literary criticism in the mainstream media, and the newspapers in particular, given their uncertain future. (SRB website)

Yet such sites offer a precarious alternative since, unlike newspaper book sections, they aren’t cross-subsidised and are dependent on outside funding and reader and contributor donations.

The emergence of ebooks further problematises traditional understandings of the dynamics of literary production. Ebooks currently hold around 20% of the book market in the UK and Australia, and slightly more in the US. Like social-reading sites they change the dynamics of publication because the data stream they generate enables ebook vendors and publishers to closely monitor reader habits. Kindle readers who enable Whispersync, for example, send data about what they are reading, what times of day they read at, how quickly they read, when and where they stop reading uncompleted books, and so on, in real time, to Amazon, which onsells the data to publishers. As Tully Barnett points out, Kobo have further encouraged readers to generate such data streams with the ‘incorporation of gamification into e-reading’ (159), through features that enable users to earn rewards for reaching reading ‘milestones’ that include finishing a book, starting a new one, sharing a passage, and so on.

The availability of such data, which augments a trend already set in train in the early 2000s with the availability of Nielsen BookScan sales data, has made it clear that ebook sales are driven mostly by genre fiction such as romance, crime, erotica, science fiction and fantasy (Senior). Many such titles are self-published; in 2013 a quarter of ebooks sold by Amazon were from independent publishers, mostly self-published (Bury). Meanwhile, data released by ebook publisher Scribd has shown that romance ebooks are the most likely titles to be completed by readers and are the most bookmarked genre (Digital Book World). That ebooks are changing the market for manuscripts can be seen in the success of EL James’s fan fiction-based Fifty Shades of Grey, which was initially self-published as an ebook then taken up and turned into a global bestseller by Random House. It can be seen, too, in the launching of digital-only genre fiction imprints by Random House and HarperCollins, and the purchase of the romance publisher Harlequin by HarperCollins in 2014. Data availability is also impacting on the content of books. Ebook publisher Coliloquy, for example, has used reader data to understand the characteristics of the ‘ideal’ male hero in its romance titles, and has foreshadowed the possibility of future titles being populated with readers’ preferred types (Alter).

Together, these developments enable exciting new reading and production practices, legitimating previously sidelined genres, arguably vindicating middlebrow reading, further revealing the gendered politics of literary consumption, and problematising traditional understandings of the literary field. Yet they also enact what might be described as the ‘neoliberalification’ of reading. That is, the increasing surveillance of users, and the creation and monitoring of data streams for profit through the commodification of reading. At the same time, users of online media are increasingly figured as providers of free labour, in the form of clickstream data, likes and reviews that help underwrite the profits of digital-content hosts. Meanwhile, even as the field is ‘democratised’, so labour costs are driven down and longstanding forms of work such as literary reviewing and authorship are rendered more precarious. According to a recent UK survey, author earnings have fallen 29% since 2005 (Flood), while a US survey shows that despite a few prominent success stories, ebook author earnings are less than half that of print book author earnings (Weinberg).

This commodification of leisure and collapse of producer earnings is consistent with critiques of the networked digital economy. Books have entered the realm of the digital network, and at the same time literally entered the circuits of what critics such as Mark Andrejevic and Ulises Ali Mejias have described as a digital informational capitalism built around neoliberal mythologies of ‘frictionless’ flows of capital and data, comprehensive online surveillance and the Taylorisation of leisure. As Andrejevic notes:

In a way, when we’re buying books on Amazon.com, surfing the web, or connecting to commercial wireless networks, Frederick Taylor’s is the spirit of surveillance in the machine, watching over us, keeping track of our every move, noting it down, and finding ways to use that information to encourage us to consume as much as possible. (52)

Such networks, Mejias argues, generate forms of inequality characteristic of neoliberal societies, since they

… create inequality while increasing participation … through strategies that include the commodification of social labor (bringing activities we used to perform outside the market into the market), the privatization of social spaces (eradicating public spaces and replacing them with ‘enhanced’ private spaces), and the surveillance of dissenters (through new methods of data mining and monitoring). (3)

For Andrejevic this commodification of user data and domination of network space by large digital corporations amounts to a new form of enclosure reminiscent of the emergence of the land-enclosure movement and the transition from feudalism to capitalism. At the same time, digital networks have driven down labour costs, by forcing creative-sector workers to operate under exploitative regimes of flexibility. These are themselves part of a broader neoliberal response to the crises of accumulation that, from the 1970s, began to reshape social contracts and the relationship between corporations and employees. As Mejias argues:

Labor is no longer conducted at the workplace in exchange for a wage. Rather, it is produced mostly outside the workplace, during our ‘free’ time. It is rewarded not with a paycheck but with social capital such as attention, rank and visibility. … Under the pretense of creating communal gift economies in cyberspace, social beings are put to work for corporations. (26)

For Tiziana Terranova the free labour provided by online co-creators ‘is structural to the late capitalist cultural economy’ (53):

Such a reliance, almost a dependency, is part of larger mechanisms of capitalist extraction of value which are fundamental to late capitalism as a whole. That is, such processes are not created outside capital and then reappropriated by capital, but are the results of a complex history where the relation between labor and capital is mutually constitutive, entangled and crucially forged during the crisis of Fordism. (51)

This, as Lisa Nakamura has said, is precisely the logic of Goodreads.com:

Built on ‘play labor’—the recreational activity of sharing our labor as readers, writers, and lovers of books and inviting our friends from the social graph to come, look, buy, and share—Goodreads efficiently captures the value of our recommendations, social ties, affective networks, and collections of friends and books. (241)

This isn’t to suggest that digital media can’t provide enabling, even emancipatory, experiences for users. Network media is also open to hacking, subversion, and other forms of cultural activity ‘against the grain’, and has been host to myriad forms of independent and innovative cultural production. Yet it remains clear that such activities are consistently precarious and that the profits are made not by cultural producers but elsewhere, by the aggregators and hosts, by established media corporations that have gone digital, and by a small group of newer large digital corporations such as Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google, currently battling for digital supremacy.

Beneath these prognostications is another question: Why does this matter? Why is literary culture, even high literary culture, important? Simon During, in his Exit Capitalism: Literary Culture, Theory, and Post-Secular Modernity, valorises Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty (801 reviews on Goodreads.com) as an exemplary literary text of the sort that, closely read, works to destabilise the hegemonic certainties of late capital. Such texts, he argues, offer to break the bonds that have formed between capital and language—bonds that increasingly dictate the languages of everyday common sense and even those of academic critique itself. ‘Where should we look’, he asks, ‘if we wish to consider more intimately what is at stake in endgame capitalism’s putative mundanity? In the end, not to theory, I think. Nor to sociology. Nor to cultural studies’ (126). Literary fiction, he argues, is able to reveal inner life in a way that makes it ‘one of the age’s most revealing forms’ (126):

In carrying out this task, literary fiction not just reveals deep interiority’s complexity and interest for modernity but, by the same stroke, characteristically presents the subtleties, surprises and intensities of modern experiences as a reward for continuous struggle and suffering. Modern serious fiction, in its virtuality, has the ability to report what it is like to live now—to feel, think, share, love, hate, dream, hope, despair, drift, remember—and it does so across a range of situations, identities, and types, while essaying unrealized experiential possibilities by binding characters and their interiorities to situations within new forms of language and narrative organization. (126)

Whether or not we agree with During, he points to what I take to be an important capability of literature. Like all genres, as John Frow has argued, literature organises discourse so as to ‘actively generate and shape knowledge of the world’ and creates particular ‘effects of reality and truth’ that have to do with the exercise of power (Genre, 2, 19). While all texts have these capabilities, literature is important because it operates as a genre that is created from the outset to foreground such effects of knowledge and power, and that experiments with and explores such effects in their formal relationship with language.

Literature matters, too, because the transformation of the literary field is an analogue for a wider set of cultural transformations. The changing literary ecology is at the same time the changing democratic ecology, the changing humanist ecology, the changing ecology of enlightenment, the changing ecology of work, the changing ecology of the public sphere, and the changing economic ecology. Much as these formations are in no mean part connected to a liberalism long derided by critical theorists, they are under siege in an environment where, as Wendy Brown has observed:

If … the institutions as well as the political culture comprising liberal democracy are passing into history, the left is faced both with the project of mourning what it never wholly loved and with the task of dramatically resetting its critique and vision in terms of the historical supersession of liberal democracy, and not only of failed socialist experiments. (691)

We can read the recent, profound changes in the public sphere under the aegis of post-Fordist neoliberalism as evidence of democratisation or as evidencing new forms of fragmentation and political suppression. A further possibility is that both are true and that a new post-digital social contract is being formed: one where the pleasures of participation, including democratic participation itself, are contingent on the enclosure of the individual desires into the circuits of surveillance, markets and marketing.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has perhaps almost inadvertently set out the issues at stake in her ‘plea for aesthetic education’ (26) as an antidote to the postcolonial and gendered injustices of contemporary globalisation, such that ‘literature might be the best complement to ideological transformation’ (38). For Spivak, aesthetic forms have a larger pedagogical life, even against the odds of a climate in which

Deep language learning and unconditional ethics are so out of joint with this immensely powerful brave new world-machine that people of our sort make this plea because we cannot do otherwise, because our shared obsession declares that some hope of bringing about the epistemological revolution needed to turn capitalism around to gendered social justice must be kept alive against all hope. (26)

None of this is unproblematic. During has taken Spivak to task for what he sees as unacknowledged neo-Leavisism (undated). Yet the point perhaps inadvertently raised by Spivak is that there is otherwise a lack of critical resources to defend what somehow seems indispensible in the face of neoliberal globalisation. My point here isn’t to embrace neo-Leavisism so much as to suggest the development of new modes of critical practice that begin to grapple with and work through and beyond the strictures of the changed literary, public and economic ecology. The task, in short, is to destabilise neoliberalism and at the same time to grapple with, understand and appreciate what is genuinely new and enabling in the changing literary and public ecology.

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The Return of Print?: Contemporary Australian Publishing

   by Aaron Mannion and Emmett Stinson