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Rant #111
(published December 5, 2002)
CrapLongStories.com: where publishing might go, you know, maybe
by Fritz Swanson

What I am going to say will require that you go read this column by Cringley first, which I know is painful for some people, but for the sake of knowledge needs to be done. Or you can ignore me. That happens all the time.

The short version of what Cringley says is that Peer To Peer technology will kill book publishing and music recording, but only hurt Hollywood. People will still want to see epic movies on ths big screen, so $100 million movies will still get made, even if the DVD market will die. Unlike the movies though, amateurs can write books of high quality and record music of high quality without a capital intermediary.

And I agree with this. I also believe the "editorial control" theory of publishing/recording relevance is bullshit. Media comkpanies have become power-mad oligarchies whose knowledge of, let alone interest in, editorial control is virtually non-existent. Small lit houses generally don't need a lot of editorial control, while big super-star firms where the likes of John Grisham reside haven't ever seemed to excercise any "editorial control." If that is true, what exactly is editorial control protecting us from?

But editorial control is a sidetrack, utimately. The existance of The Backstreet Boys is proof enough that the "learned gatekeepers" are either dead or mythical or both. So, let's set that aside.

Naturally lacking "editorial control," P2P has or will soon have everything that the recording and publishing industry have. I assigned Citizen Kane to my class this fall. No one showed up to my free showing because they had downloaded it on Kazaa. Some of my students have stopped buying some of their books. They may not be able to find DeLillo yet on BookWarez, but Salinger is no problem. And though I don't teach pop music, when we have pre-class chit-chat about rap or college rock, the uninformed students are always writing down artist and song names so that they can rush back to their dorm rooms within the hour and download the latest track. I see culture licking out through the discussion like a slow moving flame.

It won't be long until 9 Stories is really just 9 individual stories available on Grokster, along with all of the unpublished Salnger writing that his lawyers—- I'm sorry, the Learned Editorial Gatekeepers—- have kept from us lo these many years. And I swear to you that yesterday was the last day anyone on a college campus knew the definition of the word "album" when not preceeded by the word "photo."

But, like with the whole editorial control thing, this isn't an essay about that. The Gatekeepers are non-existent and the future hardly needs predicting. Print and Recordings are dead businesses as we know it. Movie is a bit of a toss-up, but TV and VCRs have foregrounded that stable-instability for more than fifty years, so it is less interesting to speculate.

As a writer I think this evolution is really interesting. Movies have gone through a century of unending format wars. Music likewise is close to running out of paradigms that it can shift. The radio-star is so dead he is forgotten, almost erased from the cultural landscape, his tombstone ground up into gravel for a certain highway that we have heard a lot about recently.

But print, unassailable print, has seen only three major format struggles in the last TWO THOUSAND YEARS. Scroll to codex, handwriting to moveable type, and the cheap paper revolution of the late nineteenth century that brought novels to the masses. Ceasar, Gutenberg and... I don't know, let's say Hearst.

So, while it took 100 years to go from Edison cylanders to all those RPM speeds, to reel to reel, to eight track, to casette, to CD, to MP3 (and then OGG, and AAC and Microsoft Whatever), it took print 20 times as long to get to the Berners-Lee revolution (the Great Man theory of history, while laughably innacurate, does afford us the pleasure of giving revolutions personal names, and so here I have chosen, arbitrarily of course in order to keep with the form, the name of the inventor of the World Wide Web).

And the Berners-Lee revolution, the mass revolution of digital print, is only the fourth rev, the eight track or so of the print world. This makes this revolution particularly interesting. We're used to changing formats for our movies and our music. Both are so young to begin with, at least as portable concepts, that culture hasn't really had to re-roganize the way that it thinks.

But books, print, the written word. It was always protable, and in it's very specific way. Text on paper is as old as the pyramids. So when we change that, we are changing something in a big way.

What has been lost in all of this, by Cringley especially in his column, but also in general, is that we have been comparing books and movies and music on an equal field. But it isn't true. Music and movies had their revolution, and both of those revolutions started in Edison's elephant killing laboratory. For the first time we could replicate and transport what had before been the ephemeral events of theater and song. After doing that on celluloid, everything that followed was a series of format debates. But books were already portable replications of the ephemeral mind of the author. Theater and Music had only just caught up with books. So while Music and Movies are still going through permutations of the same basic change, books might be going through something new.

I have shifted from Print to Books to draw an important distinction. "Print" is not dead. Hello, reading a written column! What has changed is the whole material landscape underneath it all.

What this change reveals is that printing, whether in books or on the screen, is not entirely a sellable commodity. Sad, perhaps, but I think true.

There is a fourth art, you see, that we are ignoring in this debate. Static visual imagery. What was once called painting/illustration until photography came into the mix. SVI was as stable a marketplace before photography as books are today, it was an industry (albiet a cottage industry.) But Dr. Daugeurr, another arbitrarily chosen "great man", screwed everything up for the town portrait painter. Once George Eastman gave us the Brownie, the coffin wasn't only sealed, it was buried in a concrete vault and a shopping mall was built over top. Photographs are so easy to make that we have little respect as a culture for even the finest practitioners. Painting, on the other hand, is left with little to do in the face of that, because if it is naturalistic we wonder why a photo wasn't just taken, and if it is abstract we accuse it of trying to trick us into believing it has any quality at all.

Static Visual Imagery had its technical revolution in the mid-ninteenth century and by Picasso (the last "great man" of painting that anyone in the mass culture can remember) the SVI cottage industry had all but died. Forgive me, my paiting and drawing friends, but it is true. Whether the SVI is composed by Ansel Adams or Monet, the principle popular use of it will be to accent a couch. Movies still move people to fear and gasping. Music can make the most uneducated bastard cry. Even books can make people laugh. But SVI has nothing as a standalone art. There are no true superstars of the form, no Updikes or Kings or Elvises or REMs or Kubricks or Spielbergs.

And what does that mean? Does that mean that photography and paintings, like sibling sharks in the womb, slew each other before they could reach mass appeal? Does neither one alone carry the weight of the artform? Why did books rise to such popular prominence in the twentieth century? Why did music? Why did movies?

Because of atoms. SVI has always been too easily duplicated. Built into the very concept of photography was the ability to duplicate images with a new image. You no longer had to travel to the Louvre because someone with a brownie could go on ahead of you and snap some shots. Photographic reproduction, whether corporate or amateur, basically killed the market for Static Visual Imagery. Before photography, the bread and butter of any painter (Vermeer, Rembrandt, the local canvas man) was portraiture. After photography this was first taken by the studios and then finally by individual Brownie owners. Beyond that, all of the other uses for SVI became specialized, and thus the good ole SVI cottage industry, with a photographic studio on the Main Street of every town and a portrait painter in every hamlet, breathed its last.Before all the painters and photographers out there get huffy, let me be clear: Am I saying that Static Visual Imagery is without artistic merit? No. I'm a saying the common man doesn't crave the sort of aesthetic noursihment provided by a Sally Mann, a Edward Hopper, a Lucian Freud? Not a chance. But let's face it, most people can meet their own aesthetic needs with personal snap shots of their children doing funny things with the dog.

We are facing the death of the music industry and books for the same reason. We can make our songs, record them, share them with friends. We can write our own books, email them to loved ones. My dad works in his spare time on a history of our family, the personal print version of portraiture. A third of Shakespeare's works were just family histories.

But what is dead in the static visual arts? What have we really lost? Not images. We produce millions of snap shots a day, each town probably exceding the entire life output of just one of the Great Men of the Renaissance. And the learned art scholar will say, "but not the quality" and the local boy who has just taken a picture of Mr. Ruffles wearing a sailor suit will say "Huh? So what?"

No, what is dead is the age of the Updikes, the Kubricks, the Picassos and the Preselys. Corporate sponsored superstars are dead. They may still be walking around for a while, but that coffin in the concrete vault with the shopping mall waiting to drop down overhead is waiting for them.

P2P killed the Corporate star.

And what does that mean for books? Print isn't dead, but expensive mass market binding is in danger. Well, in the face of photography a lot of painters said "It isn't about the images, it is about paint itself." And so was born abstract expressionism. Paint for paints sake.

Go to your local independent bookseller and check out Stephen Dixon's I, publsihed by McSweeney's Books. Look at any McSweeney's book. Or look at a Modern Library edition of a public domain classic. In both cases, the text is irrelevant. It isn't about the images, it is about the paint. It isn't about the print, it's about the book.

Cheap glue bound paperbacks are dead. Dover is dead. Paper for paper's sake is dead. We face a brave new world of saddle stitching, faux leather binding, gilt and inlay, hand emrboidered ribbons for bookmarks, die-cut covers, pull-out tipped in maps, library editions, collectors pieces.

That's on the one hand. Small presses will flourish as botique design houses.

On the other hand, the email novel awaits. And Cringley is wrong, we will take tablet PCs to the crapper . . . maybe not the first rev, but in ten years when they are dishwasher safe and come in blister packs by the thousand, we will all be avid readers of CrapLengthStories.com and that is where the new Faulkners and Whartons and Salingers will flourish. And who will pay them is anyones guess. Nobody pays me.

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