Think Tank: Amazon undermines Free Speech & Understanding Canon

This is a two-part post. Both sections draw on the same source material.

From Barry Eisler, guest posting on J.A. Konrath’s blog:

I just learned about an event put on by an organization called New America (formerly The New America Foundation): Amazon’s Book Monopoly: A Threat to Freedom of Expression? Ordinarily, propaganda is something that concerns me, but when it veers this far off into parody, I sometimes welcome it as a comic diversion.

Thanks to the efforts of serious-sounding organizations like New America (and if that vague but happy-sounding name didn’t cause your bullshit detector to at least tingle, it should—see also Americans for Prosperity* and the Center for American Progress*), this “Amazon is a Monopoly” silliness is so persistent that Joe and I dealt with it in our inaugural post on zombie memes—“arguments that just won’t die no matter how many times they’re massacred by logic and evidence.” Half the purpose of the Zombie Meme series is to save Joe and me from having to repeat ourselves, so if you want to have a laugh about why, despite its persistence, “Amazon is a Monopoly” is so embarrassingly dumb and misguided, here’s your link.

Think about it. This “New America” organization has put together a panel dedicated to persuading you that there was more freedom of expression when an incestuous group of five Manhattan-based corporations held the power to disappear 999 books out every thousand written [emphasis mine], and indeed performed that disappearance as the group’s core function (they call this “curation”). And that, now that Amazon’s KDP platform has enabled all authors to publish virtually anything they want, freedom of expression is being threatened.

The upsurge in self-published books is upsetting a major political think tank is more important than it may appear. While these groups (from the left and right) like New America mean nothing to you or I, they are important fixtures of the Washington public policy world. Corporate publishing defends this with the tsunami of garbage meme (a “zombie meme” Konrath and Eisler have written on before), which is nonsense in itself because there has always been a tsunami of garbage even with traditional publishing. Note that Frank Herbert had Dune rejected about 60 times by New York publishers. It took Hemingway years before anyone in New York, far removed from the Paris ex-pat scene, would consider publishing his work.

Respecting & Understanding Canon

Eisler’s essay raises another point. He brings up a strain of thought in the indie publishing community I disagree with:

In fact, it was as recent as, say, the 1950s that a group of tweed-jacketed, straight white male college professors were genuinely convinced that the collection of books they deemed the most intrinsically worthy—all, coincidentally, written by other straight white males—represented the maximally possible amount of valuable expression, information, and ideas. They even called their collection the “canon,” which I admit did tend to make their subjective choices sound important and even divinely ordained.

There is a reason gatekeepers and critics emerge over time. The boom in self-publishing has disrupted the system for now; eventually, a new system will settle into its place. The argument here is that because the gatekeepers and critics we have now are parasitic or a net negative on literary culture, therefore ALL evaluation of art is a net negative. He also repeats a fallacious modern argument that perceptions of art are inherently subjective, which is not the case. Joseph Campbell’s classic Hero With a Thousand Faces makes the strong case for universal archetypes and structures in human stories. The book draws from a range of world mythologies. Further, the Western canon Eisler straw-mans what not something a group of men decided upon one day. The Western canon is the result of several millennia of artistic and philosophical development. All artists have to understand their predecessors to learn, and for Western artists the canon is a one-stop shop. All cultures have their own; Chinese bureaucracy after Qin dynasty tested its candidates on the works of Confucius and major poets.

Getting back to the main point, new gatekeepers and literary authorities will emerge, only instead of the pundits at the New York Review of Books it’s your favorite blogger, author, or alternative media site. The existing literary authorities leave something to be desired in the ever-smaller reading public. It only stands to reason that people seek out new authorities and voices.



2 thoughts on “Think Tank: Amazon undermines Free Speech & Understanding Canon

  1. Nice evaluation–I like your thinking (and bolding).

    I agree that new voices will emerge as the “what’s good” authorities, and I believe it’s reviewers. Whether they’re on blogs or Amazon, reviews these days trump all. They drive sales, drive interest, and even determine whether an indie book can get a certain advertisement (Hello, Bookbub). They’ll come and go, as is the nature of the online world, but their power is undeniable.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Agreed. The mistake some of the indie bloggers make is thinking that the period of (relative) anarchy in the publishing world will result in a world of books without leaders. As I tried to prove in the article, authorities and gatekeepers are good for everyone, so long as they reflect the reading public. Right now, the big publications and publishers don’t.

      Liked by 1 person

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