10 Myths About Digital Literary Culture

Predictions have an uncanny tendency to come true, just not in the way predicted.  Take the early 1990s mantra of ‘the death of the book’---the existentially-laden theme of many a brow-furrowed academic conference, journal special issue, or edited collection.  For someone who started a PhD about book publishing slap-bang in the middle of that fin-de-siècle decade, it seemed almost preternaturally bad timing.  By the time Amazon had come to spectacular public prominence in the late 1990s, it appeared the die was well and truly cast.
And yet, with the wisdom of a quarter-century hindsight, it’s now possible to see that, despite the incursions of eBooks, especially in genre publishing, the codex book remains very much alive.  It is just created, edited, marketed, publicized, retailed, profiled, evaluated, and discussed within a thoroughly digital web of stakeholders.  It’s time then to take stock of the state of bookish play with a list of the top 10 myths about digital literary culture:
 
  1. Digital media will kill paper books
Oh, please.  Is this 1995 still?  Even a cursory glance at the literary internet shows how print and digital technologies have brokered a truce, coexisting and even becoming increasingly interdependent.  Just as earlier broadcast media mined books for radio readings, film adaptations, and TV book clubs, the digital and print realms enthusiastically cannibalize each other’s content.
  1. Everyone’s an author on the internet
Sure they are, just some authors are more equal than others.  Digital self-publishing platforms make it easier than ever to see your work in print, but the spoils of publishers’ shrinking marketing and publicity budgets fall to established celebrity authors.  The midlisters and newbies drum up what digital ‘platform’ they can through Twitter followings, vlogging or Facebooking.  Maybe even (gasp) blogposts cry out to go viral.
  1. Social media democratizes author-reader relationships
Again, fine in theory.  Having a message from John Green or Margaret Atwood plop into your Twitter feed can make you feel like you’re real-time communing with the embodiment of the Zeitgeist or Great Woman of Letters.  Just don’t expect a message back.  Amongst celebrity authors, the ratio of followers to those being followed is around 1000:1.  Readers largely remain peanut-munchers, vicariously relishing the spectacle of the literati interacting with each other.
  1. Literary community still exists, it’s just moved online
On the contrary, literary community is often the creation of online portals.  This is well and good for those quirky literary subcultures only viable in the geographically-agnostic digital domain.  But the dominant online-born literary communities are commercial in their inception and, beneath all the talk of bookish fellow-feeling, in their motivation.  Jeff Bezos, I’m looking at you.
  1. On the World Wide Web, all book publishers are equal
Another instance where digital disruption promises to revolutionize an industry but, when the dust settles, the 800-pound silverbacks still dominate proceedings.  Small publishers can score big with a viral book trailer, but inertia-prone purchasers will likely still buy from the tried-and-tested retailing behemoths.  After all, why go through all that palaver of registering your credit card with yet another website?
  1. Digital media make writers’ festivals redundant
With a plethora of past performances viewable on YouTube, why stump up the cash to see Great Writers in the flesh?  And yet tens of thousands of readers continue to do so.  We still crave the undeniable frisson of author presence.  We just want to live-tweet proceedings to the hoi polloi relegated to following things remotely.
  1. Cultural hierarchy is incompatible with distributed technologies
Amazon reader reviews promised everyone could be a critic---a form of radical cultural democracy clothing a commercial need to increase browser stickiness.  How quickly though born-digital classifying systems emerged: ‘Top-50 reviewers’; reader coteries receiving sneak-peak galley proofs; ‘best bookbloggers’ listings…
  1. You can’t bluff your way in an online book club
No lying low and scoffing the wine and hors-d’oeuvres on Goodreads, eh?  Not true: online book clubs are replete with elaborate rituals of self-fashioning and bibliophilic preening, from carefully curated ‘bookshelves,’ to the whimsically allusive profile name and picture, to the blatantly performative reviewing spat.
  1. Online we can finally see what real readers actually read and what they think of it

Try this for a disabusing exercise: peruse Amazon’s Terms of Use.  Readers have no legal rights whatsoever to the content or profile they create, yet are solely liable for any loss or damage arising therefrom.  The vast readerly voluntariat generates licensable data, while handily classifying themselves into evermore algorithmically-targetable demographics.

  1. Resistance is a viable option

So, should you sit out the literary internet, Jonathan Franzen-style, refusing to participate in its webs of commercialism and data-harvesting?  (Even Franzen doesn’t actually do so though, as witnessed by his book-trailer cameo for Gary Shteyngart’s Little Failure).[1]  No, after all, why miss all the diverse book talk, riotous fun, and pulsing interactivity the digital literary sphere offers?  My point is the impossibility of standing outside digital literary culture to analyze it when every website you visit or book you search changes the display and ranking of that content.  We are all already, ineluctably part of the digital literary sphere.  It is time to understand what, for better or for worse, that means.

 

Simone Murray is an associate professor (reader) in literary studies and the director of the Centre for the Book at Monash University. She is the author of The Digital Literary Sphere.

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