25 June 2006

Updike, "The End of Authorship"

Reposting from the back page of today's New York Times Book Review. I suspect we all have a lot to say about this.



The End of Authorship

Published: June 25, 2006

Booksellers, you are the salt of the book world. You are on the front line where, while the author cowers in his opium den, you encounter — or "interface with," as we say now — the rare and mysterious Americans who are willing to plunk down $25 for a book. Bookstores are lonely forts, spilling light onto the sidewalk. They civilize their neighborhoods. At my mother's side I used to visit the two stores in downtown Reading, Pa., a city then of 100,000, and I still recall their names and locations — the Book Mart, at Sixth Street and Court, and the Berkshire News, on Fifth Street, in front of the trolley stop that would take us home to Shillington.

When I went away to college, I marveled at the wealth of bookstores around Harvard Square. In addition to the Coop and various outlets where impecunious students like myself could buy tattered volumes polluted by someone else's underlinings and marginalia, there were bookstores that catered to the Cambridge bourgeoisie, the professoriate, and those elite students with money and reading time to spare. The Grolier, specializing in modern poetry, occupied a choice niche on Plympton Street, and over on Boylston there was the Mandrake, a more spacious sanctum for books of rare, pellucid and modernist water. In the Mandrake — presided over by a soft-voiced short man, with brushed-back graying hair — there were English books, Faber & Faber and Victor Gollancz, books with purely typographical jackets and cloth-covered boards warping from the damp of their trans-Atlantic passage, and art books, too glossy and expensive even to glance into, and of course New Directions books, modest in format and delicious in their unread content.

After Harvard, I went to Oxford for a year, and browsed for dazed hours in the rambling treasury, on the street called the Broad, of Blackwell's — shelves of Everyman's and Oxford Classics, and the complete works, jacketed in baby-blue paper, of Thomas Aquinas, in Latin and English! Then I came to New York, when Fifth Avenue still seemed lined with bookstores — the baronial Scribner's, with the central staircase and the scrolled ironwork of its balconies, and the Doubleday's a few blocks on, with an ascending spiral staircase visible through plate glass.

Now I live in a village-like corner of a small New England city that holds, mirabile dictu, an independent bookstore, one of the few surviving in the long coastal stretch between Marblehead and Newburyport. But I live, it seems, in a fool's paradise. Last month, The New York Times Magazine published a lengthy article that gleefully envisioned the end of the bookseller, and indeed of the writer. Written by Kevin Kelly, identified as the "senior maverick" at Wired magazine, the article describes a glorious digitalizing of all written knowledge. Google's plan, announced in December 2004, to scan the contents of five major research libraries and make them searchable, according to Kelly, has resurrected the dream of the universal library. "The explosive rise of the Web, going from nothing to everything in one decade," he writes, "has encouraged us to believe in the impossible again. Might the long-heralded great library of all knowledge really be within our grasp?"

Unlike the libraries of old, Kelly continues, "this library would be truly democratic, offering every book to every person." The anarchic nature of the true democracy emerges bit by bit. "Once digitized, books can be unraveled into single pages or be reduced further, into snippets of a page," Kelly writes. "These snippets will be remixed into reordered books and virtual bookshelves. Just as the music audience now juggles and reorders songs into new albums (or 'playlists,' as they are called in iTunes), the universal library will encourage the creation of virtual 'bookshelves' — a collection of texts, some as short as a paragraph, others as long as entire books, that form a library shelf's worth of specialized information. And as with music playlists, once created, these 'bookshelves' will be published and swapped in the public commons. Indeed, some authors will begin to write books to be read as snippets or to be remixed as pages."

The economic repercussions of this paradise of freely flowing snippets are touched on with a beguiling offhandedness, as a matter of course, a matter of an inexorable Marxist unfolding. As the current economic model disappears, Kelly writes, the "basis of wealth" shifts to "relationships, links, connection and sharing." Instead of selling copies of their work, writers and artists can make a living selling "performances, access to the creator, personalization, add-on information, the scarcity of attention (via ads), sponsorship, periodic subscriptions — in short, all the many values that cannot be copied. The cheap copy becomes the 'discovery tool' that markets these other intangible valuables."

This is, as I read it, a pretty grisly scenario. "Performances, access to the creator, personalization," whatever that is — does this not throw us back to the pre-literate societies, where only the present, live person can make an impression and offer, as it were, value? Have not writers, since the onset of the Gutenberg revolution, imagined that they already were, in their written and printed texts, giving an "access to the creator" more pointed, more shapely, more loaded with aesthetic and informational value than an unmediated, unpolished personal conversation? Has the electronic revolution pushed us so far down the path of celebrity as a summum bonum that an author's works, be they one volume or 50, serve primarily as his or her ticket to the lecture platform, or, since even that is somewhat hierarchical and aloof, a series of one-on-one orgies of personal access?

In my first 15 or 20 years of authorship, I was almost never asked to give a speech or an interview. The written work was supposed to speak for itself, and to sell itself, sometimes even without the author's photograph on the back flap. As the author is gradually retired from his old responsibilities of vicarious confrontation and provocation, he has grown in importance as a kind of walking, talking advertisement for the book — a much more pleasant and flattering duty, it may be, than composing the book in solitude. Authors, if I understand present trends, will soon be like surrogate birth mothers, rented wombs in which a seed implanted by high-powered consultants is allowed to ripen and, after nine months, be dropped squalling into the marketplace.

In imagining a huge, virtually infinite wordstream accessed by search engines and populated by teeming, promiscuous word snippets stripped of credited authorship, are we not depriving the written word of its old-fashioned function of, through such inventions as the written alphabet and the printing press, communication from one person to another — of, in short, accountability and intimacy? Yes, there is a ton of information on the Web, but much of it is egregiously inaccurate, unedited, unattributed and juvenile. The electronic marvels that abound around us serve, surprisingly, to inflame what is most informally and noncritically human about us — our computer screens stare back at us with a kind of giant, instant "Aw, shucks," disarming in its modesty, disquieting in its diffidence.

The printed, bound and paid-for book was — still is, for the moment — more exacting, more demanding, of its producer and consumer both. It is the site of an encounter, in silence, of two minds, one following in the other's steps but invited to imagine, to argue, to concur on a level of reflection beyond that of personal encounter, with all its merely social conventions, its merciful padding of blather and mutual forgiveness. Book readers and writers are approaching the condition of holdouts, surly hermits who refuse to come out and play in the electronic sunshine of the post-Gutenberg village. "When books are digitized," Kelly ominously promises, "reading becomes a community activity. . . . The universal library becomes one very, very, very large single text: the world's only book."

Books traditionally have edges: some are rough-cut, some are smooth-cut, and a few, at least at my extravagant publishing house, are even top-stained. In the electronic anthill, where are the edges? The book revolution, which, from the Renaissance on, taught men and women to cherish and cultivate their individuality, threatens to end in a sparkling cloud of snippets.

So, booksellers, defend your lonely forts. Keep your edges dry. Your edges are our edges. For some of us, books are intrinsic to our sense of personal identity.


John Updike's most recent novel is "Terrorist." This essay is adapted from his address to booksellers at the Book Expo convention held last month in Washington.


blonde said...

i'm so insulted by the crap underneath this impulse i can't even think how to respond.

it is much more important to me that m.h. is not present tense any longer.

what john updike has to say -- crippled as it is by its enormous blind spots with regard to the underneath of commercially driven art -- i mean get real -- harvard, oxford, and the big payoff in the american mainstream -- are you kidding me? this is a relevant vantage point from which to speak of independent bookstores and writing which troubles the market?



maybe i didn't have enough martini's tonight or something, but sweet baby jesus.

mourning bookstores/booksellers like this doesn't really move me. sorry. and the glib dismissals of contemporary modes of production just sounds...bitter to me.

blast me a new one. i'm ready. whatever.

why must one epoch be so threatened by the present tense?

a question worth axing.


Anonymous said...

Hmm. What I find most worrying about Updike's article is that he seems to be seriously engaging with a vision of the future that's come from the mind of some berk from Wired magazine. He'd do just as well arguing the toss with the fella selling digital cameras in Wal-Mart.

Lance Olsen said...

I think through his arrogant ignorance with regard to his subject matter, his anachronistic snootiness, and his position in our culture as innovation's bete noir, Updike baits us to attack his position. But reading through what he has say a second time, the truth is I find myself both agreeing and disagreeing with him simultaneously.

That is, I find myself sharing his nostalgia in the face of the book's becoming less than a beautiful object, a "site of an encounter, in silence, of two minds," and more (and more) a crass commodity. I find myself worrying about the thoughtless, rampant embrace by many people of the Web when there is so much pure plain ill-informed narcissistic crap appearing on it. (In my most Updikean moments, I want to whisper: Does anyone REALLY care what everyone thinks about anything?) And, as I said earlier, I'm pained to see the great indie bookstores indiegoing, indiegoing, almost indiegone.

But—and this takes me back to my post and our conversation about podcasts, audiobooks, and the world of the digerati generally (on which I hope we'll continue to expand down the line)—I can't help thinking we won't know what the best of the digital ether will look like until we get around finally to taking Sam Beckett's famous advice seriously:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

Joe Amato said...

Blonde, Lance, anon, others: I had pretty much the same reaction as Lance. At first I resented the spectacle of Updike, of all people, serving us up his dystopic little diatribe on online functionalisms. And doing so at the Book Expo, to boot.

But after thinking about it, it occurred to me that one aspect of his argument -- the way the web can promote a king of ADD approach to reading -- is something that’s been troubling me, esp. as I’ve seen this playing out in the classroom. I had students composing hypertext stacks for my courses back in 1991 (at Urbana-Champaign, which was at the bleeding edge of such stuff). But when I look back at the intervening 15 years, teaching now at a third tier (not first tier) school, what I see is a student body that, by and large, regards the web as yet another entertainment venue. As a research tool, never mind a compositional medium, in so many undergrad writing courses, student papers are now saturated with erroneous “facts,” including some really lunatic insinuations circulating out here in the ether. I don't "blame" this solely on the web -- there are cultural vectors at work here --- but as a consequence, I've moved away from research papers as such toward essay writing. (Long story for another day.)

Anyway, here’s the thing: Updike and his ilk would likely have been among the most fervent opponents of Barthes’s “The Death of the Author.” Yet here he is proposing “The End of Authorship.” What’s happened here?

If we use someone like George Landow to fill in the blanks, things get a little less murky. Landow argued, as you may recall, that poststructuralist chatter had in effect reached its material embodiment in hypertext and associated digital practices. Now whether we agree with this kind of emphasis -- there are problems with it, esp in its failure to really deal with 20th century art forms in their entirety -- the point is that Landow picked up on something vital: how theory in one medium can become (or be understood as) the foundation for another (a sort of echo of something McLuhan once claimed). So for Landow, hypertext made good on the promise of poststructuralism (in part, by blurring distinctions between reader and writer).

Now here comes Updike with his lament over what he’s calling “authorship” -- but, he’s not really talking about the demise of the latter, and this is obscured by his apparent focus on bookstores. Instead, he’s trying to argue, clumsily (if eloquently), that the older notions of authorship are on their way out -- a claim with which I would expect most on this blog to be in basic agreement, yes?

Curiously, however, Updike suggests that a cult of authorial personality coincides with the emergence of sound-bite-based electronic literature -- as the snippets get smaller and smaller, the authorial ego/personality gets larger and larger. The emphasis thus falls less on the book as such, and more on the author.

And this, oddly enough, constitutes for Updike “the end of authorship.” Whereas Landow had celebrated the arrival of the author-function, as it were, Updike is suggesting that online media result in precisely the inverse effect (I am moving too rapidly and doubtless oversimplifying in order to hammer home, dramatically, my point): that the digital draws attention not to authorial product, but to authorial person; that it’s less about textual formalisms of one sort or another, finally, and more about marketing authorial celebrity.




blonde said...

heh. tell that to the gazillions of new punk digi-freaks on the block making their weird and yet interesting little art thingees in both obscurity and secret underground playgrounds WORLDWIDE...while updike and his gang critique the digital from positions of enormously successful marketed authorial celebrity.

i think the kind of digital landscape i'm talking about is a possibility space (to steal lance language, which he stole himself ha) -- and the kind of digital threats that pop up in the landscape of questions such as these ignore the dominant modes of production in our present.

at its best, the digital nation CAN yet be civilian society challenging the state...at least for a little while.


and i'm not even a wired or digital maker.

i just write books.

and i like them books.

form is form to me, and i'll jump in any pool of it.

updike smuckdike. you two boys can't MAKE me turn back around.



Joe Amato said...

Lid, yes, you've pinpointed the irony at work in Updike's polemic: he's arguing against one kind of authorial celebrity from the position of another kind of authorial celebrity.

But I still have to wonder whether the pursuit of celebrity as such (we may have to parse that word) isn't at stake in SO much of what we see courtesy of the digerati.

OK, and I'm part of the digerati -- one foot in, one out, as per. So that question smarts some.

The way Hakim Bey (aka Peter Lamborn Wilson) posed the question a good while back ("temporary autonomous zones" and the like) speaks directly to your sense of "possibility space." But as Bey was tough on such possibilities, back before the web had so clearly become yet another territory to territorialize (among other things), I think we need to be tough on same too.

At least as far as talking about it goes. I mean, we can always stop fretting about these things and get on with it. But I'm in a "Leave your comment" space at the moment, and the possibilites are thus geared toward commentary. I would like to see us treat commentary, however, as one aspect of getting on with it.

Under the circumstances, that might be asking for too much.



Steve Tomasula said...

Well, I'm ping-ponging between the various positions voiced here but if I can go meta for a moment, what concerns me about all of this is how the nature of literature changes, i.e., how what counts as "literary." I always think of Howard Becker's book ART WORLDS. (Becker was a sociologist who studied the community of vis-artists, collectors, gallery owners, etc., the way another anthropologist might study a tribe in the Amazon.) The book is interesting for a number of reasons but what I take away from it in this context is the way he parses the way the art "community" collectively brings forth the work of art, along with all its baggage (e.g. what counts as art, how its talked about, valued, etc. etc.). One simple illustration: the gallery whose floor can only support 2 tons won't show any 3 ton sculptures.

We seem to have lived through a seismic shift in what counts as "literature." And analogous to Becker's analysis of vis-art, the definition, terms its discussed, in valued, etc., have been largely shaped by the "community" of publishers, critics, etc., which means, those with the bucks to shape the discussion; just as a movie that doesn't play at the mall doesn't play, the book that doesn't have "mass" appeal (read this as over 10K copies) doesn't get shelf space in the chain, or the review page, or anywhere else.

My concern is not that there is complex, edgy, interesting works being ignored, and then everything else, it's that this everything else is being valorized, that the mass of this everything else is shifting what is considered literature, of value, etc. You can't get a copy of a Charles Bernstein's ROUGH TRADE at my local library, but it does have 3 copies of Jewel's A NIGHT WITHOUT AMOUR (yes, it's that cliched), as well as 9 copies of said book on CD. And this is the book that ultimately gets talked about, considered, called literature.

Can work matter that has been reduced, as Curtis White once put it, to a circle as large as those who follow the painting of miniatures on ivory buttons? Once upon a time the avant-g. championed the leveling of high and low but it seems that the impetous of the movement was all weighted to the low, as in common denomintor, not a leveling at all, and I can't help but feel nostalgic for a time when ideas (and politics, and movies, and anything mass for that matter) were measured in ways other than the dollars they generate.

Ted Pelton said...

John Updike, John Udpike, John Updike!

John Updike is always the product John Updike speaking. Updike is in a media blitz and EVERYONE is giving him space. Every issue of the NY Times Book Review has him on the cover in one way or another lately. He's got a new novel out, which has been reviewed as well in Harper's, for instance, a magazine that generally will review one novel in each monthly issue. He trashes Michel Houellebecq in a recent New Yorker. Houellebecq is a much more vital author than Updike even has the possibility of being nowadays. Oxford and Harvard indeed! (Updike leads paragraphs two and three of the twelve paragraph essay, above, by signifying Harvard and Oxford.) Well, George Bush went to Yale, so those things don't much impress me these days.

[Brief word about the Houellebecq review. I haven't yet read H's new book, "Possibility of an Island" -- just out this month. I didn't get review galleys five months ago. But I've read everything else of Houellebcq's. Updike uses the New Yorker review to trash it all, saving out only H's first novel "Whatever," which profits, according to Updike, by being "less idea-driven." Including Houellebecq's Platform and (H's greatest achievement) Elementary Particles in the judgment, Updike comes off as positively school-marmish: "how honest, really, is a world picture that excludes the pleasures of parenting, the comforts of communal belonging, the exercise of daily curiosity, and the widely met moral responsibility to make the best of each stage of life, including the last?" John, it's ART. It is supposed to wrench us out of the everyday -- JUST IN OUR HEADS, JOHN -- so that we can regard the world anew. Updike shrinks from Houellebecq like he was confronting some strange abduction-minded hallucinogenic sex cultist. It's OK, John, it's OK. He's gone. You're safe again.]

Updike is a safety coating on American fiction these days. If American fiction were swallowed by the people of this country straight, without the safety coating, they might feel a little ill. I'm with Harold Jaffe that we have to write like we're in wartime -- because, well, folks, we are. Updike is an establishment voice being foisted upon us by an entire industry that is playing it so safe that business as usual is the only option. Business as usual means going along for the ride in Iraq. Business as usual means writing in comfortable ways, so that nobody much questions the forms of things, whatever they are. Emerson (you know Emerson, right, John? he also lived in a New England village, though I think life there might have been a little more interesting) told us in "The Poet" that the form was the main thing, and that this also meant the forms that thinking takes. Toni Morrison's sentences are far more interesting than yours because she thinks through the form of the sentence itself. I've heard your name mentioned for a Nobel but I would guarantee that you will never be seriously considered for that outside of the sinecure of your Northeastern US establishment literary publicity machine, unless we invade Sweden militarily and Bush gets the opportunity to pack the Novel Foundation court with his justices.

I'm sure you're not a bad sort, John, accepting "moral responsibility to make the best of each stage of life" as you do, but please ... how can I say this? Just stop writing and go away. The embarrassingly overt way you are cashing in on the pretense that have anything to say to us helps sustain a system that most of us would be better off rid of. It castrates the potentially subversive power of literature and it helps enable the dying, out-of-touch NY publishing industry to avoid real, revolutionary content -- revolutionary in terms of its thinking, its form, its sentences, its politics, and more else than you can appreciate in the "village-like corner of a small New England city" where you have hid yourself, counting your money.

I haven't had as much time to blog of late as I'd like. I'm judging a contest for my press, and we're getting down to the wire, which means I'm weeding through manuscripts almost all day, every day. But let me do this. I issue a challenge to you, John Updike. Pick two of your best and I'll pick two of mine and let's go head-to-head on national TV, pod-cast, or whatever other medium you choose, live. Let's decide what fiction is, the purpose it should serve, whether the industry you are a seeming paragon of is as corrupt as we say it is or as well-intentioned as you seem to believe. Whether indeed you are a tool of American capitalism's imperialist campaign to own the world through violence and exploitation, by blocking more dangerous voices with your mundane musings, or ... well, I can't think of an alternative, but I'll give you a chance to tell me. It's not like I haven't been reading what you have to say everywhere already. But is it even POSSIBLE for you to hear any of us?

If so, have your people get in touch with me.

blonde said...

hahahaha LOVE this...

Joe Amato said...

Ted, I hear you.

You are a very funny man.



Lance Olsen said...

Okay, Ted.

Now tell us what you really think.

Bravo, man. Bravo.

Davis Schneiderman said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Davis Schneiderman said...

I came in late to this thread--but remind me never to get on Ted's bad side!

A book of possible interest:

_Star Authors_ by Joe Moran, found at:


It's a Bourdieu-ian analysis of much of the above, including significant material on Updike's literary fame (Acker is in there as well).

Also, from Updike's essay--the most obnoxious line:

"...and of course New Directions books, modest in format and delicious in their unread content."

This could easily be taken to mean "books not worth reading," rather than those odd little tomes unread by Updike.