I’ve just read something that made my jaw drop so fast it bounced off the floor and back up again.
It was this New York Times article. Apparently many celebrity writers have joined a group, Authors United, set up by the legendary literary agent Andrew Wylie. This is of course not ‘all’ authors, or anything like, but predominantly the great, good and famous.
I wrote recently about my dismay concerning the determination of many to see the Amazon / Hachette dispute as some simplistic, good vs. evil, black-and-white affair, in which Amazon are totally and obviously the Bad Guys while Hachette are awarded the full benefit of the doubt. The fact that it takes two sides to make a fight, and that we don’t know the full details of the dispute, does not appear to register.
This has now extended to asking the US Justice Department to investigate Amazon for illegal goings-on, monopolistically speaking, on grounds that seem distinctly uncertain.
Just to be clear, by the way, as I stated in my earlier post, I do not believe that Amazon are necessarily totally ‘in the right’ either. Jeff Bezos may very well not be in possession of a white charger, racing to the rescue of the publishing industry, nor sport a dazzling halo. I just don’t think he has horns and a pointy tail either.
Anyway … what drove me to write this post were two quotations within the NY Times article. Because it’s not just been the willingness of some to shoot off various missives of righteous indignation, sometimes in the form of stupidly expensive full-page ads – and all directed at Amazon, mysteriously failing to lob similar pleas and threats at Hachette (I mean, they’re a party to this too, right? Why can’t they back down, if this dispute is supposedly so damaging?)
No, it’s the hyperbolic, bizarre and often frankly ludicrous comments about Amazon being the spawn of Satan and the death-knell of all culture as we know it. That, if they’re not stopped, within ten years we’ll all be illiterates living in caves, grunting helplessly while Mr Bezos urinates on our camp fires. Or something.
You think I’m exaggerating? Well take a look at these two quotes in the NY Times article. First, a gem from Andrew Wylie himself:
“It’s very clear to me, and to those I represent, that what Amazon is doing is very detrimental to the publishing industry and the interests of authors,” the agent said. “If Amazon is not stopped, we are facing the end of literary culture in America.”
Seriously? I mean, seriously? The end of literary culture? Wow. I knew Amazon were a pretty slick operation, but who knew they had that kind of power? (Though only in America apparently? I’m sure Mr Bezos intends nothing less than the total annihilation of all culture globally, thank you very much.)
And another thing – the phrase ‘to those I represent’ is telling. We are talking about those who have done very nicely out of the current system. I can only conclude that Wylie’s definition of ‘literary culture’ is limited to his own elitist little corner of it.
The second quote is even more mind-boggling. It’s from an author called Ursula K. Le Guin. She opines as follows:
“We’re talking about censorship: deliberately making a book hard or impossible to get, ‘disappearing’ an author … Governments use censorship for moral and political ends, justifiable or not. Amazon is using censorship to gain total market control so they can dictate to publishers what they can publish, to authors what they can write, to readers what they can buy. This is more than unjustifiable, it is intolerable.”
I had to read that a couple of times before I could take it in. And I thought, how can an obviously talented (and presumably intelligent) author misuse words, exaggerate and mis-represent so flagrantly? For one thing, Amazon refusing to discount certain titles and not delivering them very quickly amounts to ‘censorship’? Well that’s not how my dictionary defines the word, but I guess Ms Le Guin must be using a different one.
One of the supremely ironic things about all this is that Amazon are being given such a hard time for not discounting Hachette books, when (as is at the same time generally acknowledged) they are fighting for terms that would allow them to discount more than publishers like Hachette generally want them to. You surely don’t have to agree that such discounting is necessarily always a good thing, nor believe that Amazon is doing this for purely altruistic motives, to acknowledge that the anti-Amazon case is mind-bendingly inconsistent on this point.
But back to that last quote – the more I look at it, the more I think it’s not just hysterical. It’s actually offensive. There are many millions of people who are and have been the victims of the most awful tyranny and oppression. Who’ve been lied to through propaganda and censorship, had their civil rights trampled on, and in some cases been ‘disappeared’.
To be ‘disappeared’, I always thought, meant being dragged from your home, away from your family, then tortured and murdered, just for saying the wrong thing. As opposed to, for example, suffering a possible reduction in revenue through not having your book discounted or unavailable for pre-order on Amazon. To draw a comparison between the two, even for the briefest moment, is beyond ludicrous, beyond parody. It’s insulting, and it does no good at all for the cause of authors (and I mean all authors, not just Andrew Wylie’s pals). It doesn’t do much for the cause of truth either – which is something I would hope writers care a little more about.