Author Choire Sicha: How the Internet Kills--and Saves--Book Culture
First-time author Choire Sicha has been a longtime denizen of that other cultural sphere--sometimes an ally to the book world and sometimes its tormentor--the Internet. Formerly an editor at Gawker and The New York Observer, Sicha now co-runs the culture and news site The Awl. Sicha's first book, "Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City," sits somewhere between memoir, fiction and a social critique of New York City during the recent financial crisis. Given his place at the sometimes uneasy nexus of literary and online culture, we asked Sicha what he thought of the present status and future prospects of literature in an increasingly online world. Are books doomed? Sicha says "Yes...and no."
The Internet is destroying a good number of things while making a fairly decent number of exciting new things--but in particular, it sure has got its hands around the neck of dear old literary culture. What is literary culture? It's what used to mean "participation in a community that purchases and consumes and discusses and participates in argument about the content and form of written work." Or... wait. Is the Internet strangling us? I change my mind hourly.
The Internet encouraged the fragmenting of literary culture.
We are, most of us, specialists in taste and desire. When it comes to fiction, I'm a science-fiction specialist. Long gone are the days of a core curriculum of a canon of books that we all had to know in and out: Now I can hang with a community that reads deeply where I do, and is wildly ignorant where I am. The downside? The former community at large can't always talk to each other from our different sides of the virtual bookstore. The upside? I now have access to ebooks of pretty much every important SF anthology produced in the last 30 years.
The Internet killed the independent bookseller.
Sort of! Probably! Sometimes. But new book purveyors are springing up online, like Emily Books, which brings to light a new or recent or rediscoverable fabulous feminist book every month. Would Emily Books exist just with a printing press and a bunch of mailing labels in some basement? It's possible, but it'd sure be a lot harder to reach customers.
The Internet will let just anyone say anything.
Not a week goes by that I don't want to strangle some dingbat kiddo with an MFA going on about what fiction should be, or what's important about poetry--and that's just at The Rumpus and The Millions. A thousand more blogs expose large communities of readers and writers. Just because most of them are wrong doesn't mean all of them are wrong. And the truly great thing about all this yakking is that I'm one of them. Without the Internet, I'd never have had a place to start writing at all. This also means that someone, somewhere, is really upset about how wrong I am about Allen Ginsberg or Walt Whitman or Rebecca Brown. Tough! Close the tab then, pal!
The Internet spoiled us into getting everything for free.
There's some truth to this: Many people in the newspaper industry certainly think it all went wrong for them when they started plunking down their newspapers on the web. From music to movies to books, we want it fast and we want it free--or at least cheap. The great news, however, is that there are a number of categories of things that should be free and easy to access. Whether it's the near-complete archives of Spin and New York magazine in Google Books, or the awesome work of Project Gutenberg in making post-copyright works available to all, or the complete history of the New York Times, never has so much information and pleasure been there for the searching. (An extra bonus: researching minor historical figures has never been easier. In Google Books, you can watch them skip from one person's diary to the next in seconds.)
And better news overall: as we all grow up on the Internet, the ability to pay easily for things is also growing. Buying cultural products online as a practice of being part of a community, of being in an ecosystem, becomes more rewarding the more you do it. As payment technology grows to make paying for what you own more seamless, we may yet become a new culture, one that consumes more widely, more appropriately and more satisfyingly.
Choire Sicha is a co-editor and co-founder of the Web site The Awl (which has been called, by GQ, “the closest thing on the Internet to the much-imitated Spy magazine of the '80s and '90s”). He is a former editor of Gawker, Radar and The New York Observer. His writing has appeared extensively in those publications, as well as in The New York Times.