Odd timing that the writers have come to Seattle. The Association of Writers and Writing Programs is holding its annual conference here Feb. 26-March 1, just days after The New Yorker carried a crystalizing essay about the impact of Jeff Bezos' whiz-bang/online bookstore-turned-Walmart-on-the-Web.
The essay "Cheap Words" by George Packer in the February 17 issue of The New Yorker did nothing less than lay plain the essential and dare we say disturbing conundrum that Bezos/Amazon has invented for us moderns:
Do we want algorithms deciding what makes a "good" book?
Or do we want editors and other emphatic readers who, amidst the vast slipstream of shit and quasi-shit, have the experience, scope and insight to discern quality works?
We live in a Web-based world bent on the democratization of all things that used to garner much merit and meaning from certain hierarchical categorizations and canons. The impact of Amazon and its evil offspring, the Kindle, has been a digitized carpet-bombing of "culture" where editorial judgment has been rendered mostly obsolete, or at least, subverted in a hive-minded zeitgeist that zips along at the speed of Broadband. Amazon has led to a flattened literary landscape where every "salable item" (i.e. book) is equal to any other in that they are are all just equally salable commodities.
Think of "Fifty Shades of Gray" on a homepage next to "War and Peace."
Or Mitch Albom vs. Flaubert.
What IS our literary culture these days?
It wasn’t a love of books that led him to start an online bookstore. “It was totally based on the property of books as a product,” Shel Kaphan, Bezos’s former deputy, says. Books are easy to ship and hard to break, and there was a major distribution warehouse in Oregon. Crucially, there are far too many books, in and out of print, to sell even a fraction of them at a physical store. The vast selection made possible by the Internet gave Amazon its initial advantage, and a wedge into selling everything else.
It is into this Seattle that the 11,000 expected attendees to the 2014 AWP Conference attendees flock this weekend, where writers like Sherman Alexie, Robert Hass, Annie Proulx, Tim Egan, Ursula K LeGuin, Gish Jen, Gary Snider and Tobias Wolff will read or lecture. The conference takes place in a Seattle that bears a twin legacy: The literate city in which the business of book publishing and selling has been radically altered.
These days, in addition to Amazon and Microsoft, the city is populated with itinerant workers who flock here for the 2014 rendition of Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times." In this real-world remake, the twenty-somethings shuffle off to work at startups and tech giants all wearing skinny jeans, white earbuds stuffed into their lobes, iPhones and Samsung Galaxies blowing up with texts and tweets, searching for food trucks or beer gardens, rooting for the Seahawks or Sounders (football and football) and otherwise making little contribution to civic life outside of opting for public transportation or bikes instead of that second Prius.
Microsmurfs have morphed into assembly line widget-makers, although I'm sure these youthful Seattleites consider themselves hipsters, happily toiling away for good pay and the chance to work 70 hours for the likes of Jeff Bezos. Amazon notoriously sucks the life out of its employees, leaving them with addled eyeballs unfit for cracking open a book, or Kindle, should these people ever to find a stitch of free time.
That is why Packer's New Yorker article so startlingly captured Bezos' impact on the world of books. After just a few years of using book buyers to build a database, Amazon has so leveled the landscape such that no one can see any trees, let alone the forest. It's all about delivery and price and instant gratification.
Bezos is right: gatekeepers are inherently élitist, and some of them have been weakened, in no small part, because of their complacency and short-term thinking. But gatekeepers are also barriers against the complete commercialization of ideas, allowing new talent the time to develop and learn to tell difficult truths. When the last gatekeeper but one is gone, will Amazon care whether a book is any good?
For a groovy, world-class city that continues to swell with newcomers and New World enterprises, it's powerful to feel like you're at the epicenter of innovation and commerce, especially given the rust-belt decay taking place in so much of America.
Then again, not everything new and invented "for the greater good" turns out to be good.
Once upon a time, thinking reading and books were being made more accessible, more magnificent, I bought everyone in my family a Kindle.
But now, having grown cold to the entire enterprise of digital books, the Kindles in this Seattle house have been set up for a different purpose: To collect dust.
Is a former political and sports columnist who worked great cities like Albany NY, Seattle, Baltimore and Harrisburg PA. She lives New York.