I grew up with a reverence for authors. If you made a movie, or wrote a play or directed a play or starred in a play, that was cool, but if you wrote a book (fiction, and to a lesser extent non-fiction, but to a greater extent philosophy) you were somebody. Authors weren’t just artists using the medium of words, they were culture.
As the internet has devalued writing it has also demystified authorship in ways that I think are unique to the times. From the dawn of the first printed book until the public began expressing itself en mass I think a reverence for authors has been the norm. To be published was to be validated in ways that most people could only aspire to.
This does not mean, however, that any cultural stewardship claimed by the publishing industry was real. Far from it. Publishers have engaged in gatekeeping for no end of duplicitous purposes, and the people populating those power centers have never shown the slightest hesitation in abusing whatever trust the public placed in them. Where power, money and desire meet you can scoop cockroaches by the pound and never see the bottom of the barrel.
So complete was publishing’s power over the concept of authorship that anyone who attempted to publish outside the industry was deemed by all to have admitted failure. A painter could work in solitude, a musician could compose for an audience of one, a filmmaker could go independent, but to be a real author — to be a part of the culture — you had to sign a contract with someone else and give them editorial control.
In retrospect this idea was insane, yet I know almost no one who did not at one time adhere to that party line. Only when the internet bypassed the publishing industry as a direct-to-consumer pipeline, allowing people to compare the writing done by professionals with the writing done by independents, was it possible to see that the wild stuff was often on par.
This awareness, this radical new cultural paradigm, in turn made it easier to acknowledge what had been apparent for some time: the publishing industry was no more averse to sanctioning crap than any other industry. In fact, no industry seemed more willing to whore itself out to celebrity, as evidenced for example by the ever-growing string of dubiously qualified politicians writing books to purportedly set the narrative of impending campaigns, but in fact simply to profit from book sales.
Were the demystification of authorship only to help defeat such cynical and exploitative acts it would be worth it, but my hope of late is that it will help drive the economics behind authorship as well. As more and more people come to realize that books only have value if what’s in them has merit or meaning, the feeling that authorship grants some sort of cultural security clearance may finally fade. And that, in turn, may help prevent con artists like this from using authorship as a license to steal:
Last spring, 60 Minutes investigated humanitarian and best-selling author Greg Mortenson for mismanaging and personally benefiting from the funds of his charity, the Central Asia Institute (CAI), which builds schools in remote villages of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The story also questioned the accuracy of some of the most dramatic tales in Mortenson’s book, “Three Cups of Tea,” which has helped him raise millions for his charity and attain a cult-like status on the lucrative lecture circuit.
To be sure, there are people already doing yeoman work in this area. In fact, one man I can think of has probably done more to demystify if not denigrate authorship in the public consciousness than any human being in history. And I say more power to him.
When the day comes that every mom, pop and kid down the block has published their own book, it’s going to be that much harder for the shills and charlatans of the world to sucker people in by simply proclaiming authorship. At which point we can move on to what’s being said instead of who said it or allowed it to be said.
— Mark Barrett
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