Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Who Will Own American Literature?

Change has come rapidly to the business of American literature in the past thirty years: conglomerization, new delivery methods, the declining influence of the literature professor, restrictive copyright laws, etc. Of course, literature has always experienced external control over who reads what and why. Government censorship, commercial cost, the exigencies of marketing, the outrage of parents, the clergy, and the community continue in various forms around the world.

This creates a panorama one could call the American Republic of Letters (not in the nineteenth century sense of an exchange of correspondence). Portals of access have disappeared, while others have developed. Newspaper reviewers are ignored. Literary critics are invisible. Graphic novels, which are 95% image, are taking an increasing segment of the traditional “book” market, especially among the next generation to come of age. The publication of literary works drifts from large to small presses, which have significantly less power to publicize and market, at least for now. The bookstore wars have ended (for the most part), at least between the large and small bricks-and-mortar stores. In ten short years, sales have shifted to a struggle between distant and local purchasing. Government is unable to keep books away from almost anyone with a credit card. Copyright is becoming permanent, leading to angry exchanges between publishers and scholars. There is a real question whether public lending libraries will survive, not because they are not needed, but because book-lending will no longer be needed by enough people to make them a community priority. DRM (digital rights management, a code that may allow a copyrighted work to open only on the device for which it was purchased or solely to the user who purchased it) threatens one of the great grass-roots traditions in reading: the enthusiastic passing of books from one reader to another.

All this will affect the whys and wherefores of literary reading in the United States. It always has. What has also endured is the political wrangling that created reading opportunities. The small press "movement" is one. A backlash against American arrogance and insularity manifested in the lack of literary translation in the United States is another. The NEA's "The Big Read" is a third. Ownership rights.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

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