Know Your Victim

Author Ewan Morrison (on the Guardian website this past week) becomes the latest in a long line of people to sound the death knell for the book. However, he pushes farther than some to slather on a new layer of apocalyptic fervor, predicting not only the death of the book but the death of fiction and the collateral death of writing as a profession.
Ebooks, in the future, will be written by first-timers, by teams, by speciality subject enthusiasts and by those who were already established in the era of the paper book. The digital revolution will not emancipate writers or open up a new era of creativity, it will mean that writers offer up their work for next to nothing or for free. Writing, as a profession, will cease to exist.
I’m tempted to want to link the hell out of this piece as a kind of “Know your enemy” parable, and to foment discussion on how amazingly worthless much of Morrison’s analysis of current media and the so-called “financial downturn in the digital industries” is. In the end, though, i’m forced to admit that i don’t actually think Morrison is the enemy. I think Morrison is a victim — specifically of the lack of faith in themselves and their work that plagues way too many writers, both established and aspiring. 

The thing that i find most disturbing in Morrison’s essay (aside from his verbatim and singular quoting of the MPAA on the effect of piracy on media, which alone demonstrates the narrowness of his focus and his lack of research) is the implicit idea in every one of his examples that the work of a creator/artist has no value outside what the publisher/producer will place on it. This is bullshit. It always has been bullshit. It always will be bullshit. The value of our work is defined wholly by its quality, its accessibility, and how much people fall in love with it. That’s always been the rule for writing, for music, for the other popular and consumer-focused arts. And as such, it’s the thing the publishers and producers have always had to control with an iron fist.

The new reality of writing takes that control away from the publishers and producers and puts it squarely into the hands of the creators. However, Morrison seems unwilling or unable to look at the full implications of those seismic shifts in the industry. The completely accurate observation that the new rules of publishing are going to destroy the old model of writers living off the advances for which they trade away their long-term control of a work is a no-brainer. However, Morrison then fails to acknowledge that there’s any potential value in writers taking back the long-term control of their work. In the end, his analysis isn’t crafting his conclusion. Morrison has already made his conclusion, and it’s crafted entirely on the fear and uncertainty that lets too many writers believe that that the control and blessing of a publisher is what grants legitimacy to writing. Faced with the destruction of the system that grants that legitimacy, Morrison crafted an analysis born of the fear of losing that legitimacy. To my mind, a better use of his time might be to think about why he’s afraid to believe in the legitimacy of himself — of his work, of writing in general — on its own terms.