Friday, October 31, 2014

Literary Agent Andrew Wylie: Amazon Like ISIS (Really)

I find myself oddly encouraged that literary agent Andrew Wylie, at his International Festival of Authors keynote, actually compared Amazon to the jihadist group ISIS. The vapidity and intellectual bankruptcy of anti-Amazon reactionaries like Wylie needed no further proof, but still, the reactionaries have a lot of money and media behind them, with full-page ads in the New York Times and Publishers Weekly; suck-up stenographers like David Streitfeld; and keynotes at all the major publishing conventions all amplifying their message. So in some ways its a good thing their rhetoric has become this nuts. After all, even people not particularly paying attention are likely to roll their eyes when ostensibly respected pillars of the Rich Literary Culture establishment start comparing a retailer best known for its low prices and dedication to customer service to a group best known for kidnapping journalists and murdering them by hacking off their heads on camera.

In fairness to Wylie, he was only being astute in recognizing that, to bring further attention to himself, he had no choice but to crank the crazy all the way to eleven. After all, he was up against legendary sci-fi novelist Ursula K. Le Guin, who claims Amazon is trying to “disappear” authors and “dictate what authors can write;” megabestseller James Patterson, who claims that Amazon is making a “perilous future of books in this country,” is putting “the future of our literature in danger” and that the future “has to be changed, by law if necessary, immediately if not sooner,” and is “attacking writers” and trying to “ruin their families” and is fomenting a “religious war;” Authors United founder Doug Preston, who calls an Amazon offer to join Hachette in compensating authors “blood money” but assures you he is “not taking sides;” Authors Guild (really Publishers Guild) president Roxana Robinson, who claims Amazon is like “Tony Soprano” and “thuggish;” Authors Guild pitchman Richard Russo, who calls Amazon a “half man, half dog” that delights in “scorched-earth capitalism” and “burying your competitors and then burying the shovel;” and former Authors Guild president Scott Turow, who calls Amazon “nightmarish” and “the Darth Vader of the literary world.” Plus a whole host of similar such fear words, all intended to occlude clear thought and whip up panic, all (naturally) brought to you by the most august members of the Rich Literary Culture establishment—the same people, doubtless, who would argue that books are so important because they encourage people to really think, to ponder and excogitate and consider issues, not just emotionally and reflexively react to them.

Actually, Wylie isn’t just competing for attention against the kind of mad rhetoric quoted in the paragraph above; he’s also competing against his own public nuttiness. As I said in a previous post:

When Streitfeld quotes establishment literary agent Andrew Wylie saying, “If Amazon is not stopped, we are facing the end of literary culture in America,” what mysterious force prevents Streitfeld from inquiring, “What the hell does that even mean? What, specifically, do you think needs to be ‘stopped,’ and how do you propose stopping it? How do you define ‘literary culture’? How, precisely, will literary culture—whatever the hell that means—be ended by Amazon?”

Anyway. Whenever I hear novelists like the ones above bleating about how critical books are to our Rich Literary Culture (often they forget themselves and credit not writers for producing books, but rather publishers), I remember that lovely scene in Shakespeare in Love, when Ralph, who plays the nurse in Romeo and Juliet, is asked, “What’s the play about then?” and answers, “Well, there’s this nurse…”

Or to put it another way, whenever I come across writers like the ones above bloviating about books being the very foundation of Rich Literary Culture and Civilization Itself, I imagine a pot farmer going on about how without farmers, we’d have no food. Well, right, maybe not, but… you’re not that kind of farmer, amigo. And not that we don’t all appreciate a good buzz, but maybe the “Without farmers, we’d all starve!” lobbying should be left to the farmers who, you know, grow actual food?

But I digress. Really, I just want to ask Wylie and company this:

What’s preventing all of you from articulating a straight-up, coherent, defensible, reality-based argument about Amazon? What’s with all the vague and amorphous fear words? Don’t you decry fear-mongering when you encounter it in politicians? Then why are you using the same tactics yourselves? You admire careful thought, yes? Then why is almost everything you say calculated to occlude thought rather than encourage it?

My advice to these people? Try to find your inner logic, your inner reason. Because now that one of you has actually gone and compared Amazon to ISIS, the only other way to continue to bring attention to yourselves is logic, evidence, and reason, on the one hand… or comparisons to Ebola, Global Warming, and the Third Reich itself, on the other. And even setting aside the far more important question of what’s good for the public, what about your own reputations? Even with as much intellectual dignity as you’ve surrendered with your hysteria so far, do you really want to cash in whatever shreds of it might remain to you? Books will be written about the revolution in publishing. Is your behavior to date really what you want to be remembered for?


michael said...

I propose 'Ebolazon' as the term for the inevitable endpoint of Amazon fear mongering. The crazy can't get any worse than that.

Mary Trimble said...

Thanks for the clarity and humor! I swear this anti-Amazon campaign is having a Fox-Newsification effect on the brains of otherwise intelligent friends of mine who are all up in arms against Amazon, well, you know, because.

Ray said...

Let's see. They don't want a free market, because everything's better when big publishing can protect me from my own taste. Have I got that right? It's the literature version of the "nanny state."
And how many authors has big publishing made rich or even comfortable compared with Amazon. This really is getting quite ridiculous.

Unknown said...

Barry, as usual you've hit the proverbial nail on the head. When I read the excerpts of his keynote address, I saw the legs holding up legacy publishing's rhetoric platform bend at "this shit is really broken" angles. There's no where to go from this point except for full on crazy (not that most of them haven't already arrived) or stepping onto a logical, reasonable platform. Either choice will seriously undermine what little credibility this point, they would all be better off saying nothing and hoping for some SEO obscurity.

Unknown said...

Maybe Wylie's a little worried about his own skin in it all, I don't know. I also read Amazon and a few publishers had work some deals out and were playing well together. Either way I think the bottom head on Amazon's give a shit totem is probably the head of an agent.
As a writer myself I find the current publishing world and the many branches and the many cackling birds in those branches increasingly irritating and ignorant. I welcome a change of the guard.
But Amazon compared to ISIS? That's just fucking stupid. I think I've queried that guy too, which makes me feel kinda stupid.

ryan field said...

The only thing they'll be remembered for is this: "Wow, that's how things used to work in publishing? Only agents chose the books, sold the books, and controlled what everyone read through a ridiculous query process that never worked for anyone but the agents?"

That really was the first big fail in publishing, which dates back decades now. When it became impossible for writers to contact a publisher or editor without an agent the tables turned against writers for what can only be described as an era of literary frustration. Ironically, that era, with that control over publishing, could also be compared to ISIS :)