Monday, June 26, 2006

"The end of authorship" by John Updike

Yesterday's NY Times Book Review features a back-page essay by John Updike, "The End of Authorship." It's a wonderful read, arguing that Kevin Kelly's prominently published dream of the all-encompassing hyperlinked universal book is more of a nightmare. (I have previously discussed Kelly's NY Times Magazine cover story from both sides, originally applauding it and later acknowledging some pointed criticism.)

Updike's essay is going to get beaten to death on the blogosphere over the next few days. Tune in to Technorati for a live view of the action. My favorite response to Updike so far comes from journalist Jason Chervokas.

I have no intention of beating up John Updike and would like to say a bit about why I agree (in my own way) with some of his most anti-Internet comments. In particular, Updike writes
"The economic repercussions of this paradise of freely flowing snippets are touched on [by Kelly] with a beguiling offhandedness, as a matter of course, a matter of an inexorable Marxist unfolding. As the current economic model disappears, Kelly writes, the 'basis of wealth' shifts to 'relationships, links, connection and sharing.' ...

"Has the electronic revolution pushed us so far down the path of celebrity ... that an author's works ... serve primarily as his or her ticket to the lecture platform?...

"Authors, if I understand present trends, will soon be like surrogate birth mothers, rented wombs in which a seed implanted by high-powered consultants is allowed to ripen and, after nine months, be dropped squalling into the marketplace.

"In imagining a huge, virtually infinite wordstream accessed by search engines and populated by teeming, promiscuous word snippets stripped of credited authorship, are we not depriving the written word of its old-fashioned function of, through such inventions as the written alphabet and the printing press, communication from one person to another — of, in short, accountability and intimacy?"
My favorite part of the essay is the amazing metaphor of "authors as surrogate mothers, rented wombs" owned by "high-powered consultants." Wow! The only issue I take with that disturbing image is the implication that consultants are more mercenary than authors. In support of Updike's main point (which applies equally well to all kinds of people, including both consultants and authors), see this post on viral marketing, which describes the alarming ease with which we rent out our creative wombs, as reported by this NY Times Magazine cover story.

Updike then claims that the Internet has stripped the written word of "accountability and intimacy." Like Updike, I do believe we are experiencing a substantial decline in accountability and intimacy. I also agree with Updike that the Internet has something to do with this decline--a contentious argument among sociologists that has recently captured front page headlines. But before we demonize the Internet and raise up our books, it's worth noting that books have also been criticized for alienating us from intimacy--ranging from Julia Cameron's argument that book-reading inhibits our inner artist to Leonard Shlain's thesis that literacy itself has fed a millenia-long hegemony of patriarchal intellectualism. Once again, Updike betrays his personal interest in books and authorship by ignoring their dark side.

On a final uplifting note, know that as long as brilliant writers like Updike write essays titled "The End of Authorship," we can rest assured that the institution of authorship remains secure. The nightmarish end of authorship will only truly happen when Updike gives a s**t what his Google rankings are--a lovely paradox I touched on recently in a post inspired by John English's The Economy of Prestige.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 License and is copyrighted (c) 2006 by Connective Associates except where otherwise noted.

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