Some uncomfortable home truths

I read a lot of ‘long form’ journalism, mostly in the several periodicals I subscribe to and via RSS feeds that tempt me with links to articles, but I never gave much thought to where the texts come from, or under what conditions they are produced. I suppose I thought that writers (“journalists”) wrote them, editors acquired them and put them into publications, and readers like me read them and pointed other like-minded people to them, and so over time those texts became bricks in structures of what people thought and knew… which is a rather lovely but quite naïve/Pollyannish cartoon of a more complex reality.

James Pogue’s They made a movie out of it: the decline of nonfiction in the IP era, in the Jan-Feb 2020 issue of The Baffler, is an arresting corrective to the simplistic naïveté sketched above, and brings me abruptly into some of the grim realities of 2020.

It all has to do with “the rights” that attach to purchase of an item of Intellectual Property. Here’s what I didn’t know:

We are now in the mature stage of a book-to-film boom that is quietly transforming how Americans read and tell stories… Almost all written works that achieve prominence today (and many more that don’t) will be optioned… The emergence of streaming services from Amazon, Netflix, Apple, Disney, and even Walmart has driven a demand for writing on a bulk commodity scale at a time when the business of publishing—especially but not only in the world of magazines—has largely abdicated its responsibility for paying writers an amount that would secure a decent life.

Still more insidious:

…the book-to-film complex is bolstered by two imperatives that now govern our nonfiction almost without exception: foreground story as an ultimate good, ahead of deep personal insight, literary style, investigative reporting, or almost any other consideration that goes into the shaping of written work; and do not question too closely the aristocracy of tech and capital that looms over us, the same people who subsidize the system that produces America’s writing.

We live in a time when our writing finds its audience not through the publishers and journalistic outlets that commission writing, but through a handful of unregulated monopolies that siphon off most of the revenue this work produces and that are almost entirely in control of its delivery to its eventual readers…

…clicks and shares—today’s true determinants of the value of a piece of writing…

Hollywood has begun to morph into a business designed to develop content that fits easily into delivery systems designed by Amazon, Netflix, Apple, and Google, and that it was their entry into the market for IP that kicked off the book-to-film buying frenzy. They run the market, and from my desk, it looks like it is the same people who wrecked American writing—by colonizing the ad dollars, by seizing control of how books get delivered, by deliberately designing highly addictive devices and streaming services that pulled our attention away from writing and toward phones and forgettable, mass-produced Netflix shows—whose tastes and desire for palatable content I now get told my writing ought to be serving.

All this makes me more cynical about how “it” all works, but probably won’t diminish my use of Netflix and Amazon as (re)sources in the gratification of desires and the feeding of my appetites for textual and visual material.

Perhaps what ‘all this’ should do is encourage me to make more conscious and systematic use of what I read and see, via blog-form rediffusion and other forms of reflective writing. I’m experimenting with a reading log (essentially a daybook to keep track of texts I spend more than cursory time upon) and looking back through the last year of RSS feed stuff noted via Zotero (but mostly just marked as notable and not generally followed up).

1 thought on “Some uncomfortable home truths

  1. Kent Lee Anderson

    It is not only the Writing but the language that is being decimated. High fructose corn syrup-laden soda pop has become just another “sugary soft drink” becuz the reverse Whorfian hypothesis is certainly true — If they don’t have the words for it, well, then they certainly can’t talk or even think about it, and so the public mind continues to conflate toxic HFCS with benign pure cane sugar from Hawaii. Meanwhile the colleges and universities get rid of their books because it saves money and the new library is on-line and looks like a coffee shop. Since they now sell doughnuts, however, there is hope that policemen everywhere may start reading more if only on their tablets.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *