Literary Critic Blames Google For 'Undermining The Literary Tradition'

from the someone's-not-feeling-lucky dept

Reader dave blevins alerts us to a recent column by literary editor Robert McCrum, where he appears to blame Google for destroying literature. It’s an oddly written piece, actually. I believe it’s sort of supposed to be a review of a book by long-term publisher André Schiffrin, called Words & Money, but it quickly turns into a rant, where McCrum feels that Schiffrin is so “disoriented” by what’s happening in the publishing industry that he fails to adequately blame Google and its book scanning project:

It is a measure of the profound disorientation experienced by seasoned professionals in this new environment that nowhere in Words and Money does Schiffrin really get to grips with the so-called Google Print Initiative, the biggest copyright heist in history.

And, once started, he decides to go after that project, noting that the old way of doing things is being “torn up [as] a new one (entitled “free”) was being written, mainly by geeks in California.” And, the problem, of course, is that Google Books is apparently destroying the ability of authors to make money:

Books, like newspapers, are an essentially middle-class phenomenon whose market is the self-improving professional. As a bourgeois medium, books and their authors depend on the cash nexus. Johnson went straight to the point with: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

Johnson was right. Words that get written for money are likely to be superior to words spun out for nothing, on a whim. California’s “free” movement wants to argue that literary copyright is an intolerable restriction of the public’s right to access information, and that words should be free. That’s a profound threat to the western intellectual tradition. I hope that André Schiffrin, having raised the alarm about the demise of serious publishing and journalism, will urgently turn his attention to the new, possibly darker, threat of digitisation and its consequences.

McCrum is, of course, quite confused. In his rush to condemn in elitist tones, it appears he did not bother to understand the details of what he was criticizing. The first problem, of course, is that he has confused “free, as in speech” with “free, as in beer.” When people talk about “freeing” words, they do not mean that people should write without money. So the entire argument made here is silly. We just think that there are other business models that fit better.

And, in fact, Google Books seems to help those who embrace it. We recently pointed to some researched that showed the Google book project was increasing revenue for publishers who embraced it — and publishers who have embraced it have been quite happy once they realized the benefits. Nothing about Google’s book scanning project is about making the works entirely free, so McCrum seems rather ill-informed on the subject.

There are plenty of legitimate criticisms of Google’s book project (and I still think the “settlement” is problematic), but the idea that it’s somehow “undermining our literary traditions,” is a statement wholly without support, and one that you would think an elitist literary critic would find some proof behind before making such a statement.

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Comments on “Literary Critic Blames Google For 'Undermining The Literary Tradition'”

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Anonymous Coward says:

According to Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership by Lewis Hyde Benjamin Franklin was quite adept of free.

In order of time, I should have mentioned before, that having, in 1742, invented an open stove for the better warming of rooms, and at the same time saving fuel, as the fresh air admitted was warmed in entering, I made a present of the model to Mr. Robert Grace, one of my early friends, who, having an iron-furnace, found the casting of the plates for these stoves a profitable thing, as they were growing in demand.

To promote that demand, I wrote and published a pamphlet, entitled “An Account of the new-invented Pennsylvania Fireplaces; wherein their Construction and Manner of Operation is particularly explained; their Advantages above every other Method of warming Rooms demonstrated; and all Objections that have been raised against the Use of them answered and obviated,” etc.

This pamphlet had a good effect. Gov’r. Thomas was so pleas’d with the construction of this stove, as described in it, that he offered to give me a patent for the sole vending of them for a term of years; but I declin’d it.

Benjamin Franklin the original pirate LoL

Patrik (user link) says:

Re: Re:

Benjamin Franklin also declined to enter the debate on copyright altogether, which seems very strange. That the verbose statesman, America’s first inventor and scientist, chose not to weigh in on the issue *at all* is mystifying.

I’ve thought about this a lot, as I’m a huge fan of Franklin. The only thing I can figure is that he felt unable to contribute healthily to the argument (which in itself is stupefying, he seemed to have an opinion about *everything*). He certainly chose not to patent many of his inventions, but he had an immense amount of opportunities otherwise to earn a living. My guess is that he considered himself a man of science, and not as a business entrepreneur. The work of invention and manufacture involves work with your hands–a trait of people who were considered “less than” at that time–something Franklin took pains to distance himself from early on in his career. It wasn’t until he was turned into a French celebrity that he began to play up his image as a “working class” pragmatic personality typical of Americans with endless coonskin caps and the like. Or perhaps he just thought he had more important things to worry about than the plight of authors and inventors, he was too busy inventing the USA.

But this was also a man who wrote series of books under assumed names, and misrepresented himself consistently in the court of public opinion to great effect–I believe he went so far as to debate himself in newspapers using a stable of aliases–so who really knows what he was thinking? I guess my point is, for someone who piped up about *everything*, we have to assume that there’s something to Franklin’s silence. Read into it what you will.

Pierre Wolff (profile) says:

I continue to be mystified that the idea of having one’s works found more easily, more frequently, and hence made more useful, seems to be completely lost on critics like this McCrum fellow. This and a sense of entitlement that is clearly misplaced. One should ask McCrum if we should also outlaw cars and bring the horse & buggy back under a legislative effort ūüėČ

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

Robert McCrumb is a Fool

Although I could choose countless examples to prove that great writing does occur for free, and by non blockheads, today I choose the passage below by Churchill, cost: FREE

“Turning once again, and this time more generally, to the question of invasion, I would observe that there has never been a period in all these long centuries of which we boast when an absolute guarantee against invasion, still less against serious raids, could have been given to our people. In the days of Napoleon, of which I was speaking just now, the same wind which would have carried his transports across the Channel might have driven away the blockading fleet. There was always the chance, and it is that chance which has excited and befooled the imaginations of many Continental tyrants. Many are the tales that are told. We are assured that novel methods will be adopted, and when we see the originality of malice, the ingenuity of aggression, which our enemy displays, we may certainly prepare ourselves for every kind of novel stratagem and every kind of brutal and treacherous man?uvre. I think that no idea is so outlandish that it should not be considered and viewed with a searching, but at the same time, I hope, with a steady eye. We must never forget the solid assurances of sea power and those which belong to air power if it can be locally exercised.
I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone. At any rate, that is what we are going to try to do. That is the resolve of His Majesty’s Government?every man of them. That is the will of Parliament and the nation. The British Empire and the French Republic, linked together in their cause and in their need, will defend to the death their native soil, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of their strength.
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the new world, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”

What a blockhead!

Dark Helmet (profile) says:


“As a bourgeois medium, books and their authors depend on the cash nexus.”

A bourgeois medium? I can’t tell in what context he’s using that word. If it’s the Marxist context he’s using…well then that’s just fucking hilarious, as he would clearly also be considered a bourgeoise by Marx, and likely the enemy to boot, given his stick in the ass elitist attitude. Off with his head!

Or, if he’s using the second common context of bourgeois, namely to denote the group of people who control the means of production for a given industry….well now it’s even MORE hilarious, since the whole point of all this is that they DON’T control the means of production any longer, beyond the first copy.

Either way: no more need to listen to a moron elitist who uses words improperly just because he thinks they sound pretty. What does this guy do again? Oh yeah, literary editor. Can’t create the beautiful prose himself, as this so-called article clearly demonstrates….

Anonymous Coward says:

I think I’ve read at least 30 books this year, albeit of the dead-tree variety. I’m not certain how google is destroying my own literary habits. Actually I use Wikipedia, Google, Amazon, and other services to broaden my horizons considerably. Wikipedia directs me to authors who win things like the Hugo and Nebula awards. Google lets me discover more about those author’s works both past and present. Amazon helps me discover what people are saying about those works, and the local library procures them for me.

I’ve read voraciously since I was a child and it seems to me that there is more for a reader to enjoy every single year.

Anonymous Coward says:

You say:
Nothing about Google’s book scanning project is about making the works entirely free

What I think a lot of authors disagree with is not what Google is doing with the digital copy of the book they made, but rather they are upset that Google made that copy in the first place. Google didn’t secure the rights or get permission to copy the books. They just went ahead and made unauthorized copies.

Although it might ultimately be beneficial to the authors, that isn’t the point. Copyright is all about having the right to control copying, with a few well known exceptions. Indexing the work so you can sell ads against it isn’t one of the exceptions, as far as I know.


Re: A Few Good Monks

If you are concerned about what Google is doing to “your” books, then you are certainly free to write them a nasty little missive. If you can’t be bothered to do so much as tender an informal DMCA takedown notice then clearly your copyright is not worth the limits and liabilities it imposes upon others.

Authors should not be able to let their works rot while they sit out of print and unavailable until they finally disintegrate sometime before they finally enter the public domain. If something eventually doesn’t enter the public domain then they have welched on their side of the bargain.

Orphan works should not be held hostage to such welchers.

Idiots that whine about their works being archived will be the death of civilization.

“Pirates” like Google are the only reason you are here to complain.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: A Few Good Monks

I’m not an author, just trying to relay what I believe many authors are opposed to.

The length of copyright is absurdly long. It certainly should exist after an author dies.

While the author is alive, they certainly should be able to let their works rot, if that’s what they want to do. I have a real problem with eminent domain type laws where the state can take your property from if if there is another who can make better use of it.

I would have far more sympathy for Google if they had made good faith efforts to contact copyright holders for every book they wanted to scan. They didn’t. They made the calculation that they can afford better lawyers and might makes right. Right?

Anonymous Coward says:

“Literary Critic Blames Google For ‘Undermining The Literary Tradition'”

Google only hosts content and books that are either permissibly licensed to them or everyone or that are in the public domain. How is this destroying the literary tradition? If you mean a literary tradition whereby publishers scam writers by demanding control over their works before allowing them publication, if you mean a literary tradition whereby publishers scam the public with insanely long copy protection laws allowing many works to die in history before having a chance to enter the public domain, then yes, they are somewhat undermining the literary tradition. But if the literary tradition is for publishers to scam both authors and the public then such literary traditions should be undermined.

herodotus (profile) says:

“Although it might ultimately be beneficial to the authors, that isn’t the point. Copyright is all about having the right to control copying, with a few well known exceptions. Indexing the work so you can sell ads against it isn’t one of the exceptions, as far as I know.”

Have you looked at the page of a Google Book search?

I really just don’t get this anti-Google attitude that pervades the so-called ‘literary elites’. The Google page of a book whose publisher doesn’t want a preview has no ads, no quotes, no cover art, nothing but the publishing information and links to places where you can buy the book.

There is no reasonable objection to this. There just isn’t. I’d welcome a worthy attempt, but I have never seen anything that even came close.

Anonymous Coward says:

“Words that get written for money are likely to be superior to words spun out for nothing, on a whim.”

So then you either admit that

A: Since these words are free then these words are inferior and hence we should disregard them


B: If you are charging for these words (or meaning to) then I must say, this is nonsense and the fact that such nonsense is being charged for is evidence that you are wrong. Heck, the free words of MM are much more valuable than what you are saying, though I must admit what you are saying does have some value in terms of its comic relief.

Karl (profile) says:

Re: Re:

We needed someone to replace the hated hippies

Yeah, I was about to say exactly the same thing.

Sure, Google is in California. But the “free” movement was started (mainly) by Stallman at MIT, in Cambridge, MA.

But Cambridge (home of MIT and Harvard) actually has an air of literary respectability, whereas California can be associated with those dirty, smelly hippies that thought the “Western literary tradition” was racist, sexist, and fascist.

Essentially, he’s using the ghost of Timothy Leary to scare his “children,” the authors, and keep them in line so they’ll clean their rooms, go to bed on time, and respect their elders.

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