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.

Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Sep 2010 @ 1:26pm

    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.

Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Use markdown for basic formatting. HTML is no longer supported.
  Save me a cookie
Follow Techdirt
Techdirt Gear
Show Now: Takedown
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads

Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.