“The future at hand”

Richard Nash has contributed a substantial (8,000-word) essay, “What is the business of literature”, to the spring edition of the Virginia Quarterly Review. Published recently, his essay has prompted a number of links, comments and tweets.

Much of the commentary picks up on the content of the essay’s subhead, “As technology disrupts the business model of traditional publishers, the industry must imagine new ways of capturing the value of a book”. While Nash does address both the history and the potential for technology to shape our business, I think his ambitions are much greater.

Consider this excerpt from the essay’s penultimate paragraph:

Book culture is not print fetishism; it is the swirl and gurgle of idea and style in the expression of stories and concepts—the conversation, polemic, narrative force that goes on within and between texts, within and between people as they write, revise, discover, and respond to those texts. That swirl and gurgle does happen to have a home for print fetishism, as it has a home for digital fetishism. This is what literature has always been.

Nash extends this argument as he concludes:

By defining books as against technology, we deny our true selves, we deny the power of the book. Let’s restore to publishing its true reputation—not as a hedge against the future, not as a bulwark against radical change, not as a citadel amidst the barbarians, but rather as the future at hand, as the radical agent of change, as the barbarian. The business of literature is blowing shit up.

This essay is less a defense of technology and more an argument to once again define the purpose of publishing. Nash covers fertile ground, weaving together themes that he has been developing for years while working at Soft Skull Press, Cursor and now Small Demons.

His work is not easily reduced to a short blog post or a succinct tweet. Nash and I approach publishing from different angles, but we agree without reservation about the question we should be asking: “What is the purpose of publishing?” In an era of things like increasing wealth disparity, we could use a radical agent of change.

A brief note: The links provided in the two excerpts are mine; they did not appear in the original text.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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