Although it appears that Amazon is the target of Ursula K. Le Guin’s criticism in this opinion piece, her real target is capitalism itself. Le Guin’s argument is pretty weak, and those readers who have commented on it do a good job of pointing out its flaws. Of particular interest to me were the remarks of Bill Peschel, who recalls that authors like Marie Corelli and Hall Caine–complete unknowns now–dominated the publishing industry in Britain in the late nineteenth century. In not one of his finer moments, Nathaniel Hawthorne referred to their American counterparts as “the dammed lot of scribbling women” that were making it difficult for those with genuine talent to make a living.
‘Twas ever thus. Talented people have always found it difficult to make a living because they challenge the notion of “easy” and the existence of the lazy. On the larger scale of the corporate world, Amazon is not the first entity in the publishing industry to threaten its competitors. Long before the Internet existed, big houses were trying to put little publishing houses out of business–sometimes successfully, and sometimes not. Those big publishing houses–Random House, Knopf–set the rules by which Amazon plays today. It is true that the behemoth Jeff Bezos created plays rough, but it is also true that his passion for books, old and new, has kept available many extraordinarily fine books that can be found nowhere else, and has enabled many first-time authors to gain a foothold in the publishing world.
Le Guin is correct that many of the books on the BS lists are garbage. I’ve said that myself before in this space, and that’s why Books Here And There doesn’t often mention any of those books. Amazon did not invent the best-seller list, however. New York publishers did, and those publishers continue to manipulate it to their own ends. Amazon may do some of its own manipulation, but all of us are still free to make our own judgments about that manipulation. We are still free to buy or not buy from Amazon or any other outlet. The largest online retailer still offers, freely and honestly, millions of other books beyond the best-sellers at reasonable prices. Ms. Le Guin goes much too far when she concludes that any purchase made from Amazon is a vote for a culture without content or contentment. On the contrary, content and contentment may be found when and where they have always been found: after our willingness to search for them–not in one place alone, but in many: in obscure bookshops, in conversations over coffee with friends, in the gardens and fields we’ve discovered on vacations or in private walks we’ve taken. Content–reading matter–cannot be given to us or force-fed to us. Neither can contentment. We must find both of them ourselves after diligent searching and living, and with a willingness to add what we’ve found to the patterns of own lives.
[Postscript, 12:00 p.m., June 3, 2015]: A tangential point, if I may, in regard to the problem of the “garbage” of the modern best-seller lists and the “schlock” of the nineteenth century: we need it. Not the garbage, of course. The world is not bettered by the ghost-written campaign tome of Rep. Arnold Thudpucker (D-Michigan), but it might be bettered by the tolerable prose we discover in Patricia Cornwell’s detective thriller Predator because we can use that prose as a standard by which to judge better work (including better work by Cornwell herself) when we see it. We need the middling works because it is those works which help to define what excellence is; but even more than that, the middling works often say, simply and clearly, what the great works cannot or will not say, because their aims–either accidentally or deliberately–are higher. You’ll find just as much truth about the human heart in Adam Sternbergh’s Shovel Ready as you will in Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, but we value Smiley’s work more because her scope was larger and she achieved most of her aims in the book. Chances are, though, we aren’t going to know how good Smiley’s work is unless we’ve read a lesser work first. A lesser work, however, is not one without value. Sternbergh was writing the very best book of which he was capable; only a fool or Rep. Thudpucker says to himself, “Today, I will write a bad book and foist it upon an unsuspecting public.” No, Sternbergh and hundreds of other writers are doing their best. They are adding to the great Stream of Words; and often, a drink from the fountain of prose they offer is just as refreshing as any you’d find this side of paradise.