April 18, 2013

Overanalyzing Neil Gaiman’s Digital Minds Conference keynote address

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Neil Gaiman. I mean. Look. At. That. Hair.

Yesterday, we reported on Neil Gaiman‘s recent keynote address at the London Book Fair’s Digital Minds Conference.  In that speech, Gaiman told his audience that “Amazon, Google and all of those things probably aren’t the enemy” and exhorted publishers to “fail better.” Today, Melville House’s Alex Shephard and Dustin Kurtz overanalyze the excerpts of that speech that have appeared in Publisher’s Weekly and other outlets.

Alex Shephard: Hi, Dustin! Did you hear about Neil Gaiman’s keynote address at the London Book Fair?

Dustin Kurtz: Alex, you know I did. We were just chatting about this. G-Chatting? I never know.

A: Gchatting. I am very “anti hyphen”

D: Yes. That is why we are colleagues and not friends. So about Gaiman: I really like that guy, but …

A: It’s tough to take TOO much away from it, without a complete transcript, but the part of his speech that has been most widely excerpted irks me quite a bit:

“Amazon, Google and all of those things probably aren’t the enemy. The enemy right now is simply refusing to understand that the world is changing.”

That seems to indicate that people who “think Amazon is the enemy” actually just have their head in the sand—that they think “Amazon is the enemy” to avoid having to change with the times. Or, to take it a step further, that this is “just the way things are” and, however valid your grievances are, you should shut up and get used to it.

D: I think you’re right. That part of his keynote in particular was unfortunate. Part of that I’d chalk up to a sort of playing-to-the-audience-maybe-he’s … sorry, just doing these hyphens for you at this point. But yes, that sort of agnosticism is fine and good when it comes from obnoxious futurists, but from Gaiman, a smart, compassionate guy, it struck a false note.

A: But saying it’s agnostic seems to be giving the guy a bit too much credit. He’s actually agnostic in other excerpts of the speech—”The truth is, whatever we make up is likely to be right”—but in the “enemy” portion he seems to be saying, “Criticizing Amazon is keeping you from adapting to the Amazon-controlled times” not “You may be right that Amazon actually is BAD for the industry but there might be ways around it.”

D: I’d say what I mean there is, the false outsider stance a lot of self-proclaimed disruptors, particularly from the startup side of the publishing world, like to adopt. And you’re right, it’s essentially a Randian moment. Later in the speech he makes some points that I agree with—the emphasis on the future importance of book-as-object—but to say “try anything, fail better” is a brutal dismissal of the repercussions of failure for the people who work in the industry. It’s essentially a dilettante’s point of view. And, Jesus, “fail better”? That made me wince out loud. I think you heard it.

A: Yeah, it pairs nicely with his widely-circulated when times get tough “make good art” speech from last year. The complete vacuousness of those statements (I hope) emerged more from the context in which they were delivered—keynote addresses and college graduations are no place for nuance—than from Neil himself (ha), but they are troublingly shallow for a writer who is as capable of complex and clear-eyed writing as Gaiman.

And I, too was taken by Gaiman’s take on the future of the “book as object,” particularly the anecdote involving the late Douglas Adams.

D: Yes, let’s be sure to note, if only to assuage my fan-boy guilt, that Gaiman is a great writer and a tireless promoter for others trying to make it as writers. The shark analogy he mentions—sharks have been around as long as they have because nothing is yet better at being a shark than sharks—sounds facile but dovetails with the way consumers are buying and reading books, at least this decade. Heavy readers (or as I like to call them, “meal tickets”) read in digital and physical formats together. They use one to supplement the other. Digital for one thing. Sharks for shark things.

A: Speaking of digital, I was wondering what you thought about PW’s summation of Gaiman’s thoughts on the current, Internet-induced “abundance” of books: “He acknowledged the uneasy shift from an age of scarcity, when books were difficult to get, to one of abundance, where e-books can now can be delivered at the push of a button. And he spoke of the benefits, particularly of discovery, arguing that most readers find their favorite authors by “encountering” their books through libraries or friends, rather than buying them in a bookstore.”

I follow him part way here, but again he seems to be pushing back at a kind of imagined anti-Amazon consensus: that those who are fighting back against Amazon are doing it with the misguided notion that bookstores are the only places where readers can find the next book that they’ll love—that a kind of “bookstore-fetishism” is keeping certain segments of the industry from adapting to the times. Of course, you and I, as former indie booksellers, are certainly partisans in this particular fight…

D: You may have been a bookseller. I think I was a bookmonger. Different guild charters. But yeah, that was interesting. Because, two things here: Gaiman is also a huge booster of indies. Ask Porter Square up in Boston about their advanced signed copies they’ve been selling for him. And second, we’ve all seen these same statistics. Word of mouth recommendations are the number one source of book discovery, but browsing in stores comes in at a hot second.

Anyhow, Gaiman was talking at a conference called “Digital Minds,” at a book festival with the overall topic “the future of publishing content.” I’m surprised he could even talk to that room through the nausea, let alone say anything cogent.

But you’re right, that the way this speech is framed, certainly in the way PW communicated it, it seems as if Gaiman is perhaps dismissing bookstores themselves as just one of the many failures which we need to step over in our long swaggering walk into the digital future.

A: Yeah and, as I’m a Gaiman fan boy also, that’s something I’m not willing to quite believe, especially because, as you say, Gaiman has a strong track record when it comes to supporting bookstores, especially indies. (Also: it’s been, like, 2 days since he gave that speech. How is there not a transcript yet? Or a shaky Youtube video? MAYBE PUBLISHERS REALLY ARE STUCK IN THE 20TH CENTURY.)

Interestingly, this was a banner week for cool people I cherish denouncing (and generally making very good points about) punk ethics as being “outdated.” Kurt Vile talked some shit to Pitchfork; John Roderick wrote a 3,000 word article for Seattle Weekly about the end of “punk ethics” that was so controversial it had to be taken down; and Gaiman, in this speech, seems to have told a self-deprecating anecdote about “Punk Neil.” I wonder, do you think that Generation X is having its Big Chill moment?

D: I KNEW the punk thing was eating at you.

A: IT’S BEEN A TOUGH WEEK FOR PUNK, DUSTIN.

D: About the punk thing, let’s just remember that Neil Gaiman writes Superman and Batman comics now, so maybe we can not worry about whether his inner punk flame has guttered and been snuffed out under piles of cash moistened with Todd McFarlane’s tears. Dude is establishment, just with better hair.

A: Amazing hair. And I think this point leads to what I find to be most troubling about Gaiman’s transition from “punk” to “walking TED talk,” as you referred to him earlier today. Gaiman is living in a post-scarcity world—one where any project he dreams up will be funded more-or-less instantaneously by the snap of his fingers or the click of a mouse—but that doesn’t mean that the rest of us are living in that world. These things are as simple as Gaiman presents them only when your path to these resources is as straightforward as his is, but that’s not necessarily true for the rest of us.

D: Well let’s not overstate this. Gaiman is still one of the hardest-working authors out there. He really has earned his success. But yes, for him to say, essentially, the world is your oyster, forgets that some of can’t afford to eat that many goddamned oysters at this point. Or more to the point, to let Amazon steal our oysters. I don’t know, this metaphor got away from me.

A: Yes, and while “fail better” is the caption of a motivational poster that is surely hanging in Mitt Romney’s garage, I am generally behind the sentiment. I want publishers to keep trying new things; I ESPECIALLY want them to try new digital things. And I want to work in an industry that fosters creativity and innovation, even if those two things are horrible buzzwords that I hate. But it’s a lot easier to “fail better” when there isn’t a giant, neoliberal, amoral corporate behemoth that has been eating and eating and eating at publishers’ bottom lines for the last decade. And acting like the economics of publishing has nothing to do with innovation in publishing helps no one and accomplishes nothing.

D: Right. We can surely fail better, but we’d rather not be made to fail at all. Something something oysters.

Alex Shephard and Dustin Kurtz work at Melville House and are friends.

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