I thought it was Leslie Fiedler who first wrote that the “novel is dead,” though my decision engine brings me to this attribution to Naipaul.  Of course whomever made that statement knew full well that novels will keep getting written; the argument regards the art-form rather than the creative artifact.  Ah, for the days of life as a student of literature, where I could spend productive time considering these questions.

Now I’m grown up, and must spend my time considering less important things.  Luckily, I can exercise my right to blog.  And surf the Web.  And find neat articles on the crisis facing all creative writing, such as this NY Times gem.

I’ve noticed an uptick in this sort of argument, that mashups trample copyright, that creative writers have lost control of their product, that the economics of the profession are being turned on their head.  The uptick tracks, ironically, to recent books coming out on the subject.  The NY Times article references some such works, such as “You Are Not a Gadget.”  I haven’t read it, though references to the book keep popping up.  It must be good.

The theme of such discourse has deep roots.  Perhaps Plato’s famed quote about the tyranny of democracy serves as the best example in the Western world of the basic concept that mob rule naturally persecutes minorities and leads to a mindless homogeneity ripe for the rise of the tyrant.  Hence the value of representative democracy: of elected officials working in a system to filter the worst impulses of the mob, to apply reasoned judgement to the problems of the day, and to protect the interests of the minority. 

Apply the principle to the novel, whose best examples criticize and even alter the societies upon which they comment.  Is there a more esteemed personage than the novelist?  The “(wo)man of letters?” 

We witness the unfolding of the impact to journalism caused by Web 2.0.  The unfettered attack on the economics of an entire industry.  The dissolution of the 4th estate precisely because the mob doesn’t value it enough to pay for its product.  Certainly, the music industry is taking its lumps too.  At least musicians can tour and sell merchandise.  But a novelist?  Good luck.

The Kindle and iPad presage a new era of digital literature.  Beyond the disruptive nature of the medium lurks (ugh, cliched prose — can someone please turn a better phrase for me?), I say, lurks the specter of the inevitable unravelling of any DRM system to protect the content.  Soon any published work will need to be digitized to sell, and any digital copy will be pirated mercilessly. 

Mashupers will rejoice in their ability to change endings, to excise the bits of Huck Finn’s last third we all hate, to lop off the last chapter of Crime and Punishment, creating a new work with one fell swoop (IMHO, a better one).  Then they will jump on a new work of creative fiction the day it hits the wire, launching a feeding frenzy of “I was here first to make my mark,” to twist and mangle until a consumer cannot even trust the claim of the integrity of the original. 

Thus ends the creative and economic model driving our rich, if mostly vapid, publishing industry.  Professional authorship loses meaning.  What has happened to journalism gets repeated, and the novel finally dies its predicted death as an art-form, and the practice of novelism dies its death as a vocation.  Prepare yourself for the birth of the “iVocation,” sold online at iTunes.

What does this dark future hold?  One thing seems certain, at least to me.  Novels will continue to be written.  Human creative impulse drives us too strongly.  Cave walls will be painted.  Yet the form will devolve into the fingers-of-both-hands exceptions, the mass-market hit-makers, the Dan Browns, and then the mass of the iVocationalists, writing in their spare time.  The Long Tail will be served, with the massive variety from the hump to the asymptotic extreme praised for its diversity, and loathed for its lack of quality.  And people won’t care because they have already lost their ability to appreciate the classics, and will rejoice in the muck because it is free.  Capitalism will flood us with supply, and we will demand nothing in return save a price tag of zero.

Why have I chosen to rehash arguments made, points well accepted, trite analysis?  To end up here.  This paragraph, in which I scratch beneath the surface of all this.  Discard mashup and DRM in favor of posing the real question, the interesting point.  First, I must extrapolate just a bit more.  For I have pointed out the glaringly obvious issues facing industries who rely on the creation of content (fiction, news, music, etc.).  What about other industries?  Is Etsy the first inkling that the economic contagion of amateurism may infect many areas, even manufacturing?  In other words, will the downward pressure on prices from globalization be amplified by local producers, by the amateurs I have dubbed iVocationalists?  What does this mean for our economic system?  Is it the harbinger of Marxism achieved through overabundance rather than 19th century Malthusian scarcity?  Or something else?  Maybe Kim Stanley Robinson’s notions of Martian economics brought to Earth?

These issues inevitably boil down to how we compensate each other for our products, our contributions to society.  How do we divide the pie?  The middlemen, historically the recipients of a disproportionate share, especially in free-market capitalism, have already seen a shift to new players, who in turn have reaped a spike in profitability (Amazon, eBay, Apple, Goldman Sachs).  What’s next?  A rebirth of the patronage model from the early Renaissance?  This model died, in part, through the nationalization of currency, and in part because it didn’t scale (which of course drove national currency adoption in a death-spiral for locally controlled economics).  The Radiohead model of seeking recompense through contribution?  Can you really see this sort of practice extending beyond a few notable examples, exceptions to the rule as it were?

What, then, will the new economic model be?  What replaces straight-up capitalism?  Or do we stick with the current system and accept that creativity benefits only the corporate middleman, that a creative artist and even an entrepreneur must make his mark in order to reap the reward of a corporate salary, complete with paid vacation and onsite gym? 

In the end, I must admit I do not know.  I am certain that some form of bundling will emerge, where artists form collectives and promote themselves as a “channel.”  Yet this feels marginal to me, much the way current cooperatives excite so much interest, yet make so little impact on our overall economy (sorry REI). 

One possibility can be glimpsed in places like Denmark, where the social contract continues to expand.  Free healthcare, long periods of compensated unemployment, other generous benefits.  Perhaps we will witness the core requirements to live and raise a family, things like food, housing, healthcare, education, clothing, transporation, and energy, become completely free, commodities provided by society.  This utopia allows its members to enter and exit the paying workforce.  The disruptive forces of computer artificial intelligence and general purpose, self-maintaining robotics make this science fiction vision a practical reality.  Not to mention the benefit of a completely fluid, dynamic workforce to companies.

And yet . . . I wonder . . . after all, modern technology allows us to easily maintain 1980-level productivity while working three days a week.  Ironically, we work more hours now than in 1980, and receive relatively less for our labor.  So innovation spurs us to work harder and longer for less.  This seems oxymoronic. 

In the end, we may be witnessing the Capitalist French Revolution.  You start with monarchy, devolve into disconnected tyranny, revolt into horrific mob rule, reinvent tyranny with a social compact to constrain it, then lapse into monarchy, before settling into a representative democracy that everyone hates, though they dread all alternatives even more.  Seems reasonable to me.  Marx was right in principle, he just mucked up the details.  What do you think?