Recently, John Hornor tweeted: "When I was in my 20s, every guy I met played guitar and was in a band. Now I'm 40, and everyone I meet is a novelist." Yesterday's post on saudade as a nostalgia for a lost, pre-tech world continues with a similar kind of longing today, Sehnsucht. This is the longing to be, or be part of, something larger than ourselves.
Wiki quotes psychologists' definitions of Sehnsucht:
Sehnsucht was an important type of idealism for English writer C. S. Lewis:Psychologists have worked to capture the essence of Sehnsucht by identifying its six core characteristics: “(a) utopian conceptions of ideal development; (b) sense of incompleteness and imperfection of life; (c) conjoint time focus on the past, present, and future; (d) ambivalent (bittersweet) emotions; (e) reflection and evaluation of one's life; and (f) symbolic richness." ... Some researchers posit that Sehnsucht has a developmental function that involves life management. By imagining overarching and possibly unachievable goals, individuals may be able to create direction in their life by developing more tangible goals, or “stepping stones” that will aide them on their path toward their ideal self." [Sehnsucht has] important developmental functions, including giving directionality for life planning and helping to cope with loss and important, yet unattainable wishes by pursuing them in one's imagination." It can also operate as a self-regulatory mechanism.
In Lewis's terms, Sehnsucht resembles a yearning similar to that evoked in this post about the world created by Lewis's friend, J. R. R. Tolkien. It is the ineffable call of 'home,' expressed through emotion and metaphor. Tolkien was interested in creating a fantasy world which brought to life our original hopes and dreams, as well as our consciousness of a lost, great land which existed in mythical terms before memory and before history.Lewis described Sehnsucht as the "inconsolable longing" in the human heart for "we know not what." In the afterword to the third edition of The Pilgrim's Regress he provided examples of what sparked this desire in him particularly: That unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World's End, the opening lines of "Kubla Khan", the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.
In the western imagination, that lost land lies further in the west, and is often embodied in rumours of Atlantis. In the eastern imagination, a similar lost land lies further in the east and is described in myths of Fusang. In India, the lost continent of myth is Lemuria, which lies to the imaginary south. Most major civilizations have this common thread of displaced yearning and memory, often expressed in symbolic terms as a lost land.
Our lost lands now are virtual. The Web is effectively the terra incognita, and there is a desperate push to find its limits, its outward borders. Once thus encapsulated by our understanding, perhaps the Web will become the new Promised Land. To get back to John Hornor's comment about novelists, the explosion of written output on the Internet might be a response to the Sehnsucht that has arisen in the hearts of countless small authors. If the Millennium is characterized by the destruction and reworking of old values, a confusion about the old order and loss of norms, there is a push in equal measure to find sources of inspiration. In other words, civilization is not teetering on the brink of implosion. It is not a black hole about to swallow itself. The vacuum is being filled, at an incredible rate.
To be sure, the hulks of the old order still dot the landscape and seek to maintain their position as gate-keepers to the global economy of refined and mass entertainment. The old publishing establishment has struggled in the face of the Internet's leaps and bounds in mass communication and e-publishing. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, publisher of Mark Twain and J. R. R. Tolkien, filed for bankruptcy protection in 2012, and eliminated $3.1 billion in debt in exchange for giving creditors a share in the company. In 2012, McClelland and Stewart was bought up by the German firm Bertelsmann. Also in 2012, Canadian literary publisher Douglas and McIntyre sought bankruptcy protection (see reports here and here on the death of the independent Canadian publishing industry). Before Douglas and McIntyre was absorbed by Harbour Publishing in early 2013, The Walrus struggled to come to terms with this news:
Other names come up in the bankruptcy lists around the publishing and book sellers' world: Feldheim, Reader's Digest, Borders, H. B. Fenn, Dorchester, Boston Hannah. To paraphrase Jon Reed: publishing is thriving, publishers are not. Are big publishers really expendable? See a debate on e-publishing/self-publishing versus conventional publishing here. Self-published authors do not always consider the legal and administrative aspects of their position as publishers - editing, proofing, formatting, illustration, publicity, distribution - even rights and taxes. They do not get literary advances which publishers can provide, nor are they included in a recognized literary community that includes author readings, international book fairs, literary festivals and literary residencies. Their success depends on Internet chatter and social networking."These are dog days in the book business, and some are pronouncing them end days as well. The 'dream,' as headlines would have it, of a vigorous independent publishing industry has died, felled by a cabal of assassins. Depending on who is pointing the finger, they include the rise of ebooks and Amazon.ca; too many titles for too few buyers; the routing of supportive independent booksellers by Chapters/Indigo; the impossibility of competing with deep-pocketed multinational publishers for authors and market space; and, more cosmically, the atomization of everything, especially attention spans, in our digital world."
At the same time, one could argue that the entire Web is its own international book fair. It also provides a new literary community in the form of countless forums, boards, and online and real life writers' groups. Self-publishing also appeals to independent spirits who don't feel they must answer to big publishers' screens and editorial apparatus. We have wildly successful indie examples of 2011's Fifty Shades of Grey (which dubiously began life as an online Twilight fan fic) and Hugh Howey's Wool from the same year. What aspiring novelist could ignore the fact that Howey began by self-publishing one obscure novella, and went on to make nearly USD $40,000 per month - and then rose to USD$120,000 per month in runaway e-sales?
There are other success stories, especially that of Amanda Hocking. The WSJ comments on how traditional publishers are playing catch-up:It all started with a 40-page post-apocalyptic short story called "Wool," that he posted online. "I had it on Amazon, so you could read it on your phone or anything that had a Kindle app, you could read it on. Or a Kindle of device, but you could read it on computer. It's difficult to read a 300-page novel on your cell phone. But this was only 40 pages." And those 40 pages came cheap - just 99 cents. The low risk paid off. He sold a thousand copies within three months. A second installment of what was now turning into a novel sold 3,000 copies in one month. Two more sections sold 10,000 copies and when he posted the fifth and final installment and began selling the entire 5-part novel for $5.99, he sold 23,000 copies in the first month. Sales have only skyrocketed since: 500,000 copies and counting. And remember, the book had yet to be published in print. Book publishers swarmed all over him but Howey refused to sell away his digital rights. He turned down a number of million-dollar offers until Simon and Schuster finally agreed to his terms. "It's the smartest thing I've ever done. For me, I make 70 percent of the retail price. If I'd done this traditionally - it'd be 12.5 percent. It's a huge difference. So many authors are watching this and congratulating me and hoping that this becomes a trend," says Howey.
It's a sign of how far the balance of power has shifted toward authors in the new digital publishing landscape. Self-published titles made up 25% of the top-selling books on Amazon last year. Four independent authors have sold more than a million Kindle copies of their books, and 23 have sold more than 250,000, according to Amazon.
Publishing houses that once ignored independent authors are now furiously courting them. In the past year, more than 60 independent authors have landed contracts with traditional publishers. Several won seven-figure advances. A handful have negotiated deals that allow them to continue selling e-books on their own, including romance writers Bella Andre and Colleen Hoover, who have each sold more than a million copies of their books.
This development confirms an observation made at Forbes about how the Great Recession is really a depression, and is quite similar in character to the Great Depression. The slump in the economy is due to the fact that "technology (which is another way of describing labour productivity) is advancing more quickly than the economy in general or the labour market itself can adjust."Print-only deals remain extremely rare. Few publishers want to part with the fastest-growing segment of the industry. E-book sales for adult fiction and nonfiction grew by 36% in the first three quarters of 2012, compared with the previous year. Mass-market paperback sales shrank by 17% in the same period, while hardcover sales declined by 2.4%, according to a recent report from the Association of American Publishers.
This is why those who adapt most quickly to the potentials of this infant communications-driven economy can potentially reap the greatest rewards. But the bastions of old power are not without resources and retributions - nor are those who try to find these niche futures guaranteed to find the right, profitable niche. There are many dead ends.
It is better, perhaps, to step back from perceiving rights and wrongs of publishing in terms of 'sales' and 'profit.' That assumption is derived from the old, bankrupt consumerist society. According to that perspective of the literary establishment, the vast amount of published matter on the Web is seen as a mountain of dross.
Oddly, those devoted to the administrative, pragmatic, informatic and programmatic aspects of building today's infant technocracy also see little value in the arts on the Web. Workforce specialists bizarrely consider those working in the arts and humanities - or indeed, those working on anything connected to the use of language and related consciousness in the Age of Communications! - to be engaged in relatively profitless and impractical labour. The marketing lie of the technocratic era sees packaging, mechanics and momentum as the source of profit, rather than any creative substance.
Despite these tensions and episodes of Millennial cognitive dissonance, future historians may witness the explosion of e-publishing in the past three years as a great flowering of culture. It is the first time in human history that mass communications have truly included the masses. In the theory of anacyclosis, is this a slippery descent into Ochlocracy? Or will this literary outburst turn the tide upward, and later be held as one of the great wonders of the Millennial world?
See all my posts on the Wonders of the Millennial World.