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Rise of the New Barbarians

Jonathan Franzen says he doesn’t like Twitter. Neither does he like the tide of self-published dross that’s threatening to destroy literature forever. The reasons he gives for this dislike are understandable. As an author accorded almost god-like status by the critics and hailed as the last great American novelist, he can afford to be sceptical. But do his views have any validity? Can the barbarian hordes really triumph over centuries of corporate wisdom and tear down the citadel?

The argument is this. If you remove the border guards and the barbed wire fencing, the fertile lands will soon be overrun. Priceless treasures of antiquity will fall into the wrong hands and all will be lost. Okay, this may be a somewhat fallacious analogy, but you get my drift. In some ways the entire debate is futile. The battle has already been fought and lost. The barbarian hordes have breached the city walls and laid waste to the kingdom, seizing acres of precious real estate into the bargain.

But wait. There may yet be a solution.

People read books. That much is certain. Never before in history has so much ink been spilled in the name of culture. The advent of the internet has increased this demand tenfold, creating new authors and readers every minute. Perhaps the most profound legacy of this golden age has been the rise of the independent – those brave souls who dare to publish their work without corporate backing. With the gatekeepers removed and the technology made available to all, anyone can call themselves a writer. Forget the demeaning labour of writing cover notes to agents and choking on rejection slips for years on end. Now, you can bypass the worst of it and experience instant gratification from the comfort of your own home.

Jonathan Franzen may be right to fear the tide he believes will be the death of literature. After all, without some form of quality control we might end up with the literary version of the X Factor – eager contestants reading aloud from drafts they rattled off the same afternoon. But you can’t halt free enterprise. And who is to say that out of all these strident voices clamouring for attention there aren’t a few budding Tolstoys among them? Didn’t Marcel Proust and James Joyce self-publish their early work to eventual critical acclaim?

Far from being banished from the kingdom indefinitely, the gatekeepers still exist. They are, in fact, the readers themselves, those shadowy figures who scan the horizon ceaselessly, looking for fresh talent. Without them, no writer can hope to sell another tale, his works sadly forgotten. The future, it seems, lies in their capable hands.

Perhaps our greatest fear should be apathy and indifference. When the demand for the written word is supplanted by the demand for computer games and mindless TV, we really will have something to complain about. Until then, I for one, welcome the opportunity to toss my hat into the ring and see what happens.

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