From counterculture to anticulture

From his Northern California perch, tech publisher Tim O’Reilly twitters about the future of books:

I don’t really give a shit if literary novels go away. They’re an elitist pursuit. And they’re relatively recent. The most popular author in the 1850s in the US wasn’t Herman Melville writing Moby-Dick, you know, or Nathaniel Hawthorne writing The House of the Seven Gables. It was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow writing long narrative poems that were meant to be read aloud. So the novel as we know it today is only a 200-year-old construct. And now we’re getting new forms of entertainment, new forms of popular culture.

This is so foolish and confused, so callous. It takes a remarkable degree of critical vacuity to suggest that because an art form is “relatively recent,” it lacks worth — that because the novel is “only a 200-year-old [sic] construct,” it’s somehow suspect, and disposable. And how sad and shallow to view the reading (or writing) of a book like Moby Dick as an exercise in elitism. It’s the antithesis of elitism.

Later in the interview, O’Reilly muses, “I think people in Silicon Valley don’t realize what a bubble they’re living in.” You can say that again, Tim.

16 thoughts on “From counterculture to anticulture

  1. Charles

    The Tale of Genji is generally considered the first modern novel, it dates to the 11th century. So this art form has only been around for merely one millennium.

  2. Eric

    I’m sure O’Reilly would love to see iPhone Photography: The Missing Manuel instead of War and Peace on my book shelve.

  3. Rian

    I’m currently making my way through Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves To Death”, so it’s particularly interesting to read O’Reilly’s thoughts in that context. Postman goes to great lengths to explain the benefits of print-based cultures – cultures where literary fiction played a huge role. Here’s just one quote that stands out in that context:

    From Erasmus in the sixteenth century to Elizabeth Eisenstein in the twentieth, almost every scholar who has grappled with the question of what reading does to one’s habits of mind has concluded that the process encourages rationality; that the sequential, propositional character of the written word fosters what Walter Ong calls the “analytic management of knowledge.” To engage the written word means to follow a line of thought, which requires considerable powers of classifying, inference-making and reasoning. It means to uncover lies, confusions, and overgeneralizations, to detect abuses of logic and common sense. It also means to weigh ideas, to compare and contrast assertions, to connect one generalization to another. To accomplish this, one must achieve a certain distance from the words themselves, which is, in fact, encouraged by the isolated and impersonal text. That is why a good reader does not cheer an apt sentence or pause to applaud even an inspired paragraph. Analytic thought is too busy for that, and too detached.

    So if we lost literary fiction, we’ll start losing analytical thought too…

  4. SpragueD

    O’Reilly built his reputation marketing a brand of the World Wide Web which, after a mere 15 years, is already being discounted by the rise of the mobile app economy. But, living in a perverse culture that values novelty above all else, the irony is likely lost on him.

  5. Seth Finkelstein

    Nick, be fair – he didn’t say “lacks worth”, in terms of an absolute sense. He made a point that, I’ll paraphrase, what people consider as an important art forms changes over time, and he himself is not interested in the argument that what’s considered high culture in the 19th and 20th century is the most important thing in the world to be preserved in that exact form for all time as the very essence of humanity. Obviously there are those who do make that argument – but from a historical perspective, it can be kind of an annoying special-pleading.

  6. Kelly Roberts

    Moby Dick and The House of the Seven Gables will be around when O’Reilly and his vacuous advertising slogans are long gone. Art endures. That’s why it’s called art. Hucksters sell lies. That’s why they’re called hucksters.

    By the way, O’Reilly is terribly confused about history. The novel has always been a popular art form. That’s why it was derided by classically educated males well into the 20th century. Women, servants, and adolescents read novels, hence novels were pap.

    Also, Melville and Hawthorne were both bestselling authors, the former for Typee and Omoo, the latter for The Scarlet Letter.

  7. Mark Pontin

    ‘By the way, O’Reilly is terribly confused about history.’

    As one of O’Reilly’s predecessors said: ‘History is bunk.’ Why should he care about mere details?

  8. Judith Fitzgerald

    Hark! Is it simply this global-village idiot or do many among us hear the distinctive sound of irony meters im/exploding in all necks of this (and any other) world?

    Thought so :).

    Although not immediately and obviously related to my (rather) idle query, I had been thinking of Melville’s amazing wee poem, “Greek Architecture,” earlier this evening . . . I could quote it entirely without any concern for copyright infringement (given its four-line length and its timeframe); but, I am too lazy to go and find it (not to mention too shy to quote it from memory lest that become the issue should I inadvertently change a definite or indefinite article, say) . . .

    Thank you for this, however; late night / early morning burst of bright light, large logical fallacy

    Judith Fitzgerald Presents II: Six of One is an eminently worthy
    and world-class enterprise. Happy to have had a small part in it.”
    FITZ LAW: “If things can go wrong, they already has.”

  9. T Byers


    Thanks for that link. It’s interesting that if you play the whole Charlie Rose segment, you see that O’Reilly’s comment is not taken out of context at all. O’Reilly really believes this. And as that link points out, “A profound work of literary fiction today could lose its readers to a Christmas present of soft pornography, a three-book set originally concocted as vampire fan fiction.”

    I do give a ^#!$ about that, because it’s happening, and I find it horrible and upsetting.

  10. Evan Morris

    Silicon Valley is full of these vulgarian idiots. My guess is that Timmy, like many in his cohort, is also a big Ayn Rand fan.

  11. Antony

    Evan, I would also say that the Universities are also full of people who hold this view. In the world of fiction there has been this stereotype for at least 25 years of the postmodern MFA school gobledygook coming out of a college or university English department. That kind of writing that nobody reads outside of the department. I think that it’s finally dying out. Even the English department types are coming in agreement with O’Reilly. Just do a search on Twitter or in blogs. An example:

    “I must agree with what Tim O’Reilly said … Personally (after a couple decades of being a very devoted reader of novels), I have all but stopped reading fiction. My storytelling fix comes from watching TV, which, for my money, is where the best narratives are told these days—Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, many others. I know I’m not alone in this.

    So that begs the question of what I do read, and it’s narrative nonfiction of a journalistic bent”…

    Jane Friedman,

  12. Tim O'Reilly

    I just discovered this post, and like so many, it is eager to assume the worst, call names, and not explore ideas.

    Thanks, Seth Finkelstein and Jane Friedman, for pointing to the context for my remarks.

    Don’t get me wrong: I love long narrative fiction (and non-fiction.) And I would personally be very sad if there were no new novels (though I will also stipulate that there are far more great ones already in existence than any of us will ever have time to read, so if there were not a single additional novel produced, no reader need go unsatisfied. (And in fact, much of my favorite fictional explorations are of books that were once bestsellers but are now largely forgotten. They give an amazing view into another time.)

    My point was simply that if a form passes, it passes because people have formed new preferences. For authors of a particular art form to claim that somehow culture will be irreparably damaged if they aren’t able to get large advances to produce their art form is self-interested. That’s the “elitist” position I was talking about, for which the “I don’t give a s***” comment was intended. I misspoke when I said I didn’t care if the art form went away; what I meant was that if there aren’t enough customers to preserve an art form, it has most likely been superseded by something else.

    And just as the novel was once derided as a trivial art form, the partisans of the novel deride its potential successors today.

    P.S. Charles, have you actually read The Tale of Genji? My point, in any case, was that the popular pre-eminence of the novel as a written art form is only a few hundred years old at best.

  13. Nick Post author

    “For authors of a particular art form to claim that somehow culture will be irreparably damaged if they aren’t able to get large advances to produce their art form is self-interested.”

    Who are these authors?

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