Why Sean Wilsey is so wrong about digitized books

Not satisfied with trashing his parents and step mother in his public confessional Oh the Glory of It All, San Francisco celebrity Sean Wilsey now turns on John Updike, one of the fathers of modern writing, for Updike's recent Book Expo polemic against Kevin Kelly.

But Wilsey is too hip to get it. He's not really interested in online media or the cultural implications of scanning all the books ever published into Google's search engine. Instead, all he wants to do is snip Updike for his use of "snippets":

"At the recent Book Expo America, before the breakfasting majority of America's booksellers and editors, John Updike prophesied the digitization of all books into an online "universal library."  He was prophesying by proxy, as the original prophet was Kevin Kelly, one of the founding editors of Wired magazine. But while Updike conveyed Kelly's premise with conviction, he had no intention of celebrating it: rather digitization, he told the audience, was a "grisly" scenario, one that would lead to readers treating books like music, downloading and cutting them into playlist-like "snippets." The word "snippets" was delivered with an East Coast snap — teeth into an October apple — for maximum onomatopoetic effect."

In the article, published by Time, Wilsey tells us that Updike is a reactionary "white haired gentleman" defending the old against the new. What Wilsey doesn't explain, however, is the real subject of Updike's wrath are "writers" like Wilsey himself.

Updike's talk was a defence of the writer's historic right to sell copies of their book for money. Updike is nostalgic for a time when the author and the book were separate, when the writer could remain obscure and the book was famous and lucrative. What Updike attacks is Kelly's argument that the author should give away copies of their written work and make their cash through self-promotion.

Wilsey, in contrast, is the very kind of writer that Updike abhores -- the minor celebrity who uses his book to add to his fame while the book itself merely confirms the author's celebrity status.

As Lee Siegel explains in his review of Oh the Glory of It All in The Nation magazine, it's "less a book than a very long e-mail" about guilt, blame, abuse and evil parents.

So Wilsey writes about himself and his confessional e-mail becomes the marketing tool with which Wilsey brands himself. The thing of value is Wilsey; the book is the give-away.

Siegel describes this phenomenon in broader cultural terms:

"To a large degree, writing a book has become just another form of producing and selling, another project of the entrepreneurial or egotistical American self. That makes most books being published social, not cultural, events. They are the type of calculating, transactional social occasions that authentic cultural events sublimate into clarifying expression. These simulated books should be reported and investigated in the national news sections of newspapers, not reviewed in their culture pages."

Exactly. Wilsey's egotistical, entrepreneurial piece is not about Updike or Kelly or digital books. It's about Sean Wilsey -- a well worn subject  which Wilsey covers with "maximum onomatopoetic effect."