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The Divergence Counter-argument

The best counter-argument to my assessment comes from Randall Collins. He reminds us that the “social processes of intellectual life imply that the future will consist in still further fanning out rather than convergence. New topics are constructed by combining previous chains of intellectual work.”18 The field of attention might theoretically be served better by one publishing hegemon that can produce many, many conversations, though Collins does not say this directly. But we can see that the ever-expanding range of works will depend on gatekeepers who can attend to them, who draw the attention of people to the worthwhile voices in the attention space. And that attention, as in argument, flows to emotional energy before there are inter-personal relations or the synergy of a cohort. We may see more diversity in works, as individual authors attempt to distinguish their voices on the field of attention, but we won’t know who to listen to. The problem is exactly the elimination of the expert gatekeeper that Bezos applauds.19

One would like to believe the hopeful assessment of Thompson in Merchants of Culture that thousands of scouts on contract to publishers are searching for great new World Literature. But his examples populate a demographic island: the scouts are mostly young women, he writes, living in New York, London, and Frankfurt. They are not notably multi-lingual, and, in fact, they are all looking for the next version of The Last Lecture

by Randy Pausch. That inspiring but very American text drew a $74.5 million advance without a word written.20 The scouts are not pursuing the extraordinary Indonesian poet Sutardji Calzoum Bachri in Djakarta. In reality, only a smallish number of scouts and editors, the modern versions of Sara Blackburn, keep an eye on foreign authors, often with input from academics. But Sara and Paul Blackburn were true bohemians, who knew Cortazar personally and made certain that he was translated by a friend.21 Today acquisitions editors work with authors’ agents and, though they may be looking for new titles from Douglas Messerli, those old networks are almost gone.

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