The Best Essay I Read This Month: “Atlas Aggregated” by Walter Kirn

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LitHub recently introduced a feature called “Book Marks,” which it describes as “‘Rotten Tomatoes’ for books.” Under the Book Marks grading system, a novel could receive an ‘A’ (Totally Positive), or a ‘B’ (Mostly Positive), or so on and so forth. This obviously raises a lot of questions, and hands down a lot of verdicts that readers will find off-putting, both because they disagree with the grade and because they find the idea of such a system bizarre in the first place. This discomfort is the subject of Walter Kirn’s “Easy Chair” column, “Atlas Aggregated,” in this month’s Harper’s Magazine.

Kirn is put off by LitHub, a name he says reminds him of GrubHub. He spends the first quarter of his essay setting up an allegory that, while topically unrelated, makes for a pretty smooth segue into the predicament of consumer-driven literature (a doctor lamenting the pressure that patient satisfactions surveys and, essentially, the era of WebMD, place upon medical professionals to placate moronic patients who believe they know more than their doctors). The artist – or writer, doctor, etc. – should dictate the form the art takes, not the consumer. The consumer is not the professional – why should the professionals bow to what the laymen think they know?

Should you find yourself thinking that this is a valid point you want to see given its due, but also just about ready to fall over the edge into insufferable elitism and thus make the remainder of the essay distasteful, Kirn is there to catch you just in time.

“If this all sounds a bit elitist, it might be worth asking who actually benefits from digital populism. Does it really help readers to take the complexity of the reading experience and reduce it to a number, complete with decimal point? Probably not, but it will certainly help Amazon, and anyone else who seeks to make a profit, by treating books as essentially fungible and squeezing the writers, editors, and publishers who make them. After all, if my publisher refuses to make my latest novel available on Kindle at a steep discount, there’s no need to buy it at price from your local independent; just find another 8.5 — God willing — to download for a dollar.”

This made me immensely more comfortable reading the rest of the essay; it’s not just an acknowledgment that the author is self-aware of an argument’s shortcomings or myopia, it’s an efficient explanation of why they weren’t actually shortcomings, and the practical fallout that made them necessary to raise in the first place.

“In our age of incessant disruption from below, with elites being toppled on every side — in journalism, in commerce, in politics, and now in medicine, it seems — the battle cry is “Power to the people,” but the spoils have a way of flowing to the middlemen. Thus, the great political populist of our time, the man who promises to save us from all the corrupt politicians who have sold our country to corporate interests, is just another billionaire businessman, a man whose chief qualification seems to be that he lacks the technocrat’s competence and expertise.”

Kirn describes how as a teenager he’d read The Fountainhead, “a lousy novel whose theme is excellence,” at a time when his ego was primed for the kind of massaging Ayn Rand can temporarily perform on a very young person who already thinks they are smart (Rand induced the exact same brief but intense cycle in me, and it’s embarrassing to admit to now, but it happened, and now here we are). Kirn does succumb to the Book Marks rubric for a quick laugh by giving The Fountainhead an ‘F,’ but the broader issues he raises – that such a system makes the dialogue around literature more narrow, not more accessible; that the writer is generally better-equipped to determine quality than the reader – remain.

“When I reread the novel, my brain was cooler. I’d been thinking about elitism. I missed it. I missed a world that had a top and a bottom, that wasn’t just a networked, horizontal, spreading expanse of averaged cultural mulch. Even the titans of industry seemed dull, especially Zuckerberg and Bezos, whose faces had a weird, undeveloped aspect that seemed to belong to a new, transitional species, no longer Homo sapiens, not yet E.T. They were geniuses, supposedly, but somehow they failed to stir the soul. There was nothing defiant about them — maybe that was it. To me, elitism meant battling the odds with nothing but a scalpel or a pen, not brainstorming with your team to fashion systems for pleasing everybody all the time.”