Monday, September 29, 2008

Immigrant Fiction--European Style

A recent post in the Guardian by blogger Andrew Gallix (that can't be his real name: sounds more like a cross between Gallic and Asterix) about the new immigrant and ethnic fiction of France raises questions of the supposed globalization of experience as literary lode. Working class immigrant and ethnic fiction played a large role in America's twentieth century, focused to a great extent on assimilation to both the ethos of America and the middle class. By the early 1980s, thanks in large part to the work of Maxine Hong Kingston and others, immigrant fiction turned from assimilationist to work of cultural exploration, "exploring the hyphen" it was sometimes called. Think now of Jhumpa Lahiri and Junot Diaz and how different their work is from say, that of Louis Chu and Ed Rivera. I wonder, however, if the specific minority group fiction in foreign languages--say, Paris's banlieue--will appeal to the American sensibility, as did Zadie Smith with White Teeth or Hanif Kureishi with My Beautiful Laundrette (which came to America through the movies). It poses intriguing problems for the translator who must take English-laced French and develop a new code to convey the pervasiveness of American popular sensibility without losing the sense of foreign-language creep in French. The future of translation--both language and experience--becomes increasingly interesting as argot digs deeper into the literary realm.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Robert Coover

Although you may want to watch Robert Coover's A History of the Future of Narrative on the Electronic Literature Foundation's site, his title is misleading and is more like a history of narrative and technology. If he were really talking about a history of the future of narrative, he would be talking about past directions and predictions that may or may not have come to pass, roads developed and not, dead ends, even maguffins (a sort of "history of the idea of the future"). For example, the predictions for hypertext fifteen years ago have been vastly modified with new technological advances. For a more interesting read on the history of narrative, look at Alberto Manguel's A History of Reading.

The Death of E-Literature

Check out Andrew Gallix's article in the Guardian about the death of e-literature.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

5 Under 35

A bit of publicity for this year's list of 5 Under 35 emerging fiction writers from the National Book Foundation, part of the future of literary reading. All of these writers have published one work of fiction (novel or short stories), are under 35, and were selected by a former Winner or Finalist for the National Book Award:

Matthew Eck
The Farther Shore

(Milkweed Editions, 2007)
Selected by Joshua Ferris, 2007 Fiction Finalist for Then We Came to the End

Keith Gessen
All the Sad Young Literary Men
(Viking Press, 2008)
Selected by Jonathan Franzen, 2001 Fiction Winner for The Corrections

Sana Krasikov
One More Year: Stories
(Spiegel & Grau, 2008)
Selected by Francine Prose, 2000 Fiction Finalist for Blue Angel

Nam Le
The Boat
(Knopf, 2008)
Selected by Mary Gaitskill, 2005 Fiction Finalist for Veronica

Fiona Maazel
Last Last Chance
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008)
Selected by Jim Shepard, 2007 Fiction Finalist for Like You’d Understand, Anyway

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Metaphysics of the American Literary Industry

A couple of years ago, I was asked by a small college to give a talk on the state of the book business. The word “state”, however, connotes a static condition and the book business is anything but static. The CEO of Barnes & Noble wrote a few years ago that the state of the book business is change, so what I’d prefer to discuss is ideologies of change, art, and prestige in the book business, and the literary publishing business in particular, in other words, the metaphysics of the American literary industry. A couple of caveats: I am going to speculate and nothing I say can be proven, which, of course, sets me squarely in the middle of the history of discussions of metaphysics.

A literary work is the expression, in words, of a balance between perfect chaos and perfect order, on the shifting ground of idea and meaning. This equilibrium lies at the heart of the metaphysics of the American literary industry. The work of art is rendered by a single individual, and the manner of the rendering is often called the author’s “voice”. Each of these renderings is unique and elicits a unique response from its reader because, and this may sound odd, “it wants to”. By creating a unique response in each reader, the literary work creates a multiplicity of responses, which, in turn, creates an unstable environment in which one consumes that work. In short, each reader reads a different book. And if each reader reads a different book, then the product itself can be called “unstable”. I don’t want to flog the decades-old debate initiated by Roland Barthes’s 1968 article “The Death of the Author”. Instead, my central question is: does the instability of a literary text and the audience’s response to the text create instability in the literary business as a whole?

In 2005, according to the records of Ingram Book Distribution, the foremost book wholesaler in the United States, and R.W. Bowker, the foremost book statistician in the United States, 195,000 titles were published in this country, a tripling of the number since the late 1960s, and retail sales totaled between $17 billion and $25 billion, not too shabby for a so-called mature industry, which investors have said is a no-growth business. The instability of an industry that produces so many individual products with so few grouped brands is understandable. It would take 195,000 individualized marketing plans to exploit each product and even if it had the capacity to do so the industry itself has been criticized for having little marketing capability. Accurate reporting systems, which would help in developing effective marketing strategies, are hindered by a lack of central data-gathering mechanisms or lack of technical ability of independent-minded booksellers to collect and report statistics, or the reluctance of some independent-minded retailers to share data with others. Even recent developments such as Neilsen BookScan can only claim reporting within a margin of error of a whopping 20 to 30% because they don’t have access to all booksellers. Three years ago, the Association of American Publishers released a report on smaller publishers that extrapolated percentages from a 5% survey response. So data cannot realistically be used to make an accurate analysis the state of the book business overall. Compare this to the film industry, which can tell you on Monday morning what its weekend grosses were.

But does constant change emerge from sheer numbers or is its source deeper in the production and consumption of the literary work itself? Translating literature from its aesthetic shiftiness to a regularized industrial structure may be possible, but literature in a generally free publishing environment resists real industrial regularization. Such an environment may exist in some sections of the business, such as thoughtful improvement of distribution systems and back office operations, but both the product development side of writing and editing and the product positioning of marketing resist analysis and a subsequent re-integration into the path a book takes from conception to reading—specifically because of the very unstable nature of both creation and consumption of the art form itself. This is why it is so difficult to predict a book’s sales.

The situation is, of course, shared to some degree by the music and film industries, and in other ways by the visual art industry, and one can make a case that any business environment will be affected by its consumer use of the product, as the British business guru Charles Leadbeater has suggested. What sets literary books, music and other arts apart from other consumer products is that they appeal solely to the intellect and the emotions. They are used to fill human needs other than the practical, and by not being utilitarian, are inherently unstable as consumables. I would think we all share most basic responses to a car, but we don’t always share responses to a literary work.

When it comes to the vast numbers of titles published in the United States, the number of professional constituencies who work in the literary industry mirrors the multiplication of titles published. From the most obvious—writers, publishers and readers—the list quickly grows to over 20. Each group within the business has varied interests and needs, and this does not even include self-publishers who act as their own editors, publishers, marketers, distributors and reviewers or who use professional services for these activities. Each professional group exerts control on the process that runs the gamut from idea to consumption, becomes proprietary of the product, and links his or her economic benefit and prestige to that product. With the insertion of so many layers of workers who read the text and then re-interpret it for their own needs, the industry becomes varied and balkanized, standing anxious and unstable on a swaying podium of multiple needs, goals and meanings. The literary industry has not only been able to survive, but continues to poke its head above the water level when for a hundred years its critics have predicted, like Madame Sosostris, it will die by water. In fact, one could argue that the American literary business was much more chaotic in the nineteenth century before strict copyright protection and organized distribution.

This situation represents a type of “modern condition” in the literary business, affected by constantly changing copyright law, evolving ideas of freedom to publish in the United States, growth in the number of individual entertainment and artistic media that appeal to the public, and the development of new technologies. If you look at other countries, for example, with different laws from those that govern the United States and most of Western Europe, Vietnam, for example, where the state controls the apparatus of publication and distribution, the literary business is more stable, but few people in the western world would advocate such a system. If one looks at nineteenth-century America, in many ways the literary business was even less stable before the United States signed onto the international copyright law in 1891. Militating against stability is the persistence of the individual voice in literary creation (though many people believe this is fading and is being replaced by the execution of blueprints of art) and the desire by many, many people for self-actualization through the publishing of one’s thoughts, ideas and memories, which has created a vast proliferation of texts that by its very nature increases instability throughout the process, from the germ of an idea to the reader’s assimilation of the text.

How one harnesses and controls an environment in which 195,000 products are generated each year is the question publishers have been asking for about a generation, perhaps two, since the late 1950s when publishers began to consolidate and then were bought by media conglomerates, which now control about 75% of the book market in the United States. Compare this to, let’s say, the auto industry, and imagine if the Big Three car makers, or if you add the foreign automakers into the mix, about 10 automakers, and tell them that they will have to market 195,000 models without the benefit of significant consumer advertising and the fact that now, with the advent of the internet, almost anyone with an idea or the will to create can market competing products. This is what faces the literary business. Then add to the mix the proprietary nature of intellectual property, emotional attachment to unprofitable books on the part of the twenty-odd constituencies that make up the literary business, and tension between commerce and art, and you have a basic snapshot of the marketplace of literature today.

These twenty-odd constituencies make up the multi-voiced and heteroglossic nature of the literary business and add to the industry’s general instability. They run the gamut from the writers, who create the initial product, to readers, the final consumers of literary work. In between are agents, editors, copy editors, small, medium, large, specialty, academic and other publishers and their marketing and sales teams and accountants, book designers, publicists, wholesalers and distributors, book printers, librarians, all types of booksellers including independent, chain, college, street, second-hand, and otherwise, book festivals, intellectual property attorneys, literary organizations, book reviewers, bloggers, industry pundits, gossip columnists, radio interviewers, advertising sales-people, book group organizers, teachers, college professors, and literary critics, and I may be forgetting a few. In the literary business, opinions proliferate. Can you imagine, for example, the marketing team for General Motors deciding that one of GM’s products won’t sell, so they give it a marketing budget of zero dollars, which happens all the time to literary books? Or telling the designers and production people that they’ll have to do their own marketing of the new Cadillac since they have decided that the new Chevy has more potential in the marketplace?

Among these varied groups, voices vary as well, and they oscillate between competing ideologies of art and commerce. Stridency toward either of these depends on a person’s relative commitment to one pole or the other. During the past twenty five years, in particular, loyalties to art versus business have become increasingly pronounced, perhaps as a result of growing corporate control of the book business, though there has always been an element of antagonism between the two. Beginning in the 1960s, publishing companies began to consolidate. Random House acquired Doubleday, Alfred A. Knopf, and Pantheon, family established and run companies. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, an increasing conglomeratization took place as “media companies” began to acquire publishers. Paramount and Gulf & Western purchased Simon & Schuster, Pearson acquired Penguin, Bertelsmann acquired Random House. Profit margin took on a more intrinsic decision-making role. Corporatization made regularization a significant goal. Although such formidable publishers as Andre Schiffrin, who was forced out of highly literary Pantheon Books during this period, could claim in his memoir Business of Books that the older style of acquiring, editing and marketing books actually results in superior financial returns—this may be true: it is difficult to prove since the environment for reading is so different now in the age of the mass media. Schiffrin’s book is as much manifesto as memoir, a secular Leviticus of rage against a system that Schiffrin believes has discarded its former dedication to art and individual thought in favor of commerce. During the same period, bookselling became dominated by large chains and, later, on-line booksellers, to the detriment of smaller, independent stores who claim a more “human” and community orientation than the chains. Depending on one’s point of view, all this was either bad or good, which often represents a restrictive moral judgment.

Such judgments are made on a highly individual basis. At a recent public literary program one prominent author, in response to a question about what she would change about the book business, said she would prefer less corporatization. The novelist Jonathan Lethem offered free film rights to his new novel, citing part of the reason as his opposition to “the commodification of literature”. Statements of this sort reveal the writer’s acceptance or rejection of art and commerce and a personal and idiosyncratic balance developed between the two. Independent booksellers, some small press owners and staffers, directors of literary organizations, and others often share this outlook. When faced down by the structures of big business, they retreat into almost messianic diction. In order to achieve their own goals, they often have to participate in situations they might not like, but they frequently do so reluctantly and often seek ways to avoid its control. Reluctant capitalists, as Laura J. Miller dubbed booksellers and their employees.

Other considerations intervene in the choices members of the literary industry make about where they will stand along the spectrum of art and commerce, including varying concepts of what constitutes dynamism, ideologies of intellectual freedom and choice, which are often based on idiosyncratic views of democracy and capitalism, a need for personal and professional autonomy, and the nature and value of prestige. Americans often mix an altruistic purity into the process of how they decide what is personally valuable to them as people interested in the literary business. For example, despite many criticisms of American book awards, they have, for the most part, rejected the financial benefits that come from corporate sponsorship, which have been embraced by English book awards, and avoided the direct corruption of French awards.

Few publishing companies, large or small, will make literary decisions based solely on financial considerations—though this may change as profit pressures mount—but realistic assumptions do indeed take on very different roles at different companies and even within imprints at larger companies. Some, such as the former Time Warner Book Group (now called Hachette Book Group USA since its purchase by the French media empire Hachette) and HarperCollins (owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation) are known as commercially driven firms, but even they have less profitable divisions that focus on more literary works, such as Little Brown at Hachette and Ecco Press, which HarperCollins rescued from financial disaster just a few years ago. Some small presses portray themselves as mission-driven, and their prestige comes from their placement in opposition to the larger presses and as a corrective to a perceived narrowness in mainstream publishing. Akashic Books’s tag-line is “reverse-gentrification of the literary world”. Dalkey Archive Press has its own mission statement: “Since 1984, Dalkey Archive Press has made available to readers the finest works of world literature from the past 100 years. The intention of the Press is to serve as a permanent home for these works, so that they will continue to be read by present and future generations.”

By placing themselves in opposition, these presses, and many others like them, create an alternative prestige based in their adherence to a credo of the primacy of art that, as the French social critic Pierre Bourdieu has shown, adds non-financial economic value to their work and lifts their place in the literary industry. Even among larger publishers, acknowledgement of artistic achievement is reflected in the announcements of significant book awards being placed prominently on most publishers’ web sites, since awards create value in the literary industry, and, as a result, in the society in general, as James English has discussed in his book The Economy of Prestige. Individual publishing voices within the larger industry, known as imprints, and the ongoing establishment of independent small presses represent a constantly renewing resource, which is a great tradition in American letters. Note the names of small, mission-driven presses and imprints that begin fresh and independent and then become parts of larger presses. They have always provided larger presses with alternative voices. Ticknor & Fields, Viking Press, Hill & Wang, Carroll & Graf, all independent presses whose distinctive voices have been absorbed into larger presses, though often still retaining their individuality. Despite being a part of giant Random House, Alfred A. Knopf is as known for its literary publications as Grove Atlantic, an independent. Laboring in the fields of the literary lord are such literary-minded editors as Paul Slovak of Viking Penguin, Jonathan Galassi of Farrar Straus & Giroux, Morgan Entrekin of Grove Atlantic, and Sonny Mehta of Alfred Knopf. Add to this the dedicated alternative press editors and publishers such as Johnny Temple of Akashic Books, Richard Nash of Soft Skull, Nicolas Kanellos of Arte Público, John O’Brien of Dalkey Archive, and many, many more. In addition, distribution mechanisms for small and independent presses that act as an alternative to the major presses and distributors have emerged in the past 30 years, including Bookslinger, which became Consortium, Publishers Group West, which is now owned by Perseus Books, and Small Press Distribution. While these developments bring important alternative voices to the public, they may also add to the instability of an industry that seems to grow daily in order to feed the need for artistic outlets. Charles de Gaulle purportedly asked the question, “How can you govern a country that produces 246 different kinds of cheese?” Perhaps we should ask how can you expect to organize an industry that produces 195,000 books a year? The other question one should ask is: is it important to the health of the industry that it be regularized or is the instability of the industry actually an asset?

How this affects creativity and writing is difficult to gauge. From all accounts, larger presses are publishing fewer “literary” titles. However, as small presses grow in both number and size, they may offer additional outlets for publication. Digital publication has been established, but its future in the book business is anybody’s guess. Fifteen years ago hypertext was all the rage, and yet it has retreated to almost nothing. A useable e-book is within our grasp and several digitizing projects are well along in their process, meaning that within the coming five to ten years readers will be able to read any book ever published at any time, anywhere in the world. How this affects literacy and literariness is also difficult to assess. It will, however, affect the metaphysics of the industry and raise new questions for copyright, literary production, distribution, marketing and even the way we read. As John Perry Barlow, the former lyricist for The Grateful Dead, once said, “Information wants to be free.” Whether that type of freedom needs organization or it will organize itself by the reader’s usage is a question to be left for the future. The link between creativity, which is personal and idiosyncratic, and the structure of the literary business, which relies on the idiosyncratic reading and involvement of its constituents, seems evident. Various ideologies either create instability or are created by instability, ‘though I have no idea which comes first. Literature magnifies individuality and, one hopes, will continue to do so, if we’re lucky.

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Novel of Snippet

When my wife and I were discussing “the decline of reading” recently, she suggested that having people work less might increase the amount of reading time. This is not the first time this had been suggested to me—the Associated Press reporter Hillel Italie made a similar suggestion. But combined with other conversations about how novel-reading grew in the eighteenth century (and how the English claimed that their novels were the first “real” novels, pace Ian Watt), this begins to look extremely cogent.

If, as has been argued, the rise of novel reading is based on several factors—the development of moveable type in the fifteenth century, the rise of literacy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, increased leisure time as a result of the Industrial Revolution and drives toward democratization in the eighteenth century—the post-industrial world will have to manage its own literary changes associated with technological developments. The novel of linked episode that dominated from the fifteenth to the mid-eighteen centuries (think Lazarillo de Tormes and Miguel de Cervantes) led to the novel of event narrative (think Fielding to Balzac), which led the novel of event-consciousness narrative (Flaubert to [George] Eliot) which led to the novel of narrated imagination (Proust, Kafka, Broch) and then randomness of form (Guysin) and fear of randomness (Pynchon). Now we are told that kids today read random snippets—see the New York Times article from Sunday, July 27, 2008—which they perhaps re-formulate on their own into what may pass for coherence (for a well-done look at this, see David Markson’s The Last Novel). This makes me anxious. If The Matrix movies tell us anything, it’s that undisciplined autodidacticism is creeping up behind us, like a tiger waiting to pounce. For those who believe in intellectual discipline as a process, it ain’t pretty.

If narrative fiction was itself a cultural episode, what’s next in narrative reading? If, as Bruce Sterling says, connectivity will soon move from pervasive to ubiquitous, we’ll be working or socializing all the time. We won’t be able to drop off the grid to spend hours with a novel. Episode to narrative to snippet.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Keeping Up With Your Joneses

It's hard to keep up with the technological changes taking place in reading devices these days, but here's a new one as reported in the New York Times today: click here.

Monday, June 30, 2008

A Hope for the Future

The very intelligent and thoughtful editor and publisher Jonathan Karp (Twelve) voices his desire that in the future publishers press for good quality work from their publishers in an article in the Washington Post on Sunday, June 29th. He is not the first publisher to voice such a hope (see Andre Schiffrin in both the establishment of The New Press and his biting memoir The Business of Books) but he may be the most successful early in his career in terms of intelligent books becoming best sellers (note that in his first season of publication one of his books was a National Book Award finalist, Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great).

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Narrative of Great Books

I gave a talk called "How Do You Look at Books?" the other day to 150 teenagers in the Great Books summer program at Amherst College The kids were very attentive and smart, befitting a group of self-selected bibliophiles, some of whom claimed to read 150 books a year.

I began with a history of how various people have seen books, from Socrates, who decried the growing reliance on books in Plato’s Phaedrus, to the mystical nature of scribe-copied books behind the walls of abbeys to the new narrative entertainment of video games. When I suggested that the participatory narrative of video games might affect the reading of fixed-narrative literature, most of the kids balked: they definitely did not see this happening. They enjoy both playing video games and reading books, and wanted the stories in novels to remain immutable, which most felt was their charm and interest. They also disagreed with my assertion that contemporary video game narratives were truly changeable. They claimed that the goal of video games remained constant: Only the path taken to reach the ultimate goal could be changed. Because the narrative lines were not unlimited, the narrative itself was not essentially changeable.

Quick aside: what does it mean to the future of literary reading that the San Diego Comic-Con gets over 100,000 visitors in four days?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Research Methods Beyond Google

Take a quick look at this article from "Insider Higher Education" on the need to expand research beyond Google and combat intellectual complacency at the university level. It presumes that most students want to pursue intellectual competency and not simply work for grades. It may also assume that students can become engaged by immersing themselves in research topics and then thinking about how to formulate their own ideas, when much of today's directions point to the collection of "factoids" as discussion capital.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

A Book Publishers' Manifesto for the 21st Century

To read Sara Lloyd's "A book publishers' manifesto for the 21st Century" from blog and site, click here. It's a manifesto and not a road-map, so it stops short of specific recommendations. However, embedded within are ideas on how people will read in the future.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Projected Poems of John Ashbery

For the past thirty years, one of my hobbies has been to dabble in the study of languages. I’ve learned enough of five or six to struggle through popular and literary novels, but never enough to consider myself more than competent in any one but English (though I will confess to having translated a couple of books from Spanish). I was often stymied by an inability to get the books I wanted in the languages I was studying, even with the circulating collection of The New York Public Library at hand. When I studied Indonesian for a couple of years and had become comfortable enough to make my way through simple novels, I found that I couldn’t find very much in the United States. I was, however, able to get a copy of Charles Webb’s The Graduate, in Indonesian, and I spent a couple of weeks parsing its sentences. The limited availability was a good thing: I could read only what I could get.

Fast forward to 2030. Every book ever published in every language is available for download on my e-reader. There are no literary critics, only social networks. Absent expertise, relativism triumphs. The concept of historical lists of must-reads—a popular “canon”—is laughable. Universities don’t teach literature classes, they embed literature in experiential technical training (except for a few hold-out teachers, called Mandarins, after the sectionable fruit). The Ford Motor Company is defunct, and history really is bunk. Instead of reading, I am injected with the memory of reading specific books and, boy, I really got a great deal of pleasure from reading Don Quixote for the third time (so much richer after three readings, isn’t it, especially when you read it, as I remember doing, while sitting on the terrace of a castle in La Mancha?). Sometimes I don’t have the memory of books given to me. Instead, I call up a hologram of William Gibson and he reads his new book to me directly in virtual reality. When I don’t like the direction the story is taking, I tell him to change it, which he does, according to my specifications. John Ashbery just passed away at the age of 103 and I was thinking about his poem “Purists Will Object” and how we’ll never have any new poems from him after sixteen collections. But the past is now the future so I call up all his poems and feed them into my Recryptoverse program and it creates twelve new Ashbery poems which I add to my blog as “The Projected Poems of John Ashbery” so that people can read them on their UrenkelKindle.

Friday, June 6, 2008

The Graphic Novel in the Canon

What is included in the literary canon changes every few generations, not only in the works selected by institutions such as schools and universities, but the genres. Until the late nineteenth century, the novel was not considered Literature. Many universities did not consider any American literature worthy of higher education until after the Second World War, yet now it is essential. Theories of the changing literary canon are outlined in John Guillory’s Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Creation. It is filled with jargon, but is still readable.

The graphic novel may be reaching the beginning stages of inclusion, but teachers need to understand it better before they include it in the classroom. In the graphic novel, text implies image, image implies text, independent from and dependent on one another. Like white space in the post-modern novel, in the graphic novel the space between the panels contains narrative. The history and criticism of comics have yet to be written in any comprehensive form but they are coming, evidenced by the panel discussion on the canon of comics I attended this morning at New York University, sponsored by The Museum of Cartoon and Comic Art and featuring Rob Storr, Dean of the
Yale School of Art; John Carlin, editor of Masters of American Comics and curator of a seminal comics exhibition; and Dan Nadel, author of Art Out of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries, 1900-1969. With a comprehensive history, comics’ past will change, as will their future. I hope we will not leave the writing up to art historians, however, and remember the interdependence of text and image.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Future of the Past

The bad news about the survival of the past’s literary culture grows day-by-day. The Mount, Edith Wharton’s home, which is owned and maintained by a non-profit organization, is facing bankruptcy. The Mark Twain House & Museum is facing bankruptcy. The Mercantile Library of New York has sold its building and is looking for a new home.

Perhaps in these cases we are not only talking about the past as a predictor, but as a movement through horizontal space that re-senses our perceptions of the author and his or her literary work. When we visit these homes and imagine Wharton or Twain lolling on the terrace with a cup of tea, we create a literary moment. We write this as a short memoir, and a dialogue with the author.

The new media and our conception of the future will change that movement and our relationship with literary authors. If we don't visit the author’s home physically, we often do so as an imaginative construct with the help of two-dimensional media. Isn’t that what photography and film initiated? A visit to The Mark Twain House in Second Life, anyone? But what does it mean for our experience if we only visit in cyberspace? Read the first chapter in Umberto Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality. Eco visits the Museum of the City of New York to see a diorama of early New York, and then walks outside to see contemporary New York. Neither one then feels “real” anymore. He discusses the false sense of visit in the nineteenth century invention of photography. So what will a “visit” in cyberspace mean? And does it matter to a better understanding of Twain’s art?

In 1971, the village of Illiers, in France, where Proust spent his Easters and some summers and which he “immortalized” in the first volume of In Search of Lost Time as “Combray”, changed its name to Illiers-Combray as part of its commemoration of the centennial of Proust’s birth, thereby mixing fact and fiction. If some historians have cringed at such re-creations as Colonial Williamsburg and Civil War battle re-enactments (look out, the sesquicentennial of 1861 is around the corner), how will we react to “cyber-creations” that enable us to “walk through” early nineteenth century London and “greet” the Dashwoods?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Whither Books and Reading (redux)

Robert McCrum, a book reviewer for The Observer in England, retired recently after ten years on the job. In this valedictory, he talks about trends over the past decade.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

William Paulson’s Literary Culture in a World Transformed, which I mentioned in an earlier post, is an extraordinarily stimulating book, descriptive in its first two-thirds and prescriptive in its final third. Its first part relies to a great extent on French theory, which is understandable since Paulson is a Professor of French and the French are formidable describers of the structure of open systems. The prescriptive part is more tenuous and limited to higher education. When read in conjunction with James Paul Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Education and Literacy, one can see that the length and breadth of literary reading must begin at an early age, as reading specialists have always told us and which I infer from Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid. If, as Wolf suggests, early interaction with literary texts changes the brain’s physicality, does that neural condition create a desire to read, the way changed brain chemistry can create drug addiction? Or as I get from Gee, do video games create an interaction with semiotic systems that make it easy or even pleasurable to read certain types of literature to which we don’t expose young people in institutional settings? In other words, is literary reading addictive? Would a thirteen-year-old video game aficionado, because of the structure of his or her daily activity, respond better to a novel by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. or Thomas Pynchon (leaving difficulties of language aside for the moment) than to John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, which an eighth grader is so often required to read? I understand the many pressures on teachers to assign books that will allow them to explain how novels are structured, but to deny that the pervasiveness of technology has changed the way young people read and learn is to play the ostrich. To insist that they follow the curriculum in place for at least four decades is to convince young readers to despise printed books.

If literary reading is on the decline, one way to stem that decline is to create a holistic approach along a spectrum of age-appropriate activities and to allow flexibility, which the balkanized literary culture will most likely not be able to do because of varied cultural, political, and social ideologies that have very little to do with inculcating a love of reading. If we leave the creation of readers to ideologues—and I use that word in its broadest sense—as we have done for decades, we will end up as a nation of non-readers. And I am not only talking about the easy-to-predict failure of Reading First and No Child Left Behind, but the results of the actions of boards of education, curriculum developers, parents, and even book salespeople.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Columbia Journalism Review Article

Click here to read Ezra Klein's jaunty take on the present and future of printed and electronic books in the Columbia Journalism Review (it's called "The Future of Reading", but that's a much more complicated topic than he tackles here). Nothing new (must we hear one more time about marginalia? Do we really need someone to tell us that one of the advantages of the electronic book is that it can be updated by subscription?), but in one short article he pulls together a lot of the discussion of content delivery systems--mainly the Amazon Kindle but a bit on e-books in general--and their possible impact.

While you're on-line, take a look at Sven Birkerts' article on literary blogging and reviewing from July, 2007: thoughtful, experienced, self-interested but fair.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Literary Scientific Method, Part One

Jonathan Gottschall’s article in the Boston Globe today suggests that literary studies become more like the sciences, which, he implies, “would set things right” with literary scholarship since it’s so beaten-down. The interesting aspect of his article is that he calls his proposal a “clear solution to the problem.” Professor Gottschall implies (or is this my inference?) that, there is one solution to the problem of literary studies in the United States, and it resides in forcing professional reading to prove its conclusions. I don’t doubt that this is one avenue for literary criticism to take, but it is only one.

There are, however, other thoughtful scholars who have written on the topic of the future of “literary culture,” a more useful term for literary studies since it encompasses the world and the manner in which books are read closely, by professionals and amateurs. William Paulson’s Literary Culture in a World Transformed, a follow-up to his intriguing The Noise of Culture: Literary Texts in a World of Information, is well worth reading on the subject. Paulson is a Professor of French at the University of Michigan, and his basic idea is that literary scholars need to be trained in the broader culture, rather than limit themselves to the narrow study of literature. When read in conjunction with some of the essays in Morris Dickstein’s A Mirror in the Roadway: Literature and the Real World (he is Distinguished Professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center) and other books that argue in favor of recognizing textual links to a broader culture, one may conclude that the way back to scholarly relevance in literature is to re-embed literature into the various disciplines, let’s say, to abolish literary studies as a separate course of action and encompass them in the study of the world, and as part of the world.

This would not entail returning humanistic study to the idea of a medieval trivium, but would employ the breadth of centuries of scholarship of science, social change, and twenty-first century technology to create intellectual links between the humanities and sciences, as Paulson (and Ong and Kernan and others) have shown us already exist in fact, if not in the mind of most of today’s scholars.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

What I'm Reading

A quick post since I've been spending more time reading than writing. The controversy over "the new literacy" (traditional versus digital) has been enjoined. Mark Bauerlein's The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future decries the direction education is taking and backs it up with convincing statistics. Mark used to direct research at the National Endowment for the Arts but his main reputation was made as a professor of English and he is now at Emory University in Atlanta. His book approaches the question from a traditionalist perspective and anxiety about the future. His extrapolations may be valid and his predictions may come true--or not--but his warnings should be taken into account since the transition away from printed matter, fixed texts, and individual voices to e-literature, interactive creativity, and multiple authorship of mutable work is upon us.

On the other side is First Person: New Media as Story, Performance and Game, edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan, which sees games as manifestations of literary composition beyond the narrow definition of their story. Between the two books lies the question of how knowledge affects the art of the literary. James Paul Gee's What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy is more accessible to the traditional reader (like me) and is especially good on the connections video game players make with language and the idea of language.

And if you get the chance, check out Jane McGonigal's web site Avant Game ( with interesting articles about game theory, recommended by former Hyperion editor-in-chief Will Schwalbe.

Thursday, April 24, 2008


For almost four decades, the Palo Alto Research Center (parc) has brought the latest in technology to the world. On its website it claims to have invented laser printing, distributed computing and Ethernet, the graphical user interface (GUI, which led to windows-based computing), object-oriented programming, and ubiquitous computing. Lately, it has turned its attention to the concept of reading, with some fun results that may form the basis for new ideas of active, dynamic, and interactive relationships with literary texts. Take a look here.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Literary Mix-Tape

The prose fiction we appreciate today from the late 16th century through the early 18th century in Spain, France and England was for the most part episodic, linked episodes in picaresque or epistolary form, such as Gargantua and Pantagruel, Lazarillo de Tormes, Don Quixote, The Princess of Cleves, the letters of Madame de Sévigné, Moll Flanders and Tom Jones. Robinson Crusoe is an exception (and please forgive my forgoing full titles: this is a blog, after all). So our notion of what makes the proper structure for quality prose fiction has changed over these centuries. The dominance of the psychological or social novel refined in the 19th century is recent and a result of the assimilation of the printing press and the rise of the middle class. Novels in the 16th and 17th centuries had perhaps not yet taken advantage of the continuity offered by the printing press and instead relied on the audience's ability to assimilate "linked anecdotes." It took a couple of hundred years for the novel to cohere as we know it today. Let’s use television as an example. Among the most popular shows for its first thirty years were the variety shows that took their lead from vaudeville. Where are they now?

My second point today is what the history of reading tells us about the future of reading (see Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading for a good overview). If so much of “reading” was oral/aural until a couple of hundred years after Gutenberg, which gave it a somewhat social element, and the immersive reading of the past few hundred years is only a stage in reading itself, we are most likely entering an era that will take something from both. For example, immersive reading followed by social assimilation of what is read. Despite the insistence of many, immersive reading never “shut out” the outside world completely. It simply pushed the surrounding environment aside or behind for brief periods of time (see Proust’s On Reading, the reprints of his introductions to John Ruskin, who himself believed that deep and/or systematic observation is type of reading).

So if the technology of participation is changing the way we subscribe to the literary arts, perhaps it will take time to secure its hold, despite the speed at which things move today. Perhaps participatory literature fulfills the promise of the idea that everyone reads a different book, perhaps in the future everyone will re-write a different book they are reading, i.e., the text itself will change, the promise of hypertext fulfilled. Reading will become a social act, and transparently mutable. Literacy and “literariness” as we know them today will have no meaning. The concept of literacy itself will not rely on the accumulated knowledge of fixed texts. Instead it will base itself on individual mutation and personal creativity, as it has always tacitly done. Forget print-on-demand, embrace creativity-in-demand. The next generation will develop the literary mix-tape, an anthology of personally selected short stories to be given to friends as Christmas gifts, complete with music mix to back it up.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Comics, Video Games and Reading

Spent most of yesterday at the New York Comicon, which has more than comics and graphic novels. In fact watching the adults there--by the way, the most racially diverse audience I've ever seen at a trade show or academic conference--not only snap up the literature but play video games based, or not based, on the comics, was very instructive. Seen in conjunction with reading Henry Jenkins's white paper on digital literacy written for the MacArthur Foundation, it brings up many questions on the future of reading and, perhaps more so, on the future of how to teach and understand literature. The Comicon is extraordinarily participatory--hundreds of people dressed in costumes based on comics, video games and movie characters--which the diginabobs claim is the educational future. Could one involve readers in a similar way to teach Joyce and Proust? Perhaps not, but similar participation could provide insights into plot and language. I remember once acting out the death of Antony for a group discussing Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra" but my interpretation was more Harpo Marx than Laurence Olivier. Afterwards, a student said to me, "I don't agree with your interpretation, but I'll never forget that passage."

Friday, April 18, 2008

Bezos on the Kindle

Jeff Bezos, head of Amazon, spent most of his annual letter to shareholders talking about the Kindle, Amazon's e-reader. Interesting that he asks many good questions about the future of literary culture, but whoever wrote this letter for him seems tentative and not particularly well-informed. Suggestion to Amazon: if you really want to challenge assumptions about the electronic book, give a few to very creative writers who have shown their willingness to use multimedia and see what they come up with and then send those out as links with your annual letter to shareholders next year. I mean, think about what an e-reader is really capable of.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Head in a Bucket?

Listening to science-fiction and cyberpunk writer Bruce Sterling on a webcast this morning talking about the ubiquity of connectivity. He also noted that reading a literary text as “immersive” was like putting a bucket over your head because it cuts off access to the grid. He makes no value judgment on such bucketing, at least it seems to me.

The idea of getting off the grid for a brief period of time is not new--there is a wonderful story about Edmund Wilson's parents buying him a baseball uniform when he was a boy, only to find him later that day sitting in the park under a tree, dressed in the uniform, reading a book--only that the grid is pervasive now. Too often readers complain that other pastimes compete for time with reading, but perhaps the problem is that sensation is more enjoyable that sensuousness. Watch Sterling by clicking here.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Is this the Future of Poetry Reading?

The Academy of American Poets recently opened Mobile, the 2,500 poems on its site available for downloading to hand-held devices, particularly the iPhone. As with most digitial reading at the moment, the poems were written for print and the page, but it will be interesting to see poetry written for hand-held devices that can take advantage of the iPhone's multimedia capabilities. It seems to me that The Writer's Almanac, which supports podcasting, would be a natural for such a device, particularly if it were possible to pull the Almanac directly to a wireless device without going through a computer. It also seems that forward-looking poetry presses could market their books by sampling through hand-held devices, and a grant from a major foundation to a consortium of non-profit poetry presses would be a step in the right direction.

Friday, April 4, 2008

The Future of Literary Culture

Last week I spoke at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota as part of the College's Honors Weekend, along with National Book Award Finalists Jim Shepard and Woody Holton. My subject was "The Future of Literary Culture", which is now up on the Concordia web site.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Stats on eBooks

Publishing Trends, a monthly newsletter published by Market Partners International, has an interesting article on the growth of e-books in its April issue, available today. It is still a small market, and the most important aspect is that consultants--and publishers--are pressing multiple formats for all books, with the idea that none of it will cannabalize print sales. Still an open question is what format will dominate in the future. For more information, visit

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Game Theory and the Short Story

I just came back from Minnesota, where I gave a talk to the Concordia College faculty on the future of literary culture. They may upload it to their web site, and it may appear in writer/editor Scott Olsen's cultural magazine Ascent. In the meantime, look at this "Guardian" article about the use of game theory to create original short stories.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Apple iReader

Here's The New York Times take on whether Apple will develop an e-reader. Not much, if you ask me: a snippy answer from Steve Jobs, confused speculation. But let's look further and make a few recommendations (which no one has asked for, but so what).

If Apple has become the de facto market creator for small electronic devices (iPod, MacBook Air, etc.), then when Apple puts its collective mind to the creating of the iReader, using existing Apple technology, the e-book market will arrive. First, Apple design for such products is better than anyone else's out there. I use Apple products at home and Windows products at work, the latter only because I have to since the software we need runs only on Windows. Two, Apple products are perceived as cool, a perception they have shoved down our throats with those obnoxious television commercials. Come on, on which device would you rather be seen reading Terese Svoboda, Proust, or Neil Gaiman: an Amazon Kindle or an Apple iReader? Three, Apple users are early adopters. Four, they'll be very smart and make the iReader into a multimedia device. Five, sweep technology is a very hip transitional piece of page-turning fun. Six, in the realm of full disclosure, I own a small number of Apple shares, which I bought when it was about 30% higher than it is now, and will buy more as soon as I get the cash.

But this is what I want: slim and lightweight, no glare, water-resistant, screen-based keyboard or, better yet, voice recognition. An e-reader that will allow me to download any e-book or digitized magazine out there on the web: Project Gutenberg, Amazon, Sony, Google Book, Narrative, Words Without Borders, etc. Then let me format it to my liking, using any of about a dozen fonts regularly used in books and allowing line-breaks where I want them. There's nothing worse than having a five-inch wide reading surface and a two-inch wide text. Access to web dictionaries of my choice in about 15 languages, since so many web dictionaries are inadequate. Movie downloads so when I finish reading Balzac's Colonel Chabert (in the public domain so I don't have to pay for it) I can watch the Gerard Depardieu film (under copyright so I'll pay NetFlix or iFlix for the privilege). Free access to criticism about the books I'm reading so I don't have to pay JStor. Music downloads so I can listen to Louis Armstrong while I'm reading the first section of Invisible Man. Complete wifi so I can download from anywhere. iChat capabilities so I can talk to my friend Min Jin in Japan about Colonel Chabert as we both make our way through the Human Comedy.

Then I think that Apple should give two large grants: one should go to the Council on Literary Magazines and Presses so CLMP can help small presses digitize all their books and make them available over the Web, just as the large publishers are doing. Another should go to PEN or a similar type of organization to digitize thousands of translated books and make them available to the American public. This will be a big public relations plus for the iReader and give many more people access to lesser known literature at the touch of a screen button.

That's not too much to ask, is it Mr. Jobs?

Wednesday, February 27, 2008


Although I'm a bit behind the curve with much of the "new technology", which is so dominated by reading digitally, I finally started looking at Print on Demand and its appropriateness for direct-to-consumer. A recent survey by Fairfield Research has shown that over 50% of the public still wants to read paper books. This is good for remaining retail stores, and Borders' new digital stores seem to be leading the way with print-on-demand for consumers. But what of the Espresso Book Machine, which debuted last year with such fanfare in The New York Public Library and the World Bank bookstore?

Well, take a look at the YouTube presentation. It comes off as a dinosaur (reminds me of the failed printing press Mark Twain failed to market about 120 years ago). There is a generational market for printed books and perhaps a market based on genre--literary novels may be read for a couple of more generations in paper--but the companies will have to be, well, a lot less dull about the process if it's going to catch on.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Future of Trade Publishing

Last May at BookExpo, Mike Shatzkin of the IdeaLogical Company, who for a generation has been thinking about the future of all types of reading in its relationship to publishing, delivered a fascinating overview of every which way book-reading can morph in the future. At the beginning of the talk, his statements were provisional. As he went on, they became less so. But in all cases, they are provocative not only about the future of book-publishing but the future of book-selling and book-reading. Click here to read his talk. It has particular implications for literary books about three-quarters of the way through.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Inevitability and Its Discontent(ed)s

The other day Matthew Bruccoli, who firmly believes in the superiority of book-reading over digital-reading, sent me an interesting pamphlet, The Necessity of Reference Books in the Digital Age, published by The Print Conservancy and made up of three essays: “Research Libraries Without Reference Books” by Matthew J. Bruccoli, “Seduced by Bits and Bytes” by Richard Layman, and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” by Joel Myerson. The points these three scholars make suggest that the coming digital era is a tidal event that will undermine many foundations of scholarship.

What interests me, however, is not what they propose, but that they feel compelled to hold back the waters of change. And they are not the first, of course. Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper mounted a sturdy defense against the destruction of paper records, for example.

Transitions are rarely comfortable, and much is lost in the movement between technologies. However, the current debate is not always “not if, but when”. Instead, thoughtful heads, even among the digi-nabobs at Google, wonder whether printed books will survive the crossing, and no one is sure. Bruccoli, et al focus almost exclusively on reference works. The printed gathering of knowledge—the reference work’s specialty— by a single sensibility—Diderot and D’Alembert, Johnson—may indeed be coming to an end, despite its defenders’ hard work. Indeed, their work was less informational than literary and we live in an era of data. As far back as eighteen months ago, the writer Stacy Schiff compared the Encyclopedia Britannica to Wikipedia and found three errors in the former for four in the latter, not a bad record for a new-fangled approach.

The transition is inevitable, as printed books took the field from hand-written ones, as print took the field from orality. Some have no choice but to rail against the dying of “the light”. Others will slam the door on the past’s less efficient, but perhaps more experiential and immersive approach. Amazon and abebooks can get us any book we want in a matter of days. But when The Celestial Jukebox is in working order and we pay for our pieces of the universal pie of information, the procrusteans will still have a point. However, like their confreres of the late middle ages, no one will remember their names, except if you do a universal gathering on the successor to Google, which we may as well call Yahoosoft.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Future of the Page

A story in Sunday’s New York Times brought me back to the idea of microfilm and the machines used to read it. Five years ago, I did a lot of research for an anthology of Latino Literature in the microfilm rooms of the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University. Sterling has a full complement of microfilmed, Spanish-language southwestern newspapers from the United States Newspaper Project, where much Mexican-American literature was published between 1880 and 1910.

After holding my hand on the button for an hour, I discovered that I could put the machine on automatic and the pages would scroll by at the pace I had selected. I spent about twelve hours on two successive days reading poems, short stories and criticism. I could stop it when I wanted, print out an image, and then resume from where I had left off.

Unlike web pages, the new e-readers are based primarily on mimicking a book page, but this may not be necessary for certain types of reading in the future. Printed pages are static: the reader must add an active, internal movement to read and interpret the content (the making of what is absent—the images the words suggest—into something present: the images the reader supplies). But what if the new literature is written as continuous text, perhaps like Jack Kerouac’s scroll for On the Road? The e-reader could be set to a timed scrolling, and reading would become slightly more externally dynamic. The movies discovered this back in the thirties, when introductory and background information longer than a single screen would scroll or crawl. Perhaps the most famous of these is the opening to Star Wars, which embedded the movie in a printed story-telling tradition.

Such a device would bring reading closer to an oral tradition or half-way to an audiobook. Indeed, one could even add audio. The printed book (or the book-mimicking e-reader) and the scrolling e-reader would become very different reading experiences, even though the words would remain the same.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Whither Browsing?

Today’s announcement by Perseus Book Group that it is increasing its commitment to print-on-demand expands the number of publishers with access to the technology, particularly among independent presses, which Perseus distributes. Jason Epstein, he of the paperback revolution of the early 1950s and co-founder of The New York Review of Books, has been pushing this technology for years. It will expand the book market because of ease of use and limited need for space (one machine the size of a desk or dozens of bookshelves). It also acknowledges that the book continues to be a useful technology. Imagine book vending machines in every airport, with tens of thousands of available titles. Which would you prefer, digital download to your Apple iReader or a printed book from the Espresso Book Machine? Put in your credit card and out comes a printed copy of Lonely Planet Paris, just before you board your Air France flight.

Print-on-demand and digital downloads may, however, diminish the informational need to browse, which browsers in particular claim is an important element of book culture. Bookstores with wide aisles and coffee shops (and sometimes chairs) recreate the public space in which browsers could be alone with other like-minded people.

As shifts occur in the marketing of books and the number of dedicated bookstores decreases, browsing will change, as well. Bookstore browsing has always been fraught. In small, literary stores, one waited for the frosty clerk to look askance, turn up his or her nose, and sniff mightily. Superstore browsing includes the smell of Starbucks' coffee, one retail chain memorializing another, and the visuals of browsing are often dictated by coop fees. Supermarket, drugstore and big box browsing is limited to bestsellers, in most cases, thereby defeating the possible goal of discovery.

So ubi sunt bookstore browsers? The next generation browses on social networks such as Facebook, while dedicated book sites such as Shelfari vie for the social book network eye. Will they satisfy the traditional definition of browsing: 1) shifting one’s body and eyes along a myriad of selections, 2) choosing an individual item based on a variety of criteria, including graphics and words, 3) examining the item, based somewhat on the criteria of attraction, and 4) replacing the item in its place or purchasing it. This is, indeed, an active approach. Will social networks re-create the input of such an active approach? And does that matter to the selection and enjoyment of reading?

What is the purpose of bookstore browsing? Discovery? Information-gathering? Will print-on-demand, digital downloads, and social book networks serve those purposes? And, if not, what new-found results will they achieve in furthering a literary culture?

Friday, January 25, 2008

Intergeneric Questions

A recent interview in USA Today with Stephen King on his new book Duma Key again brings up the question about crossing the borders of literature. I mentioned Mark Danielewski’s Only Revolutions a few blog entries ago in the context of visual literariness and the new optics and David Markson’s “paragraph” structure and Google entry gathering. These are structural experiments.

But what of cross-generic questions? We have passed (are passing?) through a period of dominance by popular culture. “High culture” seems to have lost meaning, even to its creators. If a grizzled resignation pervades the last generation of literary lions and a feeling of toothlessness the next generation of cubs, borderlessness excites the next. Granted, literary conservatives still exist, as well as the formerly hip generation who fought against literary quietude, but cross-genre reading (and writing) holds the hip quotient of the day. The same person who reads Heidi Julavits can read Jane Austen and Alan Moore, without embarrassment. Dave Eggers can re-imagine the life of an African refugee without too many accusations of inauthenticity that dogged the earnest heels of the sixties generation. Perhaps this is the promise of Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy finally fulfilled. To paraphrase Duke Ellington (he of Black, Brown and Beige): if it reads good, it is good.

Back to the digital age: if I ran Amazon, and didn’t care about the possibility of offending my conservative, reading customers (fat chance), I would give Kindle software to 100 literary, visual and music artists and tell them to create digital literary works. Then I’d offer them as free downloads to all Kindle users, without digital copyright protection. I’d love to see what David Foster Wallace, Alice Sebold and Matt Groening come up with, and how fast it gets passed around the world.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Japan's Digital Novels

The article in this weekend’s New York Times about Japan’s cell phone novel craze is interesting for U.S. literary publishing. First, it confirms the ability of new media to test the market (call it a form of literary “sampling”). Second, it affirms the print publication of the novel after digital market research. So far, other than various experimental texts, such “novels” seem to be more like blogs or growing-up stories. Whether “substantive” literature can be composed on a cell phone is an open question.

The U.S. digital market is different from most others. The U.S. has embraced personal computers to a greater extent than most other countries. Other countries have embraced the use of cell phones more than in the U.S. As for literature, Japan has a history of piecemeal literature: in the mid-1990s the writer Banana Yoshimoto published the short story Newlywed exclusively on signage on commuter railways around Tokyo. Yet serialization doesn’t seem to have captured the U.S. imagination, at least not from what I can see. Stephen King’s The Plant online novel didn’t generate enough interest in serialized, digital form so he abandoned it. Despite its good reviews, Walter Kirn’s 2006 serialized, digital novel for, The Unbinding (and his subsequent Slate exchange with Gary Shteyngart) didn't make a big splash. Perhaps their time has not arrived and we are still awaiting an e-reader for such efforts.

On the other hand, short forms of literature downloaded to the personal computer have proliferated, though readership is limited compared to Japan’s cell phone genre. Narrative and Words Without Borders are two of the more well-known on-line literary magazines, but there are many others. The One Story publishing program seems to have succeeded in print and will most likely succeed when a good e-reader is widely available. When last I looked, Narrative had about 25,000 subscribers, not bad for a literary magazine. I'm a subscriber, but I don't read the stories. I would read a lot more journal-based literature if I could download it easily while sitting with my single producer espresso in Cafe Grumpy.

Poetry has also made inroads, though not to cell phones, from what I gather. The Writer's Almanac arrives in my inbox every morning, topped by a poem, and smart phones may be the next literary realm. Right now one would have to broadband The Writer’s Almanac, but a simple phone download to a smart phone would be a good way to start the day, especially since it can encompass both visual and sound. Short, short stories—the shorter ones from Symphony Space’s Selected Shorts, for example—would be a welcome direct download so I don’t have to haze through my computer beforehand to get it onto an iPod. Give it to me straight from the ether, I say.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Guest Blogger: Jeffrey Lependorf

Guest Blogger Jeffrey Lependorf is Executive Director of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses and Small Press Distribution.

I think small presses may be bucking a trend. In this time of declining readers, diminishing book reviews, and closing bookstores, independent literary publishers seem to be reaching more readers than ever before. The NEA recently released To Read or Not to Read, a follow-up to the its 2004 study Reading at Risk, providing additional data suggesting that fewer and fewer people now read for pleasure, if at all. A December 16th article by Los Angeles Times
Staff Writer Scott Timberg, titled A Dismal Year for Books? recounts a litany of bad news for book publishing, from closing bookstores, to the disappearance of book reviews in major newspapers, to overall declining sales in the book marketplace.

Despite how shaky the pedestal books sit upon would appear to be, independent literary publishers—small presses publishing fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction—have been experiencing a period of unparalleled growth. Data we've gathered at Small Press Distribution, the nation’s only non-profit distributor of literary books published by independent publishers, together with data from the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, the national non-profit organization that provides technical assistance to independent literary publishers, suggests that while pleasure-reading on a national level may be declining overall, the number of readers of the literature produced by smaller press publishers has been growing. Percentage-wise, smaller publishers appear to be more successful in reaching greater numbers of readers.

By serving the literary sensibilities of focused communities of readers, works of high literary merit reach their readers effectively, and these readers then go on to read even more. The NEA reports, in its 2007 To Read or Not to Read, that average household spending on books in the USA declined approximately 14% between 1995 and 2005. During the same period the quantity of books sold by SPD—now in its 39th year—increased 41%, with an additional 14% increase in total sales over the past two years. Similarly, CLMP’s membership of independent literary publishers increased from fewer than 250 in 1995 to nearly 500 in 2005, and currently—as it enters its 40th anniversary year—to well over 500, a more than 50% increase. There are more independent literary publishers than ever before and more of their books are reaching readers than ever before. It’s the small tail phenomenon in action—perhaps the best way to reach more readers is to meet the needs of small groups of readers one group at a time. While large publishers struggle to figure out the literary taste of American readers as a large group, smaller literary publishers can take far more risks in what they publish toward books reaching their true potential readerships, and our culture is all the better for it. A lot of exceptional literature is coming out of the big houses as well, but the current vitality and health of the independent literary publishing community suggests that smaller may just keep getting bigger.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Medium and Message

At MacWorld yesterday, Apple introduced the new MacBook Air, an ultra-thin laptop that incorporates many features developed for the much smaller iPhone, including three that will easily have implications for any future iReader, particularly on the touchpad. First, it downloads and plays music and film. Second, Air is totally wireless (picture the Apple techies punning as they developed the device). Imagine downloading any of the 2 million books Google is now digitizing directly to an iReader. Third, the screen text, graphics and sound allow manipulation of text and graphics. To increase font size, you put your thumb and index finger on the touchpad and simply draw them apart. To reduce the size, you do the opposite. To move to the next page on a web site, you swipe a finger across the touchpad (imagine the ease of turning pages in a book: no need to lick your finger, like in the old days).

But will the future ebook have pages?, whose approach already seems outdated, included a transitional technology that made the electronic page seem as if it were turning like a traditional paper one, complete with the sound of rustling. We’re beyond the need for accommodation in transition. Even the discussion of whether ebooks are the wave of the future seems to be over. In ten years, what will have replaced e-ink?

With the domination of technology, for those who continue to read older books, everything from Homer to Steinbeck, written for the printed book (our versions of Homer were most likely changed when it was written down), how will the consumption of the book itself change when read on future devices? I used to lead discussions of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and when we neared the end, I would ask the participants how they knew they were getting to the end, after 3,300 pages. They suggested many text-based ideas, but the real reason was that there were no more pages or volumes. By approaching the end of the physical object, their reading of the story changed, even though they hadn’t realized it. How is a multimedia Iliad “read” differently from its oral or written versions?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

David Markson as Artistic Google

Our daily reading habits—and almost all literate people read something daily—will influence our literary reading habits, just as watching television, surfing the Internet, or playing video games affect our reading habits today, altering our visual and aural musculature and the parts of the brain trained to read. Automated collecting replaces browsing as a literary activity or research tool, which does not in itself diminish either experience. It does, however, alter the experience by presenting a different “interface”, generally a long list of possible and related bits of information. After reading Elizabeth Swanstrom’s discussion of reading as gathering on the Transliteracies site, I was struck my its relevance to the work of one of my favorite contemporary writers, David Markson.

Over the years, Markson has whittled his story line from single, disaffected, possible lone humans talking about their possible fictional relationship with great artists to one shadowy “narrator” who simply repeats (or perhaps creates) the work of great artists and thinkers of the past and present. His most recent work, The Last Novel, is purportedly a compendium of writings, sayings, quotations, and paraphrases put together by Author, who may or may not be Markson (probably not). The book’s layout: no entry more than five lines. In “googling” David Markson, I came up with 33,700 hits, none of which was more than five lines (full disclosure: I didn’t go beyond about five screens to check). In both cases—Markson and Google—many entry lines were of uneven length.

To create his book, Markson has “collected work” from dozens of well-known people from various centuries and given them to us, his readers, in what was to me an unrecognizable hierarchy (if there is one at all: anyone have any ideas?). Which quotation is more important than the other? After searching through the vast storehouses available to him does Markson as “gatherer” have a hierarchy? And what the heck is Google’s hierarchy when IT does its own gathering, in a matter of microseconds, rather than years? Markson’s Boolean may be more advanced than a simple Google search but is our comfort with (even affection for) his book a reflection of our love of search engines?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Literary Marketing

Question: how will literary books be marketed in the future? Marketing, for most literary publishers, is conservative and traditional, with small investment based on the expected small returns (or figments of large returns). Particularly for literary works, it’s often hard to see how the investment of, say, $25,000 or $50,000 could make a long-term difference in most literary books or authors, even though the book itself may have great literary merit. And where would such capital come from? A publisher once told me that his market research is “I publish the book and I figure out the market for that book when I see how many people buy it.” Not too many industries work this way, especially in the “long tail” era. Some of this has changed. The Literary Ventures Fund, where I am on the board, for example, is trying a few new measures. Both small and large publishing businesses have begun to embrace more contemporary market research and techniques since, although the initial investment of both financial and human capital may seem high, subsequent ones amortize them.
With the possibility now of targeted marketing, small marketing, guerrilla marketing, viral marketing, market research, and the vast opportunities to take advantage of the digital environment, perhaps the sensibility of the future will also shift from in-house publishing personnel making all the decisions to focus-group-based decisions, or even broader. If, as analysts suggest, the digital age brings with it a loss of personal autonomy, replaced perhaps by small-group autonomy, perhaps open source marketing campaigns could result. Yet if the literary novel in particular is the last bastion of the individual voice, can marketing based on a multiple perspective broaden its audience? And could the unthinkable happen: the editing (or even creation) of a literary novel based on early e-list feedback, the way one develops cars and edits movies? Forget print-on-demand. How about write-on-demand?