Remember the fear that Google would start a print on demand business and put all the publishers out of business? Well, Google appears to be getting into the bookselling business, but there’s no printing involved, nor are they cutting out publishers. Google’s new service will allow publishers to set their own price for online access to books. Readers won’t be able to save copies of the books on their computers nor will they be able to copy text from the books, and the books will only be viewable within the browser window. This looks like a great opportunity for publishers to provide online access to their books without having to set up their own systems. (via)
Back at the beginning of September I mentioned a new book cataloging site called LibraryThing. It had only just gotten underway and I was busy so I didn’t try it out at the time. It looked like the sort of thing that, if it ever reached a critical mass, could be phenomenal, but it seemed to me like it would take a while.Well, it didn’t. I was reminded of the site by an AskMe thread today, so I went to check it out and was astonished to find that in about six months, people have catalogued almost two million books using LibraryThing. This much data allows for some really cool features. For starters, check out the zeitgeist page, where the aggregate numbers are used to generate lists of the “most owned books” and the “most contentious books” along with several other lists. Also very nifty is the “social information” page for each book. Here’s the page for East of Eden. By crunching all the aggregate data about users who have this book, LibraryThing can generate a number of lists of related books. On top of that, the whole site is very slick and easy to use and understand.I entered about a dozen books just to try it out today, and I’ll probably work my way through my library at some point – I’m just waiting for some free time since I’m in danger of getting sucked in.
A few months ago, I wrote about some of the oddities of Amazon’s customer review system. I suggested that certain of Amazon’s “Top Reviewers” had become semi-professionalized, and that some five-star customer reviews reach readers the same way reviews in the Times (and on blogs) do: as part of a well-organized press push. A story that appeared in Galleycat last week revealed something surprising (to me anyway): the Amazon push may work in the opposite direction, to keep an unwanted review from surfacing. Apparently, Deborah MacGillivray, a romance novelist, convinced Amazon to expunge the reviews and comments of a reviewer who had been critical of her work.Again, it appears that Amazon’s customer review system is evolving beyond “helpful, tell-it-like-it-is product information” into an extension of the publishing demimonde. This is not to say that there’s anything wrong with the American review system, in which publicists send advance copies of books to influential readers in an attempt to get press; it is, rather, to argue that Amazon should take a good hard look at its system. On one hand, it could work harder to protect the disinterestedness of customer reviews (by not kowtowing to authors, for example, or by getting rid of the reviewer rankings). On the other, it might recast the review system as less of an aw-shucks, communitarian forum.
Is there a “crisis in reading?” Last quarter’s Barnes & Noble conference call; the well-publicized demise of certain book review supplements and independent bookstores; the gripes of our editor friends; and a whiff of desperation around the marketing of literary fiction (typically referred to as “so tough” or “a hard sell”) would seem to confirm the encroachment of electronic reading matter – email, Facebook feeds, blogs – on the territory of print. Many of my students, ten years younger than I am, do not read books for pleasure. Sometimes, they don’t even read for school.On the other hand, a literary author, Jhumpa Lahiri, last week stood athwart the New York Times bestseller list. And huge chain bookstores apparently find it profitable to operate in towns like the one I grew up in, where previously you bought what K-Mart was selling, or you got bupkis.A recent study conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts raised some alarms. “Fewer than half of all American adults now [read] literature,” the NEA reported. But, as many among the commentariat were quick to point out, the NEA was methodologically hamstrung by its insistence on defining literature as fiction and poetry; does our weekly New Yorker binge count for nothing? And so the “Death of Reading” metanarrative receded, for a time, into the murk that birthed it.Receded, that is, until Ursula K. Le Guin insisted on rousing it, via an essay in the February issue of Harper’s Magazine. The thrust of Le Guin’s argument was that readers weren’t the problem, exactly; that pessimism about reading can be blamed on the conglomerates that have, in the last two decades, swallowed most of New York’s most esteemed publishing houses. With its modest margins and arcane payment schedules, book publishing is more a labor of love than a maximizer of shareholder value, Le Guin pointed out; for every Da Vinci Code or Harry Potter, a thousand midlist authors languish in the wings. To the News Corps of the world, she posed the question, “Why don’t you just get out of it, dump the ungrateful little pikers, and get on with the real business of business, ruling the world?”But responses to Le Guin’s piece have inadvertently suggested an alternative explanation for the angst about the health of reading: the publishing world’s formidable self-regard. The editors whose letters grace Harper’s April issue are talented and admirable people (without them, some of my favorite books would not have found me), but none of them seem able to see in Le Guin’s essay anything other than a reflection of their own personal accomplishments.On one hand, Andre Schiffrin, founder of The New Press and a vociferous critic of the publishing conglomerates, pronounces Le Guin “right on.” After describing how his quondam employer, Bertelesmann-controlled Random House purged staff and backlists, “leaving only a hollowed-out label that can be affixed to any new book the group acquires,” Schiffrin declares, “Literary publishing is insufficiently profitable to meet corporate expectations…. One solution to this problem,” he suggests, “is to create not-for-profit firms as we did in starting The New Press.”On the other hand, Lorin Stein, Senior Editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, finds Le Guin’s essay “so depressing, in its knee-jerk snobbery and thoughtlessness, one hardly knows where to start.” Le Guin’s heroic readers of yore, he argues, “were part of a mass market, created by ‘moneymaking entities’ in the business of selling books.” Without profit-motivated publishers (such as Holtzbrinck-backed FSG), writing becomes a pastime for the few who can afford to write for nothing, with no prospect of fame or glory beyond the cozy ring of ‘our own people.’ Fewer readers means lower stakes, lower standards, and more crap getting passed off as the real thing.Barbara Epler, Editor-in-Chief of the independent press New Directions, quite naturally defines the stakes more modestly. “Readers will always be here,” she writes, agreeing with one of Le Guin’s propositions. “That’s how writers like W.G. Sebald and Roberto Bolaño [both published by New Directions] catch on like wildfire. There have never been so many thriving, struggling, astonishingly nimble small literary presses busy making beautiful books.”And, of course, a reader affiliated with Columbia University sees an industrial strategy to rule the world through publishing – which is even more whimsical in its premises than Mr. Stein’s notion that writers under the current dispensation aren’t already people who more or less “write for nothing, with no prospect of fame or glory.” (Or his parallel conceit that the nature of the book business remains substantially unchanged from the era of the “Ivanhoe-reading cowboy.”)Is there a crisis in reading? Impossible to say, when “our own people,” the arbiters of literary culture, decline one of its most valuable functions: self-criticism. To be fair to the editors quoted above, their enthusiasm on behalf of their respective projects is evidence of a laudable commitment to the culture of the book; as Lorin Stein puts it, “This is a business I believe in passionately.” And if we are to blame someone for changing the subject from the state of reading to the state of publishing, it should be Le Guin herself. Still, in aggregate, these responses work to confound, rather than to clarify. Their diagnostic power is that of the Rorschach blot.
Like a lot of the people I know these days who grew up wanting to be writers, I learned how to write by reading the Internet. I graduated from college with a degree in capital-L Literature, but by the time I was 23, my major sources of inspiration were blogs and online fiction magazines. I found my voice (or at least a voice) by imitating bloggers no one had ever heard of, and publishing on websites few people would ever read. This suited me — I liked the isolated weirdness of writing into the infinite void of the web. It didn’t matter to me that no one answered back.
Some time between then and now, businesses with real money caught on to writing on the Internet, discovered it could be made scaleable, and everything changed. For many of my writer friends, this change was a net positive. Suddenly there was money in writing; in some cases, lots of it. The possibility of a “piece” going viral also meant the possibility of a job for pay at a real publication, or a book deal, or a mention in The New York Times, or any number of other writerly blessings. At the same time, wanting to make a career in letters and not being on Twitter and Facebook — that is, not wanting to share your work constantly with the strangers you met on airplanes and in restaurants and people you hadn’t seen since seventh grade — became the equivalent of not actually wanting to be a writer at all. For extroverts and writers with surplus self-assurance this didn’t pose a problem. For those of us drawn to writing because it was the one job that wouldn’t require us to talk to people regularly, it was a nightmare.
“Aside from issues of life and death, there is no more urgent task for American intellectuals and writers than to think critically about the salience, even the tyranny, of technology in individual and collective life,” wrote Leon Wieseltier last month in his call to arms against the threat technology poses to humanism. “Among the Disrupted” sparked a heated debate among its readers, or at least, as heated as can reasonably be expected in the letters section of the New York Times Book Review. As one critic pointed out, there are plenty of more urgent issues for all of us to ponder, child poverty and the pay gap among them. What struck me, though, wasn’t the essay’s hyperbole, but the inaccuracy of its target.
The problem facing writers now isn’t the growing prominence of tech, but the question of how deeply the two fields are intertwined, and what that relationship means. Most of the notable works of fiction published in recent years (Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven spring immediately to mind) present thoughtful considerations of the evolving relationship between the self and technology, and a lot of the people who read these books probably read them on the Kindle app. The same people who subscribe to Harpers read work published by the Atavist and curated by Longform. I’m writing right now in the notepad app on my iPhone, and you’re reading on your computer or your iPad or your own phone. How many writers do you know at this point who don’t have their own websites, Tumblrs, or blogs? For that matter, how many do you know who aren’t on Twitter?
Still, it’s true that while the Internet augmented journalism, creating jobs for newcomers and inventing new forms for them to occupy, it didn’t do the same for fiction. Atavist Books confirmed last fall that it would no longer be taking new submissions, and Byliner was folded into Vook last September. Amazon’s e-books are popular, but more innovative forms of digital literature don’t seem to be. Meanwhile, more and more often, walking into library near the office building where I work in Los Angeles feels like walking into a museum. Untouched contemporary novels line the shelves, positions unchanged. The few people in the reading room are, to a person, on laptops or on their phones.
“Only connect,” E.M. Forster wrote in Howards End. We’ve taken his directive and run with it, to the point where we talk about disconnecting — going off Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Venmo, whatever — in the same wistful tones we once used to talk about going on vacation. Social media, like literary fiction, allows us briefly, to inhabit a consciousness outside our own: on Facebook, we experience the highs and lows of strangers in real time through the same lens of authenticity that marks work by writers like Ben Lerner and Sheila Heti. If these platforms give every one of us both an audience and a show on demand, at any given moment, and for free, then what is there left for fiction to do?
Curious about how all of this was affecting those most likely to suffer from its consequences, I reached out to novelists in my Twitter timeline to find out what they thought about the role of social media — specifically Twitter — in their own writing lives. I expected all three of them to share my own anxieties — my view of the world has more in common with Wieseltier’s than I am, perhaps, ready to accept — and I was surprised when not one of them did.
Roxane Gay contributes reviews and cultural criticism to high-profile outlets regularly, edits multiple literary journals, and works as a professor at Purdue. She tweets prolifically to her 54,000 and counting followers, and engages with many of them directly. Last year, her essay collection, Bad Feminist, and her novel, An Untamed State, both dropped at the same time, to widespread acclaim.
“Many of my essays begin as conversations on Twitter, where I am thinking through something that’s happening in our culture,” Gay wrote me, adding that she uses Twitter “to be alone while feeling less lonely.”
“Ninety percent of the time,” Gay wrote, “I’m having delightful conversations and interactions on Twitter. There’s little to dislike.”
Amelia Gray, author of Threats and the forthcoming Gutshot, responded that Twitter “has been more beneficial to my creativity than most theory,” adding, “It’s a little corner of the world that is a pure ball-pit.” She went on, “My tweets and my fiction ideally share the same precision. They share a sense of character too, though rarely the same character. I use different social media towards different ends, and in that way I have different Internet personas and also a real persona which is different here and there.”
Porochista Khakpour is an essayist and fiction writer and the author of, most recently, The Last Illusion. Last year one of her tweets caught the attention of Slate, landing her timeline a mention in The New York Times Book Review. She often writes, more or less jokingly (I think?), about being enslaved to Twitter, but when I wrote to ask her about the relationship between the site and her work, she wrote back, “I think I am beneficial and destructive to my own creativity and ability to be productive. I am the problem!” She described her relationship to Twitter as, “Love/hate, but tbh mostly love. And we all know love hurts, love bleeds, love kills, love is a battlefield, etc.”
A blogger friend of mine once called social media a loneliness eliminator and I have to admit that definition makes me uneasy. What about those of us who like being lonely? What if loneliness is, in some ways, necessary? It’s true though, that, soon enough, this conversation will likely be irrelevant. Twitter and Facebook will dissolve into the digital slurry, only to be replaced by some other technology as incomprehensible to us as texting once was to our grandparents. Consider Vine, currently churning out new waves of celebrities that no one over 27 has ever heard of. Maybe six-second videos will become the new Twitter, which is the new Facebook, which was the new books. Or maybe, by this time next year, we’ll be having this same conversation about yet another new technology we can never remember how we lived without. Meanwhile, as these writers make clear, fiction writers will continue to adapt, and books, while they may be still hanging on by a thread, will hang on nonetheless.
Something I’m starting to suspect is that it’s everything I worry will make books obsolete — their slowness, the investment of time they require, and their inability to do anything other than the singular purpose for which they’ve been created — that has allowed them to survive for this long. Social media lends itself best to chronicling discrete instances: bursts of anger, flashes of surprise. Built on the notion, even on a micro scale, of constant disruption, our feeds and streams can’t cohere for long enough to bleed seamlessly into one another the way actual sentences do. Twitter and Facebook are great for quick blasts of dopamine or adrenaline, but not for creating sustained waves of happiness or fear or maintaining the kind of cumulative tension upon which good stories rely.
“Only connect!” Forster wrote, but he also wrote, “Live in fragments no longer.” Human experience is like a Georges Seurat in that it only comes into focus the further away you get from it. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram regurgitate the present back to us in easily manageable pieces that delight, spark envy, disdain, boredom, revulsion, or inspiration. What they can’t do, however, is take a wider scope. Its novels we depend on to reorganize those scattered fragments into something whole.
Image Credit: Pixabay.