1. What if the best thing art has to offer is freedom from choice? There’s a reason it’s high praise, not criticism, to say that a film or a piece of music or a good novel “sweeps you along.” There’s a selflessness in it: not just the pleasure in pausing the parts of the brain that plan and calculate and select, but in the temporary surrender of investing in someone else’s choices. Good art can be where we go for humility: when we’re encouraged to treat each of our thoughts as worthy of being made public, it can be almost counter-cultural to admit, in the act of being swept along, that someone else is simply better at arranging the keys of a song or the twists of a book and making them look like fate. Freedom from choice is a seductive way of thinking about art—and it’s at the heart of the debate over the cultural value of video games. Video games, for their cultural boosters, promise an art based on choice: an interactive art, possibly the first ever. For their detractors, “interactive art” is a contradiction in terms. Critics can point to video games’ narrative clichés or sloppy dialogue or a faith in violence as the answer to everything; but at base, they seem to be bothered by the idea of an art form that can be “played.” Choice is their bright line. Last spring, Roger Ebert nominated himself to hold that bright line on his blog. And though the 4,799 comments (to date) on his original post weighed in overwhelmingly against his claim that “Video games can never be art,” and encouraged him to back off of that blanket assertion, he summed up as eloquently as anyone the danger posed to narrative by video games’ possibility of limitless choice: If you can go through “every emotional journey available,” doesn’t that devalue each and every one of them? Art seeks to lead you to an inevitable conclusion, not a smorgasbord of choices. If next time I have Romeo and Juliet go through the story naked and standing on their hands, would that be way cool, or what? It’s possible, as Owen Good did, to write off the whole argument as empty, just a chest-thumping proxy war between generations or subcultures: “Art is fundamentally built on the subjective: inspiration, interpretation and appraisal. To me that underlines the pointlessness of the current debate for or against video games as art….Is there some validation the games community seeks but isn’t getting right now?” But then, every argument about art is about validation, about the assignment of prestige—yet those arguments are still worth having, because they can also be about something else. The argument over video games is about finding a place for choice in art, about respectability, and about empathy. And the best way into that argument may come from considering another cultural practice’s struggle for respect in its early days. I think that there’s already been a powerful interactive art, one that has some lessons for video games: psychoanalysis. 2. Too Jewish, too sex-obsessed, too much a cult of personality centered on Freud: before it was a more-or-less respected science, psychoanalysis was widely thought to be all of those things. George Makari’s Revolution in Mind begins the history of the movement that gathered around Sigmund Freud with a clique small enough to fit into a Vienna living room. Freud dreamed of creating a new scientific discipline, one legitimized by university departments, teaching hospitals, international conferences, and state funding; but he couldn’t even secure agreement among the rival scientists, doctors, artists, writers, liberal activists, and sexual libertines all drawn, all for reasons of their own, to his ideas of the unconscious. What exactly was this movement? Was it a school of medicine, a philosophical circle, a budding political party? With its objects of study so hard to pin down objectively, it was hard to say with certainty. Maybe it was art. That, at times, was the opinion of James Strachey, one of the more important figures in legitimizing this strange discipline and winning it an international reputation. James was the brother of the Bloomsbury author Lytton Strachey and a scholar of Mozart, Haydn, and Wagner; he was also one of the first English-speaking psychoanalysts and Freud’s most important translator. It’s because of Strachey that we still use Latin terms like id, ego, and superego, rather than Freud’s more down-to-earth “the It,” “the I,” and “the Over-I” (as a literal translation of his German would have had it). As an aspiring “talk therapist” in 1920, Strachey came from London to Vienna to undergo an extensive training analysis with Freud. He wrote to Lytton that he divided his time equally between the doctor’s office and the opera house—and, intriguingly, he described his sessions as a brand-new kind of aesthetic experience, a kind of private opera in which the therapist was the director and he was the star. Here is what he wrote after 34 hours on the couch: [Freud] himself is most affable and as an artistic performer dazzling…Almost every hour is made into an organic aesthetic whole. Sometimes the dramatic effect is absolutely shattering. During the early part of the hour, all is vague—a dark hint here, a mystery there—; then it gradually seems to get thicker; you feel dreadful things going on inside you, and can’t make out what they could possibly be; then he begins to give you a slight lead; you suddenly get a clear glimpse of one thing; then you see another; at last a whole series of lights break in on you; he asks you one more question; you give a last reply—and as the whole truth dawns on you the Professor rises, crosses the room to the electric bell, and shows you out the door. Why was the experience so aesthetically powerful, so unlike anything Strachey had seen before? In large part, it seems, the difference was that he was a participant in the drama, not merely a spectator—or maybe a participant and a spectator at the same time. There was a story being played out in one-hour increments; but the story was his story. His choices—how to react to each question, what to reveal and what to conceal, how to make sense of and advance the unfolding “plot”—gave the story its shape. And the scene of the real action was internal: “dreadful things going on inside you.” At the same time, though, Strachey realized that this was not a simple exercise in introspection or an outpouring of emotions—it was a guided drama. Freud shaped it as much as his patient did, not by telling a story, but by skillfully arranging a limited number of choices, on the fly, that reliably delivered his patient to the sensation of dawning truth and artistic completion. What’s remarkable is that he did it with such consistency. Strachey wrote about a series of conversations, and yet they all seemed to shape themselves into a classical dramatic arc: premonitions, a mounting pursuit, a crashing climax, and a cliffhanger ending. It’s true that James Strachey, aesthete as he was, brought his own unique preconceptions to Freud’s couch. But it’s also true that the dynamic he identified—the tension between free response and prearranged structure in each session—would, according to Makari’s history, be the cause of some of the growing movement’s greatest schisms. For instance, Freud’s Hungarian disciple Sándor Ferenczi came to advocate “active therapy”: confronting patients directly, turning their answers back on them, setting deadlines for progress, enforcing sexual abstinence, and even, in one case, regulating the patient’s posture during sessions. On the other pole, the Frankfurt analyst Karl Landauer argued for a passive technique that teased out the patient’s resistances to treatment, insisting that the therapist must not “impose actively upon [the patient] one’s own wishes, one’s own associations, one’s own self.” Long after Freud’s movement had achieved the legitimacy he always sought, this tension between hands-on and hands-off treatment would end friendships, partnerships, and careers. 3. Of course, video games are not a kind of psychoanalysis, and psychoanalysis would not make much of a video game (“press ‘A’ to confess sexual feelings for Mother”). Nor has psychoanalysis shaken off its detractors, then or now, by painting itself as an art; as compelling as Strachey’s vision was, there was always more prestige in claiming the objectivity of science. Besides, if it was so pleasurable for Strachey to reflect on his treatment, how serious could his problems have been? Strachey may have idealized his treatment—but he also found the emotional potential in a practice that many of his contemporaries were writing off as a fad. And in doing so, he gave evocative evidence for the possibilities of interactive art. He also, unwittingly, described the reasons why video games seem so promising to so many. They can be an art that makes us both spectators and performers, one that can turn us from passive audience members to partners, flattening the relationship between artist and audience without erasing it altogether. In the private drama he co-created, Strachey was decidedly the junior partner; Freud was such an effective senior partner because he balanced choice with structure, keeping his patient personally invested even as the session stayed fastened to some important dramatic rules. Is it too far a stretch to see this as a type for the relationship between a skilled video game designer and a savvy player? In video games, our story can be anyone’s but our own. But their greatest promise, and greatest advantage over traditional art, is in their power to create empathy—to make someone else’s story feel like our own because we are temporarily living it. We’ve been able to lose ourselves in video game characters ever since the first player sent his Italian plumber off of a ledge and exclaimed “I died!”—not “Mario died!” Today, though, that power of empathy is being put to much more complex uses. In Slate’s annual Gaming Club discussion last month, Chris Suellentrop reflected on “the scene—it feels unfair to call it a level” in the game Heavy Rain that forced him to cut off his own character’s finger: “It felt agonizing, like I was cutting off my own finger. It was one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever experienced, in video games or any other medium.” Similarly, in Extra Lives—both a defense and a criticism of video games’ cultural potential—Tom Bissell spends pages meditating on a drive through the night city in Grand Theft Auto IV, with two bodies hidden in the trunk of his car. It was a dangerous risk undertaken to advance his character’s underworld career—and it was also an unsettling choice in which he felt criminally complicit. Interactivity, Bissell writes, “turns narrative into an active experience, which film is simply unable to do in the same way.” Film could not have left him with the same sense of guilt. It might be that empathetic power that ultimately brings the argument over video games’ cultural value to an end. Even in the midst of his criticism, Ebert concludes that the works of art that have moved him most deeply “had one thing in common: Through them I was able to learn more about the experiences, thoughts and feelings of other people. My empathy was engaged.” Perhaps there aren’t any games that engage his empathy, let alone engage it more powerfully than a film. Maybe there never will be: it’s telling that the moments identified by Bissell and Suellentrop as emblematic of video games’ potential tend to revolve around extreme violence. Even Bissell complains that game designers tend to give short shrift to narrative and characterization and line-by-line prose—and maybe we shouldn’t expect that to change. Given the amount of capital most sophisticated games demand—let alone the capital it would take to finance one complex enough to count as truly interactive—maybe we should expect them to settle permanently into the niche of the summer blockbuster. But even among the big-budget films, there are those that challenge us and move us. Video games, in principle, don’t have to be any different—and the potentially interactive art they hold out promises to move us with the intensity of Strachey’s light breaking in. When and if that happens, we shouldn’t expect art to be washed away in a flood of endless choices, with characters going through the story “naked and standing on their hands.” The most interesting argument won’t be about video games’ status as art, but about how to build an art that most effectively balances choice and structure, openness and narrative. Every increment toward freedom could mean deeper involvement and deeper empathy, at the cost of shapelessness; every increment toward structure could mean more captivating stories and characters—even as we find it harder to imagine ourselves into their shoes. The debate between the virtues of freedom and control, articulated almost a century ago by Freud’s disciples, will play out again, inconclusively, in a realm they could have barely imagined.
Amazon made a splash last week in unveiling its mp3 store. With this effort, Amazon is going head to head with Apple and its popular iTunes music store. iTunes has more songs on offer and is familiar to millions of iPod owners, but Amazon aims to bring people aboard by offering DRM-free songs with a more flexible pricing scheme. Amazon's DRM-free mp3s can be transferred to as many devices you want, while iTunes songs are more limited.This is no doubt of interest to many music fans, but I was curious to see if Amazon would extend its expertise in more literary realms to this new audio offering. So far the selection of "spoken word" content is fairly limited - it can be found under the "Miscellaneous" heading. Amid quite a bit of comedy, however, there are some gems here and there for those that enjoy the occasional audio book, though you won't be finding any bestsellers here. Among the intriguing items I spotted, are some historical, literary and cultural artifacts:The Ultimate Orson Welles (including the famous War of the Worlds radio hoaxSpeaking Personally... by Aldous HuxleyChe Guevara SpeaksFour Inaugural Addresses by Franklin D. Roosevelt; See also: The Best Of The Speeches (1960 - 1963) by John F. Kennedy; Campaign '56: Sounds of an Election YearThe Lenny Bruce Originals, Volume 2Allen Ginsberg (including a track called "First Party At Ken Keasey's"; See also: HowlAnthology of American Literature by Neal Pollack & Pine Valley CosmonautsBritish War Broadcasting 1938-45 (Pt 1); See also: Dunkirk & The Battle Of France & Flanders 1939-40Buckminster Fuller Speaks His Mind (a six-disk set); See also: Fuller's The Clock is Stopping: The Human ScenarioCasablanca - The 1943 Radio Production starring Humphrey BogartThe Daemon Lover and the Lottery by Shirley JacksonDionysus by Jim MorrisonThe Exciting History of the Alaska Gold RushFuturism And Dada Reviewed 1912-1959Good Morning, Vietnam (not the movie)The Great Carl Sandburg: Songs of AmericaThe Historic Second Declaration of Havana: Feb. 4, 1962 by Fidel CastroLots more in there too.
Want to become a successful writer? Get adopted by Stephen King. With five fiction writers to their name — Stephen, Tabitha King, Joe Hill, Owen King, and his wife, Kelly Braffet — the Kings have turned writing into a family business, according to The New York Times Magazine profile on the clan. Pair with: the accompanying article on "Easter eggs" found in the family's fiction.
After spending a lot of time over the last week discussing Borders' new strategy to display more books face out (and thereby reduce the number of books a typical store carries), it turns out that the whole discussion may have been moot. The struggling chain had a need for more money to "remodel stores and pay for new technology," but, thanks to the rocky climate on Wall Street, Borders was initially unable to find a willing lender. Translation: without an infusion of cash, Borders was going to run out of money.This left CEO George Jones with few options. Pershing Square, a hedge fund with investments in many large retailers and Border's largest shareholder, has agreed to "lend $42.5 million and to make an offer for some of [Borders'] international chains," according to Bloomberg. The loan comes with a huge interest rate and comes with various provisions that give the fund ever larger control over the book chain's fate. Borders has also said that it is now seeking a buyer and the company has suspended its dividend. This deal is something of a last resort for Borders, and the stock plunged nearly 30% on Friday, the biggest drop in the company's history.So what does this mean to Borders customers and employees? It's still too early to know. the deal with Pershing staves off the possibility of Borders running out of money in the near future, and offers a life raft for the chain to get through the challenges brought on by the slowing economy. The path forward is tenuous at best; expect more developments in the coming months.
Does a reader who lists all the books he reads on the internet still care about privacy? Should an ebook be an app on its own or one of many books available through an ebookstore? Do readers also want to be writers? And what, if anything, is the publisher’s role in all of this? These and many more questions were the subject of discussion at the second annual Books in Browsers conference at the Internet Archive in San Francisco. Sponsored by O’Reilly Media and planned by the IA’s Peter Brantley, the event brought together publishing and technology professionals from around the world (presenters flew from as far as Japan, Singapore, and Australia to speak) to discuss the consequences and opportunities of books becoming digital. The talks ranged from the highly conceptual to the very specific. Some presenters discussed the history of publishing stretching back before the industrial revolution while others more or less demonstrated their software. This kind of dual-personality is a product of the confusing landscape those of us in the book business face today. Nowhere was this more evident than when the IA’s founder Brewster Kahle gathered those of us in attendance together to take a group photo. Wanting to take a sort of general census of attendees, he asked anyone who considered himself or herself a publisher to raise his or her hand. When someone asked for clarification of what a publisher was, he more or less said “anyone who facilitates production and distribution of the written word.” As an employee of Goodreads, I felt compelled to raise my hand. Then he asked those of us who were authors to raise our hands. As a blogger, both here and elsewhere, I felt I should raise my hand again. I also claimed the title of bookseller, as Goodreads does sell ebooks. If I’d wanted to, I might even have been able to claim I was a librarian, but I didn’t. Lastly, every one of us was, of course, a reader. Nevertheless, clearly the old lines of demarcation in the publishing industry don’t really apply anymore. If there was an overarching theme to the conference it was “social reading,” so much so that several presenters, including Goodreads founder Otis Chandler, who was there to announce the Goodreads Social Reading API, apologized for discussing the topic yet again. Michael Tamblyn from Kobo books proudly announced that his speech was free of any and all things social. “Hell is other readers,” one of his slides proclaimed. But sharing the reading experience was clearly on many people’s minds. In presentation after presentation, speakers discussed their vision for what a social reading experience – and in some cases, a social writing experience – might be. In Thursday’s dazzling keynote address, Brian O’Leary of Magellan Media Partners urged publishers to move beyond the “container model of publishing” and to look instead to create context first: [B]ook, magazine and newspaper publishing is unduly governed by the physical containers we have used for centuries to transmit information. Those containers define content in two dimensions, necessarily ignoring that which cannot or does not fit. Worse, the process of filling the container strips out context – the critical admixture of tagged content, research, footnoted links, sources, audio and video background, even good old title-level metadata – that is a luxury in the physical world, but a critical asset in digital ones. In our evolving, networked world – the world of “books in browsers” – we are no longer selling content, or at least not content alone. We compete on context. But moving from containers to something infinitely less contained creates problems, as well. Nicole Ozer of the Northern California ACLU spoke eloquently on the dangers of gathering data on what people read. “If you build it, someone will come calling, asking for information.” Other speakers, though, argued that many readers will trade some amount of privacy in exchange for more features and greater possibilities. If a website helps you find the next book you want to read, perhaps giving it your reading history or some portion thereof is a price worth paying. Day two of the conference kicked off with back-to-back talks from two publishing iconoclasts – Bob Stein from the Institute for the Future of the Book and Richard Nash, former editor of Soft Skull Press and founder of the publishing start up Cursor. Stein presented a call to create a Taxonomy of Social Reading. Stein aims to provide a framework to discuss all the various ways in which we do read socially in the hopes that the publishers might band together to create an open platform for sharing notations and comments across all texts. It’s only through seizing the social reading moment, so to speak, that the publishers can hope to wrestle some measure of control back from the tech companies that have come to dominate their industry. Stein’s taxonomy is well worth examining in depth, and at the risk of simplifying a complex idea, I will summarize it here. He breaks social reading into four main categories: category one: in-person informal discussion of a book; category two: discussion of a book online; category three: formal discussion of a book in a classroom or book club; and category four: online, synchronous discussion of a book in the margins of the book itself (A few examples of this are the Commentpress platform in which Stein’s piece appears and the website BookGlutton). This concept – of group annotation and community reading – was arguably the most controversial idea of the conference. Does the average reader even want to mark up a text, much less share their annotations with others? Would this idea apply equally to fiction and non-fiction? Or would people prefer to keep the actual reading experience private, to remain immersed in a narrative rather than constantly checking the margins of the text? Richard Nash followed Stein’s presentation with a thought-provoking talk about the ways in which authors are also readers and, perhaps more importantly, vise versa. His new venture Cursor aims to cultivate a community of writer-readers. Whether he is successful or not will not hinge on whether many readers also fancy themselves writers -- that much seems self-evident -- but instead on exactly what people are willing to pay to be a part of a community of like-minded folks. Both Stein and Nash argued that the way most of us read now – alone with the text – has only been the way we read for the past two hundred or so years, a product of the industrial revolution. Prior to that, reading was something done in a small group, typically the family, and discussion was a natural and essential component of it. Whether that desire – to experience a text as a part of a group – has been thwarted by the past couple hundred years and consequently liberated by the connectivity of the net is at the very heart of the matter. Fittingly, the debate about the issue spilled out from the conference itself and onto the Read 2.0 email list, which discusses issues pertinent to the future of the book business. Skeptics argued that shared marginalia was innovation for innovation’s sake, or that it might be applicable to academic environments and certain kinds of book clubs, but that it had little future as a commercially viable project for commercial publishers. While it’s easy to see why many are skeptical, one can’t help but wonder how many people knew ten years ago that they wanted to write a blog? How many could have explained their desire to connect with other readers on sites like Goodreads? And yet there are millions of bloggers and Goodreads has four million members and counting. The text has been an isolated thing for so many years and decades that it’s difficult to imagine it as something different, as one part of a community and a conversation, rather than a thing unto itself. We want to interact with some texts, it seems, but whether we want that to extend to our long-form narratives remains somewhat in doubt. Another thing very much in doubt is the publisher’s role in this changing world. It is telling that at a conference so focused on the future of reading, there was only a single representative of any of the six major publishers in attendance. The leadership, it seems, comes not from New York, but from the startups and thinkers on the fringes of the industry proper. People like Eli James, whose website Novelr has been covering the world of online fiction for some time, and Matthew Bernius from RIT, who closed the conference with the presentation of a canon of publishing, continue to lead a vanguard that increasingly has less and less to do with what’s happening in Manhattan. Leaving the conference, I couldn’t help but be excited for the future. Simply being at the Internet Archive – one of the few places on earth actually digitizing books – was an exhilarating experience. On the second day of the conference, the attendees all banded together to form a "box brigade" to help the Internet Archive move a few dozen boxes from the first floor of their building to the second. The boxes contained hard drives capable of storing 2.8 petabytes of data, or 2 billion books. This is an incredible time to be a reader, even if it’s a terrifying time for traditional publishing. I will admit to getting chills thinking about what the 2020 meeting of Books in Browsers will be like. The only things I’m comfortable predicting that far in the future are that people will be writing long-form narratives, people will be reading them, and they will be dying to talk about it.
The Daily Beast interviews Tom Wolfe, who argues that America, more than two decades after The Bonfire of the Vanities, is a place where people “cannot act as if they are part of a superior class.” (For context, you might want to look at our own Nick Moran’s review of his latest, Back to Blood.)