Jonathan Franzen Shakes His Fist at the Clouds, Especially the Virtual Ones

Question, which seems apt considering the previous post today:

Any thoughts on Jonathan Franzen’s opinions about eBooks?

For those of you who have not seen them, they are here. For those disinclined to link, here’s a quote:

Maybe nobody will care about printed books 50 years from now, but I do. When I read a book, I’m handling a specific object in a specific time and place. The fact that when I take the book off the shelf it still says the same thing – that’s reassuring… Someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it. They were so sure of it that they printed it in ink, on paper. A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it’s just not permanent enough.

On one hand I get what he’s saying, because I do love physical books. Today I got copies of the Spanish language version of Fuzzy Nation, and holding the physical printed object brings home the point that yes, someone bought the book, yes, someone printed it, and yes, people will read the thing (in another language, even!). A printed physical object ties  into my personal sense of accomplishment when it comes to books. It’s like, here it is. In the real world. Finally. I think the love of books as tactile objects is something that’s going to be around for a while, and not just because writers need to be assured there is a (presumably) permanent, unalterable record.

On the other hand I suspect Franzen overprivileges the permanence of the book as a physical object to a considerable degree, and if you want to know why I think that, try reading an original science fiction pulp paperback from the 70s or earlier. They were printed on crappy acidic paper that started turning yellow nearly the moment they got off the printing press, the glue on the spine crumbles, and the thing starts falling apart the second you look at it too hard. You can hold one of these books, but if you try to read it, you run a really good chance of destroying it in the process. Bibliophiles — the ones who love physical books at least — are aware that physical books are anything but permanent. There are lots of ways for them to go away.

Here’s another way of looking at it. I have a copy of China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station on my shelf (it’s the gorgeous limited edition by Subterranean Press). I also have a digital copy of it on my Nook. Which is more permanent? One is a physical object, but that physical object could be lost or stolen, or destroyed if, say, my house burned down to the ground, taking my library with it. The digital object, on the other hand, is hard to lose because it can be in multiple places; I can read it on my computer, or my eReader, or my cell phone or my computer tablet; indeed, I can read it one one, set that down and fire it up on the other and have the book open to the very spot I stopped reading it before. If my house burns up, my digital copy of Perdido will still be there to comfort me. But if Barnes & Noble goes out of business — and it might — then I may be screwed, because there’s no guarantee the access to the book file will survive Barnes & Noble as a company (I have some useless DRMed audio files on my computer as testament of that).

There are other ways that both physical books and digital books can go away, but you get my point, I trust, which is that neither physical books nor digital books have any claim on permanence that can’t be immediately refuted in significant ways. The one unassailable advantage physical books have or digital books is that they don’t require an intermediary piece of hardware to access them — all you need is your eyeballs — and given the turnover in tech hardware, that’s not insignificant. But it doesn’t argue for permanence; it argues for a potentially longer window for information decay.

(Franzen’s also incorrect that physical copies somehow limit the alterations that can be made to texts after the fact; Compare early versions of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles with later versions and you’ll see what I mean. There’s an excellent chance people who have read the later versions are entirely unaware that the text has been significantly altered. Franzen’s also apparently charmingly naive about the number of copy errors that make it through the editorial process, despite everyone’s best efforts.)

Franzen’s dislike of eBooks appears essentially to be an appeal to the romanticism of physical books, which is nice and about which I can sympathize with him, although only up to a point. Ultimately, however, my more pragmatic side comes through, and it says “You want this book in [x] format? You’ll pay me money for it? Here you go.” Which is why my books are variously in hardcover, trade paperback, mass market paperback, eBook (in various formats) and audio (also in various formats), depending on their place in the production cycle and the agreements I have in place with publishers.

Outside of the desire to see my local indie bookstore stay in business, because they are awesome folks and it’s a great shop, and in a larger sense for bookstores to survive because of what I see as the long terms social benefits of having booksellers as part of the matrix of commerce, I’m agnostic regarding format. The words — my words — are the same across all the formats, and it’s those words that matter; the container, less so. I’d note Franzen’s work is out there for electronic consumption, so it seems at the end of the day he is pragmatic about this at well, at least on a contractual level.


A Small Meditation on Art, Commerce and Impermanence

I’m going to touch on something that I’ve discussed briefly before but which I think is worth reheating into its own post. Here are the best selling books in the US from 1912, which is (for those of you for whom math is not a strong suit) 100 years ago.

1. The Harvester by Gene Stratton-Porter
2. The Street Called Straight by Basil King
3. Their Yesterdays by Harold Bell Wright
4. The Melting of Molly by Maria Thompson Davies
5. A Hoosier Chronicle by Meredith Nicholson
6. The Winning of Barbara Worth by Harold Bell Wright
7. The Just and the Unjust by Vaughan Kester
8. The Net by Rex Beach
9. Tante by Anne Douglas Sedgwick
10. Fran by J. Breckenridge Ellis

Questions: How many of these have you read? How many of the author names do you recognize? How influential have these books been to modern literature, or at the very least, the literature you choose to read? Do you think these authors believed that their works would, in some way, survive them? I think it’s fair to say that outside of a small group of academic specialists or enthusiasts, these books and their authors don’t have much currency.

This isn’t a slight on the authors or their works, mind you. If you look up some of these authors, they’re pretty interesting. Gene Stratton-Porter was an early conservationist and owned her own movie studio. Meredith Nicholson was a US diplomat to several countries in South America and central America. Howard Bell Wright was reportedly the first author to make more than a million dollars writing fiction, and this was back in 1912, when a million was worth more than $22 million today. I don’t doubt at least some of these books were well-regarded as art. And I would imagine, author egos being what they are, that at least a couple of them imagined that we would be talking about their works today, a hundred years later, as influences if nothing else.

We’re not. Now, I imagine there’s at least a couple people out there shaking their fists at me, wondering how I could not see Stratton-Porter (or whomever) as a towering figure in American literature. As noted above, I cede there is possibly academic or specialized interest. I’m talking about everyone else. I feel pretty confident of my basic knowledge of early 20th century literature, if nothing else than through my interest in HL Mencken, who was one of the preëminient literature critics of the day. If I’m coming up blank on these names and books, I feel reasonably confident in suggesting most readers these days — even the well-read ones — will do similarly.

If you’re a writer, this might depress you. If the best-selling books of 1912 are largely forgotten, what chance do your books have in 2012, especially if they don’t scale the heights of sales these books have? Surprise! Probably little. I mean, it’s certainly possible they will survive: Neither Theodore Dreiser nor Sherwood Anderson got near the year-end bestseller lists between 1910 and 1919, but they are still taught and discussed, and in their way influence literature today. But, yeah. Don’t count on it.

And that’s fine. Relieve yourself of the illusion that you’re writing for the ages. The ages will decide who is doing that on their own; you don’t get a vote. I understand the temptation is to try to write something that will speak to the generations, but, look, in 1912 they hadn’t even yet invented pre-sliced bread. If you aim for being relevant to the future, you’re probably going to fail because you literally cannot imagine it, even if you write science fiction.

Forget even sliced bread; you can’t imagine the values or interests or views on the world that people might have a century from now. Human nature as defined by biology doesn’t change much over decades or centuries but the culture sure does, and it’s a moving target in any event; there’s no end point in attitudes and opinions. If I tried to explain a woman’s place in 1912 United States to my daughter, she would explode with outrage. If a writer in 1912 tried to write specifically to my daughter (or anyone’s daughter) 100 years hence, the disconnect would be impressive. If I tried to write for a thirteen-year-old girl in 2112, the same thing would happen.

If you must aim for relevance, try for being relevant now; it’s a context you understand. We can still read (and do read) Shakespeare and Cervantes and Dickinson, and I think it’s worth noting Shakespeare was busy trying to pack in the groundlings today, Cervantes was writing in no small part to criticize a then-currently popular form of fiction, and Dickinson was barely even publishing at all, i.e., not really caring about future readers. In other words, they were focused on their now. It’s not a bad focus for anyone.

Will your work survive? Probably not, but so what? You won’t survive, either. 100 years from now you’re very likely to be dead. Even if your work survives, it won’t do you much good. In the meantime that still leaves lots of people today to potentially read your stuff, argue about it, be inspired by it (or react against it) and generally make a lot of noise about it. You might even make a living at it, which is a bonus. Focus on those people today, and on today’s times. Enjoy it all now. Enjoy it while it lasts. Then when it’s over, you can say you had fun at the time.

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