Category Archives: the death of reading

Garrison Keillor on Publishing Dying

I read the Keillor op-ed that everyone is talking about and pretty much thought it was too dumb to merit responding to. A man just reaches a point where he can’t bother to shoot down any more “publishing is dying” straw men, no matter how (unaccountably) respected is the person saying it or the venue printing it. It’s either rant against the likes of Keillor or attempt to share my enthusiasm about a book I’ve fallen in love with, and I choose the latter.

But Flavorpill has put together a chorus of lucid folks shooting Keillor down. So, enjoy.

The Internet and Your Ability to Read

Okay all you people who think the Internet is turning you into attention-deficit twitchers (in which case, why the hell are you reading this?! save yourself!). Nicholas Carr, who wrote an essay in The Atlantic titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (my response here; short answer: “no”) has lengthened that essay into a book called The Shallows.

Laura Miller has commented on the book at Salon. Here’s the money quote for everyone who signs on to these theories:
Continue Reading

It's Not Really Translation That They Hate . . .

Chad Post writes:

It’s not that the literary scene is anti-foreigners, it’s that the marketplace is anti-language.

That’s pretty much the issue. There have been enough bestselling translations of the past few years to prove that American readers aren’t adverse to translations. No, what they’re adverse to are creepy modernist-style-Euro-brain books of the likes of Thomas Bernhard. And, well, that’s what presses that do a lot of translated fiction tend to like to publish. So when people think of translation, they tend to think of that item to the left there. (Though I actually do like asparagus quite a bit, which I suppose explains why I also read tons of translations.)

But anyway, it’s fine by me if our illustrious publishers of literary translation want to focus on challenging fiction. I like to read it, and if the publishers I love can make a modest living by enriching the lives of those of us who care to read good literature, more power to them. But I do think a lot of the stigma that gets assigned to “translation” should really be left at the feet of “difficult Euro fiction.”

Of course there’s a certain middle ground where you can have your translation cake and eat it too–and some publishers of translations are beginning to dwell there (great for them!)–but part of me really wishes that our culture these days was more open to diving into a sea of prose that might not produce clear results for 100 pages or so. It’s that lack of openness to encountering a new experience that doesn’t immediately pay off that most depresses me about this issue. It seems that I see this a lot in museums these days, where patrons will tend to rush through an exhibit of difficult art rather than linger and let the piece begin to be absorbed into the mind. (Though in other forms of art–classical music and movies in particular–I’ve seen audiences ride out some difficult works and ultimately enjoy them.)

I think that’s more or less what Sven Birkerts is complaining about in this recent and much-discussed essay, although I also think it’s intellectually lazy to blame the Internet for this. Not that Birkerts is completely doing so, but now that digital reading is such a big subject, and now that digital devices are beyond ubiquitous, the Internet is getting the lion’s share of the blame for the ever-present, vastly overstated death of attention span. It’s all-too-easy to forget that there are cultural trends dating back decades that helped sand down Americans’ taste for difficult fiction.

Stop the Editor Hating!

Okay, okay, I know . . . I’ve done it, you’ve done it. At one point in the past five years or so, each and every one of us has blamed big commercial New York editors for promoting a blockbuster model of publishing that’s killing literary fiction.

Which, true, has a fair amount of truth to it, but enough already. That’s more or less how I felt when I was reading Jay Baron Nicorvo’s essay in Guernica, pitched as a response to Ted “Write More Relevant Books You Navel Gazing Hacks” Genoways.

For what it’s worth, I side more with Nicorvo here than Genoways, it’s just that I’m tired of hearing this:

These days, editors at commercial publishing houses are required to do the same. They attempt to herd the mob because they no longer know how to reach the reader. Old media had a direct line to the audience that bought books, newspapers, and magazines. Publicity and marketing departments knew where to effectively (if not cheaply) spread the word about forthcoming titles and upcoming issues, expecting to get out what they put in. They’d print a few hundred or a few thousand galleys, mail them first-class to reviewers, watch the reviews roll in, and count the sales. But reviews no longer sell books. New media is the internet, and publicity and marketing departments have little central control over the flow of information. Amateur reviews of a book on Amazon are as important if not more so than the professional assessments in Publishers Weekly. And so what do editors do? They cling to what’s working, if not working well—blockbusters. The dominant, dysfunctional business model for movies has been adapted for books. And this is why more authors like John Edgar Wideman have had enough; he’d rather self-publish and have a larger say than be hamstrung by a system favoring quantity over quality.

Right, I get it, I agree (well, not exactly about that Amazon vs PW thing . . . do buyers at bookstores read Amazon reviews to make buying decisions? Do editors use them to decide what to assign for review?). But frankly, this line of argumentation hasn’t brought about a wave of revulsion and transformation in the publishing industry. So let’s move on. We know what doesn’t work, so let’s start talking about what does work.

For more on that, I ask you to watch this speech given by the ever-visionary Richard Nash.

Sven Birkerts on Reading in a Digital Age

Sven Birkerts has a worthwhile essay on what it means to be a reader today. Although. I don’t think he’s covering any new territory so much as adding some nuance to what are, at this point, well-worn arguments.

As to the “digital age” part, the piece basically comes down to this:

The problem we face in a culture saturated with vivid competing stimuli is that the first part of the transaction will be foreclosed by an inability to focus—the first step requires at least that the language be able to reach the reader, that the word sounds and rhythms come alive in the auditory imagination. But where the attention span is keyed to a different level and other kinds of stimulus, it may be that the original connection can’t be made. Or if made, made weakly. Or will prove incapable of being sustained. Imagination must be quickened and then it must be sustained—it must survive interruption and deflection. Formerly, I think, the natural progression of the work, the ongoing development and complication of the situation, if achieved skillfully, would be enough. But more and more comes the complaint, even from practiced readers, that it is hard to maintain attentive focus. The works have presumably not changed. What has changed is either the conditions of reading or something in the cognitive reflexes of the reader. Or both.

All of us now occupy an information space blazing with signals. We have had to evolve coping strategies. Not merely the ability to heed simultaneous cues from different directions, cues of different kinds, but also—this is important—to engage those cues more obliquely. When there is too much information, we graze it lightly, applying focus only where it is most needed. We stare at a computer screen with its layered windows and orient ourselves with a necessarily fractured attention. It is not at all surprising that when we step away and try to apply ourselves to the unfragmented text of a book we have trouble. It is not so easy to suspend the adaptation.

Frankly, I disagree. It is true that at different points in my life I have had greater and lesser abilities to focus on a novel and sink in to its world, but I’d say this this very weakly correlated with the amount of digital media surrounding me. For example, last year, when I lived in the United States and was subjected to the full panoply of digital distraction that my fine nation can level at me, I actually read more novels than when I lived in a little apartment in Mexico with no Internet–or much of anything else–to speak of.

I simply don’t believe that people aren’t sophisticated enough to figure out how to read amidst digital entertainment options, but are sophisticated enough to do so in the face of other impediments. Actually, I’d say that the abundance of digital ephemera would be a boon to reading; that is, after you’ve been fried all day on beeps and flashing lights, aren’t you chased into the arms of a good book, or some other equally “antiquated” experience? I am, for one.

Birkerts also raises the point of the relevance of fiction in an age of incredibly access to information. It’s a good point, but I can’t agree with his assertion that greater access to information renders great art and literature less relevant:

The reality O’Neill has so compellingly described, that of swooping access, is part of the futurama that is our present. The satellite capability stands for many other kinds of capabilities, for the whole new reach of information technology, which more than any transformation in recent decades has changed how we live and—in ways we can’t possibly measure—who we are. It questions the place of fiction, literature, art in general, in our time. Against such potency, one might ask, how can beauty—how can the self’s expressions—hold a plea? The very action that the author renders so finely poses an indirect threat to his livelihood. No, no—comes the objection. Isn’t the whole point that he has taken it over with his imagination, on behalf of the imagination? Yes, of course, and it is a striking seizure. But we should not be too complacent about the novelist’s superior reach. For these very things—all of the operations and abilities that we now claim—are encroaching on every flank. Yes, O’Neill can capture in beautiful sentences the sensation of a satellite eye homing in on its target, but the fact that such a power is available to the average user leaches from the overall power of the novel-as-genre. In giving us yet another instrument of access, the satellite eye reduces by some factor the operating power of imagination itself. The person who can make a transatlantic swoop will, in part for having that power, be less able, or less willing, or both, to read the labored sequences that comprise any written work of art. Not just his satellite ventures, but the sum of his Internet interactions, which are other aspects of our completely transformed information culture.

I suppose painting faced a similar crisis of relevance once photography became cheap and widespread, and it obviously compensated by moving toward abstraction. I’d say literature is now doing the same, as would be indicated by the increasingly lesser tolerance of “realist” fiction by people who take fiction seriously.

But even granted that fiction can compensate through abstraction, I find Birkerts’ premise unsupportable. If I’m reading Dubliners, I don’t care that I can look at Ireland through Google, or even that I can take a plane out there and be in Ireland. I want to read Ireland as Joyce writes it, because I will never be able to write like Joyce did, and thus reading about his Ireland is to interlock with another subjectivity that is surely worthy of my attention. The fact of being able to go to his Ireland steals nothing from the value of attempting to approach Joyce’s mind. If that’s something you truly care about doing in this world, then who the hell cares about Google Earth? Cameras are not human beings, and seeing the world as they see it can only do so much for you.

Birkerts’ ends the essay with some thoughts on the experience of reading–which to me seem not bound to any particular age–and they are of considerably more interest than the thoughts on reading in a digital age. Dan Green has a nice exploration of them. Here’s part of it:

I do identify with Birkerts’s account of the “residue” his reading experiences leave:

. . .the details of plot fall away first, and so rapidly that in a few months’ time I will only have the most general précis left. I will find myself getting nervous in party conversations if the book is mentioned, my sensible worry being that if I can’t remember what happened in a novel, how it ended, can I say in good conscience that I have read it? Indeed, if I invoke plot memory as my stricture, then I have to confess that I’ve read almost nothing at all, never mind these decades of turning pages.

What does remain is “A distinct tonal memory, a conviction of having been inside an author’s own language world, and along with that some hard-to-pinpoint understanding of his or her psyche.” “Tonal memory” seems to me a good way of characterizing the lingering impression a strong work of fiction leaves, although it is a memory the work has indeed impressed upon the memory rather than the sort of mechanical effort of “recall” the recounting of plot entails. For myself, not only do I usually have trouble retrieving specific episodes from novels I have read more than a few months in the past, I often enough lose all but a general sense of the voice or behavior of the characters, in the case of minor characters sometimes forgetting their existence altogether. Yet I continue to feel a tangible connection to the “language world” I have encountered, which to me is the surest sign my experience of the text was worthwhile.

The storage model of reading thus threatens to reduce the reading experience to the acquisition of “information,” which Birkerts rightly resists. But I would take Birkerts’s invocation of the “language world” as the ulimate source of value in fiction even farther. Reading a work of literature should always imply the possibility, even the desirability, of re-reading.

When Translations Happen to the Wrong Writers

I don’t want to give this more attention than it deserves since the book in question is pretty much forgettable, but I was surprised to see such an unnecessarily angry and condescending attack against University of Nebraska Press (of all places) come from Cameroonian author Léonora Miano, whose book, L’intérieur de la nuit, it has recently translated into English.

Miano’s beef is that U of Nebraska mishandled the translation of her book by making a change to the title and adding a foreword. Now I can completely understand an author’s feeling of ownership over her work and a desire to have a translation reflect the original as accurately as possible. I don’t think there’s a single author in the history of the written word that likes it when an editor changes what she’s written.

But on the other hand . . . welcome to publishing. Miano is complaining that the original title, L’intérieur de la nuit, was changed to Dark Heart of the Night. Yes, not a completely word-for-word translation, but this is far, far closer to the original than a lot of translated fiction gets. For instance, see New York Times bestselling author Muriel Barbery’s Une gourmandise, which became Gourmet Rhapsody in English. Or Nobel laureate Jose Saramago, whose book Ensaio sobre a Lucidez (“An Essay on Clarity”) somehow became Blindness in English. Examples abound, but most authors don’t feel the need to air this kind of thing in public. So after seeing this somewhat off-base attack lodged at U of Nebraska, I was curious to see what Miano made of the foreword.

To be fair, so far as the foreword goes she does identify areas where its author, Terese Svoboda, could have been a little more accurate. Fair enough. They should have reconciled the foreword with the author’s life and thoughts on the text. But it’s still a wee bit unnecessary to communicate this to U of Nebraska by way of the Literary Saloon.

Not to mention, one would think that Miano’s frothing at certain details about herself and Cameroon that she claims are mishandled would make her sensitive to getting details right herself. So I was surprised to learn that:

Cameroon does not have the worse human rights record in Africa. We have a lot of issues to face, but our country is not more violent than the USA where people are killed on a daily basis for all kinds of reasons.

I don’t know about which African nation has the worst human rights record, but Careroon’s homicide rate per capita is about three times higher than the United States’. Now anyone who reads this site should be aware that I’m far from a raving nationalist–in fact, I’m quite confident that I’m much harder on my homeland than is the average American–and I have no interest in telling people that my country is better than theirs. But on the other hand, facts are facts. The U.S. is far, far more violent than it should be, but it’s not as violent as Cameroon.

Then there’s this:

I knew, when L’intérieur de la nuit (Dark Heart of the Night) was published, that some would use the novel in order to reinforce their views on Africa and its peoples. Really, I didn’t care and still don’t care about that. What I’m interested in, is the African point of view on the topics I work on. I think we’ve spent too much time hoping for understanding and recognition from people other than ourselves. It’s time we focus on our problems and deal with them, no matter how painful it is. I’m confident in our ability to do so. I’m confident in our desire to no more take lessons in humanity from people who created and used the atomic bomb, and who still have death penalty in their country. Things would be so cool if people could just clean their front door . . .

A laudable goal, and one that the book clearly aspires to, without hitting it. But I’m not quite sure how the author’s disappointment that “some would use the novel in order to reinforce their views on Africa and its peoples” squares with her reductive statement that “I’m confident in our desire to no more take lessons in humanity from people who created and used the atomic bomb, and who still have death penalty in their country.”

Frankly, that’s insulting to the thousands of people who have made it their life’s work to try and address the unequal distribution of resources worldwide, a state of affairs that, it must be said, Western nations have done more than any others to cause. True, there are people who have brought “aid” to foreign nations for the wrong reasons, and there are people who have prescribed very, very counterproductive solutions for foreign nations, but there are also a lot of men and women who have gone out there with sincere intentions and have done a lot of good. To tar them with the death penalty and the atomic bomb is . . . well, as stupid as tarring all of Africa because you read a book about an atrocity committed there.

Making Bookstores Relevant for the 21st Century

Some interesting ideas on how to make bookstores destinations here.

Hint: “Real” books is point III, right after figuring out how to make customers purchase ebooks through your point of sale.

Hey Publishing Industry: Is Steve Jobs Really Your Friend?

Chad Post, today:

To recap: A huge part of the grand hope in the Apple “magical” (how many times did this come up in the Apple presentation? Like a million? And since when is technology magical? What kind of paradoxical shit is that?) is that suddenly, thanks to the vision of Steve Jobs and the genius of Apple designers, an audience will be created that suddenly craves books. This is some god-like shit going down. From the barren landscape of gamers will rise a whole new generation of book nerds. Uh, OK.

Steve Jobs, January 2008:

It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore. . . . Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.

But maybe a magical product will get people to read.

The NYT's Pay Wall and Newsday's 35 Subscriptions

Levi Asher isn’t believing the NYT’s declaration that it’s going to build a pay wall:

New York Times management knows that a web paywall is a bad business move right now. The market is not strong for paid content and there is no foreseeable way they will profit from this. Erick Schonfeld from TechCrunch ran the numbers, and his findings are quite conclusive. Even in the best case scenario, the added revenue from a few hundred thousand annual subscription fees will not add up to a significant amount on the New York Times balance sheet. And it certainly will reduce pageviews.

Meanwhile, the major Long Island newspaper Newsday’s recent payment plan has just been inadvertently revealed to be a disaster. 35 subscriptions sold. Total.

I say the New York Times is fronting with their paywall press release. They have no plan for really risking their advertiser revenue, for exactly the reasons TechCrunch states above. The real goal of their press release was the press release itself.

The New Ways to Reach Readers

readingKevin Smokler has an excellent op-ed at Publishing Perspectives on how authors and publishers need to think in order to reach readers. I don’t agree with all of it, but the basic message is right on target: “Don’t ask readers to buy a book based on trust. Find a compelling way to preview it for them, and mass produce that.”

What we need is the equivalent of an “MP3 format” for fiction: a modest snack-sized dabble of new books and stories, capable of the same ubiquity that the MP3 has brought to recorded sound. Say what you will about how hard the 21st century has been for the music business, it remains an unparalleled golden age for music fans where exploration, discovery and kaleidoscopic fandom has never been easier nor more culturally encouraged. That record labels have not found a way to stay in business despite this bounty is both their own fault and a mistake book publishers should not repeat.

Now I’m not one to claim that multimedia is the way to go. There are few things that turn me off from a book than a movie-style “book trailer” (heck, I don’t even like trailers for most movies). Likewise, I don’t really care if you’ve documented your book with a behind-the-scenes photo shoot or have written a series of witty limericks that you accompany on your banjo.

Books’ main strength always has been–and continues to be–that they are unique in our entertainment universe because they are almost universally composed of nothing but written words (and other associated typographical symbols). If you look around, that’s a pretty unique asset these days. It’s clearly reason why I like reading so much. In terms of previewing books, marketers need to figure out how to work with this, not against it.

As to how to best do that, this, in my opinion, is great advice:

The hard reality of our time and our business is that there are a lot of books, and they compete with a lot of other attractions (and distractions) for your customer’s time and money. Plus, your best customers — avid readers — are actually less hungry for “shiny new books” than you think and already have more than enough books to fill their reading lives, most likely, until death. Given how many great books most people already own, ”new” and “fresh” by themselves are not alluring, and “new” without “why” is mere ballast.

This is absolutely true. I already own way too many books, but I’ll always buy another book if the book really excites me. If I can be convinced that this book in my hands has the right to jump to the head of my to-be-read pile because I really, really want to read it right now, then at that point the price of buying it new becomes just an afterthought.

But all the time I read marketing pitches that don’t come close to giving me this sensation. It’s true: they just trot out the cliches of the new and the fresh without giving me any sense of why I would want to experience that particular title.

From my own experience, I can say that Google Book has been very effective in serendipitously recommending me book that I not only browse but also end up purchasing. If a marketer could figure out how to harness my search terms to give me previews of upcoming books, I think that would be powerful indeed. By that same token, well-written, trustworthy criticism often is a much more powerful draw to new books than anything I get from marketers. That’s not to wholly discount marketing or to say that there aren’t marketers out there who do excellent work, only that there are other avenues than the standard techniques being used right now.

Though I’m generally on Smokler’s wavelength in this piece, I disagree rather strongly with this contention of his:

Trust: There is now an entire industry of online services, radio shows, MP3 blogs and music festivals, designed to expose like-minded music fans to new artists. We in publishing don’t have this, at least not as formally. Most readers trust book recommendations from friends long before those from publishers, editors, critics or even booksellers. Thankfully, the technology now exists to make those relationships both visible and workable. It would require significant investment from many competing interests, but imagine what a Netflix or iTunes of fiction could do for the reading experience, where books are put in play with other cultural interests — film, music, television — and you can quickly discover that a love of Mad Men might be a strong predictor for a love of Walker Percy.

Publishing quite definitely has an online collection of taste-purveyors that is at least as formally entrenched as the film or music industry’s. One of the biggest compliments I receive on this site is when people tell me they bought a book because I recommended it, or when people tell me that they’ve discovered countless new books through this site. And I know that this blog is far from being the only one that provides this service for readers.

Beyond blogs and other sites that have sprung up from the grass roots, we book-lovers also have more formalized taste-recommendation engines. Smokler is right to say that these engines have helped consumers discover new music, films, etc, but I disagree completely that we don’t also have this for books. The major online booksellers and other interested parties are clearly already doing this. If we don’t have one that is as widely recognizable as NetFlix is for movies or iTunes is for music, that’s because no one single player has managed to dominate the industry, and that’s a good thing. A world where Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s, IndieBound, Borders, and Google Book all compete to recommend the best books to me is a much better one than one in which just one of these entities dominates the taste-recommendation market.

Shop though these links = Support this site

Copyright © 2015. Powered by WordPress & Romangie Theme.