Franzen, a correction

Oh dear, according to Jonathan Franzen we are imperilled by ebooksHe is not the first to fret about Kindles, and won’t be the last. It’s not a great surprise that most of the internet appears to disagree with him: presumably those who do agree have followed his example of sealing up their ethernet ports.

It is entirely Franzen’s own business to not like ebooks, and as a recent Kindle-purchaser I can see that both formats have pros and cons. But just as in science we should run at great speed away from arguments of personal incredulity, when highly esteemed writer types make pronouncements we should remember, as Christopher Hitchens would have it, that they too are mammals. The problem with Franzen’s utterances is not that he dislikes ebooks, but more a sort of misunderstanding of what an ebook is and how it behaves in the wild.

His concern with ebooks seems to be about (lack of) permanence, of the danger of mutability. He says: “I think, for serious readers, a sense of permanence has always been part of the experience. Everything else in your life is fluid, but here is this text that doesn’t change… 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…The Great Gatsby was last updated in 1924. You don’t need it to be refreshed, do you?”

Well, first of all, I’m not sure anyone is suggesting that because a book is displayed with e-ink that publishers or authors are going to start editing and rewriting their own version of Gatsby. And if they did, more power to them. Literature is alive dammit – it’s why we can read Pride and Prejudice, or read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Franzen (or at least his publishers) might have been more relieved if the fiasco of the uncorrected version of Freedom going to press had been confined to the digital realm, and it is hardly as if conventional books are immune to updating. To pick just two examples that spring to mind, Mary Shelley revised Frankenstein between the 1818 and 1831 editions (admittedly not for entirely good reasons, and many feel that the original text is the one to go for); and the 1959 edition of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited is “re-issued with many small additions and some substantial cuts”. The full 1959 preface is well worth reading as an illustration of an author struggling between the urges to rewrite passages he now dislikes and to preserve the original intent of the novel as it was written.

What is clear is that authors think twice before meddling with their own work, and that which stops endless tinkering is less technological, more artistic and social. In another medium, George Lucas has found out to his cost that his endless Orwellian changing of Star Wars has earned him nothing but opprobrium from his fans to the extent that he has now gone off in a huff. Despite saying at one point that the DVD version of the 1997 Special Edition would be definitive, he seems unable to settle, inserting a nonsensical different Anakin’s ghost here, a ham-fisted Vader ‘Noooo!’ there. It is ironic that Lucas should care so much about producing a definitive canon, when he has so manifestly given away control of his vision to all and sundry – from the joyless expanded universe (my inner teenager still feels a bit let down by Timothy Zahn) to Yoda flogging telephones to a Stormtrooper made out of cake.

This is all probably a bit lowbrow for Franzen (what do you mean, he’s not reading this? Oh, right, the ethernet cable thing.) The point is that artists who meddle with their own fiction also risk meddling with a collective memory and experience – and I’m not entirely sure that ebooks will change any of that either way.

Franzen fears that “it’s going to be very hard to make the world work if there’s no permanence like that. That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government.”  It’s true that the history of civilisation is the history of written language, but the history of humanity is also the history of oral tradition and the glorious mutations and Chinese whispers of storytelling.  And I now have in mind two images: a grumpy Egyptian stone carver fretting about how papyrus is going to bring everything tumbling down; and someone saying to Homer, ‘what do you mean, you’re going to write it down?’

Unsurprisingly, you can now get the Iliad as an ebook, which gives us another (cheap) window into the permanence of great writing. Since owning my Kindle, the books I have downloaded include only one new title – God is not Great. Apart from that I’ve download Paradise Lost, the complete Sherlock Holmes, a collection of MR James ghost stories, Dante’s Divine Comedy, The King James Bible, Heart of Darkness, and The Turn of the Screw. Partly, yes, because a number were free or under a pound, but they’re still being read. Five of those titles I already own in physical form, but having a searchable version of these texts has been incredibly useful. Furthermore, whilst Paradise Lost has sat un-perused in paperback form on my bookshelf for more years than I can remember, I devoured the Kindle version in about a week and a half. There’s probably a few reasons why this is the case, not all to do with the format, but if anything my credentials of being a ‘serious reader’ (whatever the hell that means), should have notched up a few Franzen-points.

Neither is there any reason to think that ebooks will disappear faster than paperbacks. ebooks can remain in circulation long after their paper counterparts stop being on sale, and I’d say that all the books in the world going up in flames and all the hard drives in the world being wiped are about the same level of likelihood.

A final complaint with Franzen’s views is that it is very easy for rich, established authors to be sniffy about a new technology that is opening up publishing to more and more writers. Admittedly some of this growing literary long tail is pretty bad, and we may well be in an epublishing bubble, but being picked up by an established publishing house is by no means the only measure of literary merit. It reminds me of an incident back in the 2000s before the ebook explosion (so I’m relying on memory which may be unreliable). Jeanette Winterson was talking at a literary festival and was asked by a member of the audience about whether she was concerned about how hard publication was becoming for young authors. I remember a glib answer along the lines of it not really worrying her, and if she hadn’t been a writer she would have been something else, like a gardener.  Was this, I wondered, the same Jeanette Winterson as the hungry, angry, defiant person that she paints in her 1991 introduction to the reissue of Oranges are Not the Only Fruit?

Franzen also seems to think that capitalists hate books because they are a “bad business model”. Easy to say when you’ve sold a few million copies. When you’re still working hard to build a readership you tend to be more open about emerging opportunities for commerce. This is not to say that there are not valid criticisms about the business model that Amazon enforces through the Kindle, but an electronic version of a novel without DRM is an awful lot more shareable than a paperback. If a rich author really wished to make things difficult for capitalists, he could give away his book for free to everyone, but I very much suspect we are still going to have to hand over Earth currency for Franzen’s next offering.

Caring about books and seeing the enormous potential of ebooks is not incompatible. I love a nice leather-bound volume but I do wonder if we have fetishised too much the rather perfunctory paperback. I often hear people say that ebooks just don’t feel as good in the hand as paperback.  I can see that. But sometimes the feel in the hand I want is something I can read one-handed, flipping pages with my thumb. Does the smell of a book do it for you? I agree, I like that too – although I’d worry if my desire to read was only olfactory. Mind you a scratch and sniff edition of Perfume would be something.

Also, Franzen’s books are heavy. If I ever read one, I’m definitely getting the ebook.

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