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May 16, 2011

On the resistance: books, e-books and the future

Natalee Caple anticipates my reaction to her essay “Resisting borders”, noting that to be the e-book doubter that I am, I am therefore “an unforgivable elitist who really fears becoming antiquated and so losing [my] bragging rights”. And I’m not sure about that, putting my doubting more down to me being the kind of person who carried a Sony Sports Walkman until 2002, and only stopped buying VHS a couple of years ago. But yes, it’s also about my love of books, and while I am as concerned as Caple about current threats to literary culture, I remain unconvinced that e-books are the answer to our prayers and not just cause to say another one.

First, because if we’re going to talk about “elitist” (and let’s face it, I don’t want to. As soon as anyone uses the word “hegemonic”, I start tuning out. I didn’t do that well in grad school), I’m not sure books are the culprit. Sure, e-books are accessible to writers, but in order for somebody to read one, they have to spend a couple of hundred dollars on an electronic device (that has potential for bugs in hardware and software, is going to end up obsolete in a matter of months, then live forever more in a landfill, leaking toxins into the ground). A book, on the other hand, is accessible to anybody for has the good fortune of literacy and a couple of bucks. Plus, books can live long, long second-hand lives that the e-book will only ever dream about.

For writers, on the other hand, I am not entirely convinced I want publishing to be quite so accessible. In “A Room of One’s Own”, Virginia Woolf wasn’t writing about publishing. She was writing about what a woman with the appropriate brains and talent requires to actually get down and write, and she certainly wasn’t prescribing the writing life for everyone. (You want an elitist? Introducing Virginia Woolf. I think she’d also fear being tarred as a supporter of “midlists” out of disdain for anything “mid.”) Yes, traditional publishing structures have kept diverse voices from telling their stories, and mechanisms have to be in place for this to keep changing, but I do value traditional structures for keeping truly terrible writing at home in the drawer where it belongs. My strong feelings in this area come from an experience I had which involved me having to read ten self-published novels which were so unbearably, unequivocally awful. And whose writers were so unbelievably arrogant that they believed they could publish a book even though they evidently had never read one, and certainly had no idea how to use the materials a book is constructed of (like plot, character, words, grammar, layout, etc.). This kind of access is good for nobody (and enables self-deluded would-be writers to waste extortionate amounts of money). Natalee Caple has a noble dream of re-inventing democracy, and that’s fair enough, but I wonder if she’d have a different point of view had she had to have read those ten books I did.

I am however (and so would be Virginia) fully on board with Natalee Caple’s plea for the midlists, that publishers’ drives for best-sellerdom does literature a disservice. That Lynn Coady’s Play the Monster Blind is out of print, for example, is ridiculous and tragic, but at least I found a second-hand copy that will now live forevermore on my bookshelf. Would I have had such fortune if Play the Monster… had been an e-book, however? If Play the Monster… had been an e-book, wouldn’t it have been published in a format that no device would be able to read now? (I always find myself thinking of the laserdisc at times like these).

Natalee Caple is so right, right, right in her enthusiasm, in her hypothoses about technology breaking down borders, and in her faith in the future of books in general. It’s not all about us and them though, or this and that, or about throwing out babies or bathwater. (It also isn’t about how the average reader is on Twitter, because most people really aren’t on Twitter. Broadly speaking, this is a fact.) But it’s about treading ambitiously (as Natalee is doing), and carefully (as I am inclined to do), breaking down the right borders and ensuring that the way forward will only make our literature better.

10 thoughts on “On the resistance: books, e-books and the future”

  1. I will need to think on it longer, but that Caple article makes me uneasy. Being charged with elitism in this context sounds familiar to the argument I heard in Leslieville when residents were resisting a big box super-centre at the foot of their neighbourhood. How could you not want a Wal-Mart just down the street? Don’t you know how many JOBS it will create? You are just entitled, rich downtown Torontonians who can’t see how great the SAVINGS offered by Wal-Mart are to the disenfranchised!

    As if Wal-Mart is doing anything to our society that isn’t catastrophic to the disenfranchised. And as if Amazon, Borders and Indigo’s ebook machinations are any more altruistic.

    There’s a fantasy being sold somewhere in here. I’ve just not quite worked out exactly what the angle is.

  2. Melissa says:

    This is a hilarious quote from the Caple article…”The average person reads and writes more every day in part because of Facebook, email, Twitter, and blogs. The eBook addresses those readers.”…So, is the eBook for the average reader? I wonder what the average audience is reading?

  3. Melissa says:

    I am pretty certain that the “average” reader is not reading Caple. Here is my dilemma. The championing of a new world of literature is dependent on more than an average reader or writer. I am tired of the notion that publishers are evil panderers of commercial writing — come on, give some credit to the readers out there. An eBook will not unlock the world of reading for the masses and create a renaissance because that assumes that every average person has access to this technology. Phooey!

    1. Kerry says:

      Charlotte Ashley (who is one of my favourite people in the universe) addresses the role of the reader here:

      I especially love her line “The reader has no responsibility, democratic or otherwise, to read mediocre literature”.

  4. Melissa says:

    Oh, I am so glad that you are an above average reader and writer! Thank you for another brilliant link.

  5. Zsuzsi says:

    Well said Kerry,Melissa and Charlotte,

    I’m not a Luddite (well maybe a little) but huzzas like Caple’s make me nervous. A book for me will always be a physical object (fetish object?!) and not solely the words on a page (let alone a screen)

    Also, the average reader may or may not be writing (depends what one calls “writing,” yes?) more thanks to social media etc, but I’ll bet the average writer (the Tweet-happy Ms. Atwood excepted) is writing less due to these distractions.

    Perhaps our ship has already sailed, but I’m willing to go down with it.

  6. Natalee Caple says:

    First of all thank you for reading and responding to my article! Second I just want to respond to a few points. I refer to writers who sniff at being epublished as elitists not at readers or publishers although I suppose any wholescale rejection of a new technology is elitist in my veiw (as is sniffing at another person’s vocabulary/education). As for accessibility ebooks can be downloaded (at least I know mine can) as PDFs and printed off so the same access you have to any text you have to ebooks at a lower cost and with the option of not printing them. In recent years publishers have been pulping backlist to make room for each new season and this makes many out of print books (which is now most books on backlist) unavailable. In addition writers like Susan Swan, WP Kinsella, Michelle Berry and others are increasingly being given the boot from publishing houses that are conglomerated (so when Knopf says no that means Doubleday, Random House, etc. as well). This unceremonious turfing of talent has been in every case based on the sales of previous books and not on the manuscript at hand. Add the threat the current government poses to culture in general and Canada Council funding in particular we have to start thinking of every way to preserve literature and our culture. I’m glad to see that you get the real point of the article is the endangered midlist and as hyperbolic as I try to be here I do take this issue very seriously.

  7. Melissa says:

    As artists, we need to be the voice for our craft, NOT the government. I am weary of the cliche that the government (or the publishing houses or big business) threaten art and literature. Canada Council funding does not an artist make. Artists will find a way or make a way to create and to lead to new “tribes” to echo Seth Godin. Ebooks, I still argue, require privileged access to the technology, be it the physical device, an internet connection, the availability of power and the need for a printer connection (for that printed copy — oh, wait, that paper is lovely). As a painter, I hope that my work is not replaced by the digital copy. Certainly it is fun to share the digital pictures of the work. Technology is fantastic for sharing between those that have that access. However, there is something magical in the physical piece of work and I love the artistry of a physical book.

  8. Natalee Caple says:

    I also love the physical artistry of the book and will continue to publish in every form available to me. But I am excited by range and the augmentation of publishing by a form that offers new opportunities to reach previously inaccessible audiences (international perhaps). I notice m students and my parents and their peers are downloading and reading many more books. For my students it’s about cost (a secondhand ereader can be had for less than 100 dollars and man ebooks are free or less than 10 dollars). For my parents and older readers it’s about being able to change the font size so that now they CAN read any book. I still support Coach House ECW the micropresses and I have a book coming out with HarperCollins. I called elitism on teh rejection of new technology you self-identify if you get upset.

  9. Melissa Fetherstonhaugh says:

    I am excited by the range of opportunities. Where I am having difficulty is with access. Free or inexpensive ereaders are great when you have all of the other services available. Even when I head to areas in Canada outside of main centres, my access to the internet/cell phone etc. can disappear. I reject, therefore, the vehicle as the answer. What I do want is the artist to take action and diversify the approach, for which I applaud you. So, instead of artists being polarized, there needs to be a unification.

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