Jonathan Franzen and I have something in common: we like books. We do differ in some ways. I’ve never read Franzen’s novels. Actually he hasn’t either, but writing them probably grants him some say. Probably. Still, arrogant as I may seem, Franzen is far more egregious:
“The technology I like is the American paperback edition of Freedom. I can spill water on it and it would still work! So it’s pretty good technology. And what’s more, it will work great 10 years from now… 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. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it’s just not permanent enough.”
Now. That may seem like the harmless tomfoolery of an unabashed luddite (not bad in itself) but there are implicit dismissals in every smug syllable. In fact, it’ll be easier to do a fun line by line reading if we are to get to the crux of why Franzen’s attitudes betray his fear of experimentation and the potential for new literatures that could – gasp – splay open his chosen genre of “Literary Fiction” and flick the withered heart a little.
“The technology I like is the American paperback edition of Freedom.”
The “American” paperback edition is oddly specific. I’m guessing that Franzen doesn’t particularly care which country’s version falls into the hands of the willing reader. Perhaps he’s very fond of birds looking at giant slanty text. There’s just no way of knowing.
More important is his use of the word “technology”. This is something he’s very keen on making clear. Books in their physical form are technology. What does he mean by this? It’s a bizarre way to describe literature. Are libraries thus in possession of all the latest technology, by virtue of them containing the latest releases? I’m being fatuous, sure, but there’s thought in my inanity.
He goes on:
“I can spill water on it and it would still work! So it’s pretty good technology. And what’s more, it will work great 10 years from now.“
Franzen’s concept of good technology is its ability to withstand water damage. If someone told me their new smartphone was incredibly advanced because it could work at the bottom of the sea… sure, that’s kind of impressive I suppose. But… still. That isn’t really what it’s for. The problem is that Franzen tries to pass paperbacks as technology in the same way an embarrassing teacher might try to name Shakespeare as “The World’s First Rap Musician.” There may be a point in the argument, but it hints at a lack of confidence in sticking by one’s guns. Shakespeare was a poet and dramatist and there’s a reason that’s important. Books are books. There’s a reason why that’s important. If you’re going to defend books, why not just call them what they are, and why that’s worth preserving, instead of trying to appropriate “technology” to mean, y’know, anything.
People are afraid of technology. Proof:
No wonder. Franzen’s been made a wealthy and respected man from the traditional model. There’s no shame in that. Great authors always have. Many still do. It is in the closing sentences of the quote, that Franzen shuns exactly what makes e-books so exciting:
“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.”
Okay, that’s more or less understandable. A text may remain the same and be comforting for that, even if a reading of said text might alter along with the person reading it. But he goes on:
“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.”
This is so bizarre I’ve had to read it several times. Has an author thus far – admittedly still in the infancy of e-books – ever decided to largely edit and alter their work? If the practise were widespread, Franzen may be onto something. A novel is a substantial part of a writer’s life, a great deal of time and emotion, and the authors who wouldn’t put their work on display until every sentence rang true surely outnumbers those who would.
Regardless of all that, Franzen is missing the potential for something great. There will be (and have been) an onslaught of trashy crap made available by the unprecedented ease of e-book releasing. An inevitable annoyance (one it is easy to ignore, and utter garbage has always managed to seep into the traditional publishing route too).
Reader: you do not have to choose. There is no either/or about any of this. I’ve creaking bookshelves and a stocked iPad. The literary eschatologists are wrong. Nothing’s dying. It’s changing shape. May books become artefacts that are more than just the text. Then they shall live.
If an art form is given time, it will stagnate and lose its power to shock and challenge. Franzen is not the lone voice in traditionalist dissent, decrying the death of the novel form. That we are agog in front of screens all the more, forgetting books once existed as wads of pulped wood.
Good riddance to bad pulp. Make the physical novels worth saving. Blocks of texts are more convenient on an e-reader. A rise of authors who recognise technology as an aid to their work, rather than a death knell, can lead the charge and turn the book into an artefact. Something worth owning. Franzen must build something beautiful.