Friday, August 12, 2011

Newfangled Classics, and Some Fruit Flies: the Emergence of the Direct-to-Reader Writer

"By nature, men love newfangledness." - Chaucer

I doubt Chaucer would have been surprised at the quick adoption of ereader technology, but I wonder how he would judge the technology itself.

I’ve been thinking about this as I edit Mummer. Recently, someone asked me which draft I was working on. I couldn't tell them. By my estimation, it's probably the fourth major revision, though there have been as many as six minor revisions in between. Fortunately, I've gotten to a point now where I don't need a hard copy. Everything can now be done virtually.

In fact, there is nothing now between writer and reader except technology. I'm writing this blog for free; you're reading it for free; there's been no paper exchanged between us. Except for a face-to-face conversation (or a phone call), there is no more direct transmission of my thoughts to your mind.

Recently, I emailed my mother a copy of a half-written manuscript. She extracted the attachment and uploaded it to her eReader. The formatting was off, but the point is: there are 500 km between us, and yet, she has the equivalent of an eBook I just wrote.

Indeed, nothing but inexperience (and doubt) stops me from setting up my own eBook production and distribution company. With the right marketing skills, I could cut out all the time-honoured middle men - the agents, the publishers, the editors and type-setters, the printers and binders and packagers, the distribution houses and shipping lines and the book stores. People have done it before. They will continue to do it, and they'll get better at it as technology and skill improves.

At the same time, I'm reading some of the great classics - The Scarlet Pimpernell being the most recent eBook in my hands. I wonder: if Baroness Orczy had a Netbook and the all-powerful Wikipedia, how would her stories have changed?

Listen to this: "Great joy, especially after a sudden change of circumstances, is apt to be silent, and dwells rather in the heart than on the tongue." Henry Fielding had no benefit of backspace or cursor, no highlighting functions, no search-and-replace. And yet, with pen and paper, he crafted some of history's most remarkable fiction (though I think maybe he would have been politely encouraged to write a much shorter tome, and not break the fourth wall so often or so thoroughly).

How about this: "To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust." Henry David Thoreau hadn't so much as a typewriter. Did he have to peruse the line edits by his publisher and rewrite the whole thing over again, word by word, with pen and ink?

"It takes two flints to make a fire." Louisa May Alcott. Also, "'Stay' is a charming word in a friend's vocabulary." What else could she have said, if she had had the benefit of electric lights and a USB key?

"Charity begins at home, and justice begins next door." I think of Dickens, sitting at his tall desk, his fingers stained with ink. Instead of seeing a fiend scratching away with a dull pen, I see him more often pausing, his eyes closed and the feather of his quill tapping against his remarkable beard. Then, I see him thoughtfully dipping his quill in the inkwell and writing what he has mentally rehearsed: "It is a melancholy truth that even great men have their poor relations."

Writers like these take a world of thought and compress it into a simple, powerful statement; readers then reflect on this comment and see the world of thought behind it. It's like a literary .zip file, compressing gigabytes of thought into an easily transmittable packet, and archiving them for you to double-click, expand and enjoy at your leisure.

I'm not saying that modern fiction is utterly un-quotable. All I can say is that there's more of it, in terms of authors, subjects and genres, and formats, and not all of it is good.

That's not to say that the difference between Then and Now is the difference between Good Literature and Bad. There was crap in Dickens' day, too: "There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts." But some very worthy writing has survived the test of time, and invariably, it's because it's well thought out.

And I wonder aloud if it's well thought out because of plain, old-fashioned economy.

Think of it: in those days, ink was hard to come by, as were the pages, the candles, the furniture, and the heating to keep the ink from freezing in the well. But more importantly, writing by hand requires a certain economy of physical effort - and a lot of patience.

Infinitely more patience was required in case of a major rewrite. Even before the days of Ye Olde Save As feature, revisions were mandatory. Even Hemingway said "The first draft of anything is $#@~." And at least he had a typewriter! Nowadays, we can always throw words down on a page and go back and fix it later with a couple of judicious keystrokes and a click of the mouse.

And for the longest time, ever since Gutenberg first pushed a string of block letters against parchment, there's always been a typesetter. Even my great-grandfather was a printer; I’ve seen the press and the letter cases. Every letter was its own tiny cube, and each cube was to be set in a single straight line and nudged into place. Capital letters weren’t the magical combination of Shift + Letter; capital letters were their own cubes, hidden somewhere in the box set. Italics were in an entirely different box; there was no easy highlight and format features; if you wanted to switch a block of text from plain to italics, it was going to take you long minutes, not nanoseconds. Every effort was made to get it right the first time, because revisions weren't as easy as going back, fixing a word, then re-saving the document. The printer would have to read the entire press plate - backwards - until he could spot the problem. Multiply that by hundreds of pages - or under the pressure of getting a newspaper out the door - and you can only imagine the long-suffering attention to detail required to produce anything!

Because each book represented an enormous investment in time and money, the book had to be as near perfect as possible, long before it ever saw the light of day.

Nowadays, books require little more investment of time than it takes to write the rough draft.

So I wonder again, if the technology was available to, say, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, how would his stories have been written? Would Shakespeare have been more insightful into human nature, or would he simply have produced more work?

It's really hard to say if technology would have changed anything. There was drek in Dickens' time, and that drek must have been written with the same quill and ink, typeset by the same painstaking printers, and read by the same gaslight.

Bad writing and fruit flies have been around for a long time. But direct-to-reader technology has created a population boom in bad fiction the way an overripe banana causes swarming havoc in the kitchen. Worse, like fruit flies, bad writers zoom in on a fresh and delicious idea and regurgitate it as their own. How many "Young Adult Paranormal Romance" stories have you seen on bookshelves since Twilight hit its peak? And if it doesn't hit bookshelves, a crafty knock-off needs only sell it virtually.

Bad literature has exploded, I believe, because writing has become cheap, literally and figuratively. It’s cheaper to produce, and in most cases, considerably cheaper to buy.

If you invest nothing and you get something back, it's like you've won the lottery; invest nothing and get nothing back, so what.

But when you have to invest heavily in something, you care about it; when you invest, you strive for a return on a results - you strive to make a better product. When you're the only investor, you are also the only quality control; but when there are others involved, the writer is held to a higher standard. (Of course, it doesn't always work that way; I've seen some awful work sneak past an editorial troupe before it lands in my hands as the reader.)

The same goes for the buyer. If you buy a brand new book for a dollar, are you really going to be disappointed if the book is crap? No. You’ll toss it over your shoulder and say, “Well, at least I only paid a buck for it.” Why? Because you already know: you get what you pay for.

Nowadays, though, we live in a society that is more fascinated by sales than by value. If I said "a first-time author made a million bucks almost overnight, selling her eBooks," you may recall the brief fame of Amanda Hocking. But do you know what she wrote? Do you know if it's any good, or if her subsequent books have had any success? Would it matter if her next forty books were all crap? She's already a millionaire. (If you don't want to read the article, let me summarize in a few key words: young-adult paranormal romance, sold at a dollar apiece.

(And before you send me an angry comment, I can't judge the quality of her work either, 'cause I've never read it. I'm not into that genre, period. The question is, how many people would have bought her work if it hadn't been for her fame?)

I can't say how technology might have changed classic fiction, although I suspect Moby Dick would be a quarter of its present size and feature at least one buxom stowaway. And maybe some zombies. (I could write a whole 'nother blog post on Herman Melville alone, but dear reader, I like you too much.)

What I can say is that technology has enabled us to create entirely disposable entertainment. More than ever, readers have to weed through a morass of words to find nuggets of decent literature; and there are new classics in bud right now, I'm sure of it.

But as a culture, I wonder if we're willing to go through the hassle of judging literature for ourselves, or if we’ll just let books fester on the eMarket and let sales do the judging for us. After all, Hocking's sales went up after it became public that sales went up! And how many readers (and film viewers) checked out The DaVinci Code simply to see what all the fuss was about?

As writers in this age of fantastic technological advances, it behooves us to compose before writing, to make the best use of the editing features available to us, and not be so hasty to place another product on the market, just for the sake of calling ourselves published authors. Direct-to-reader technology has freed us from the shackles of publishing house preferences, yes; it has empowered writers to be independently and irreverently creative, yes; but we shouldn't let that freedom make us giddy or careless.

We don't just live in a direct-to-reader world; it goes both ways. To find out what readers think about you, all you have to do is pop your own name in the search bar. You may not have an editorial team at your back, catching your gaffes and filling your plot holes; but you do have an army of critics waiting for you, and they have as much direct access to your readers as you do. Maybe even more.

"Always speak the truth, think before you speak, and write it down afterwards." Lewis Carroll.

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