A bit more Kindling

A lot of people, in both publishing and tech, think the Kindle is a novelty device, and will be sunk by its high price and most people’s unwillingness to read books onscreen. I agree that these are problems, and perhaps in ten years, we’ll think of the thing as another Newton. But I’d bet that even if it tanks, a Kindle-like device will be the thing that, while not replacing books, takes over a good deal of the “delivery device for textual content” market.

How will this device be different from the current Kindle? For starters, it’ll be a computer. Already you can buy a reasonable laptop for about the same price as a Kindle. Why can’t Amazon add computer functionality to the Kindle, or a laptop maker add a few Kindle-type controls to a budget machine, and fit it with an “easy-on-the-eyes” screen? I’m no hardware geek, but the technical hurdles don’t strike me as high. (Except, I guess, for the battery-life problem. Though this could be solved by enabling users to switch to a “book-reading-only” mode, which would use only as much battery power as the current Kindle.)

Perhaps Amazon is already working on this. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jeff Bezos and Ian Freed—my former boss!—don’t care if Kindle 1.0 sells, so long as it impresses the public, and scares off potential competitors, and thus buys them some extra time to finish designing and testing a Kindle-computer.

And who would buy such a thing? Students! Every day, they read a lot and use computers, and they aren’t so attached to books. A Kindle-for-students is easy to imagine. Amazon would start by signing exclusive ebook distribution agreements with textbook publishers, and partnering with Microsoft to create a Kindle-only educational software suite. The device itself could be tricked out with hardware and software features that would appeal to the student market. Good speakers, for one, along with a low-cost subscription to Rhapsody, and a pre-installed Adobe Media Player for downloading and watching TV shows. Amazon could also give buyers special deals on such content as, say, electronic versions of manga and teen magazines.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Right now, Amazon could make the Kindle much more appealing by changing the way content is delivered and priced. Currently, you buy Kindle “books” unit-by-unit, the same way you buy physical books. But, as Joe Wikert suggests, a lot of people would prefer a Rhapsody-type subscription plan. And different market segments could be targeted with different plans. A “bibliophile” plan would give a volume discount to those who buy a ton of books. A “browser’s plan” would allow users to download, say, the first fifty pages of an unlimited number of books, so they could check each out before deciding whether to download the whole thing, at either regular cost or a discount, depending how many they buy per month. Low-cost Netflix-style plans would let users keep a limited number of books “checked out” at a time. Genre plans would target fans of, say, sci-fi, mysteries, and romance novels, by offering discounts on titles of a particular type, in exchange for users agreeing to buy a certain number of them every year—a modified version of the old Columbia Record Club arrangement.

Anyway, these are just a few ideas off the top of my head. Some of them might work, some might not. At some point, Amazon or another company will use them or others to take the Kindle idea to the next level—the keys being, to justify the device’s high price by offering more features, and to make the content cheaper, to give people incentive to move away from books. Probably the latter is most important, as hardware isn’t where the real money is to be made here. Indeed, perhaps Amazon should let others develop the hardware, and focus on signing as many exclusivity deals as possible with publishers, since selling content, in bulk, is the real goldmine.

Literature and the pleasure of text

I’m going to lay off Caleb Crain one of these days. But not today. Though today, I’ll let someone else take the lead: Daniel Green, who on Tuesday posted an elegant takedown of Crain’s “no will will ever read again!” whiner.

I’m never averse to a good glib summary, so if you don’t feel like reading Green’s lucid, compact piece: He says, among other things, that literature will survive because there will always be a few people who love reading it, and a few people who love writing it. Which is a point I’ve made before too. But neither his post on Crain, nor my previous posts, goes beyond that, and I think there’s more to say on the matter. Moreover, I think that the reasons why literature will survive are also the reasons why text—and thus literacy—will survive too.

Because life is short and I don’t know much about poetry, let’s confine ourselves to fiction. And let’s start by asking, What is literary fiction? Or rather, What makes fiction literary? In two words: meaningful complexity. Fiction cannot be literary unless it’s complex enough to require the reader’s active, sustained engagement in trying to understand it. And by “understand,” I mean more than “Ah, I see, A happens, then B follows, thus C is inevitable.” Literary fiction must force readers constantly to ask, What does this story tell me about myself, the world, and my relationship to it? And ideally, such fiction should tell him something new about those things.

(Not, I hasten to add, that literature can’t be about Narnia or some other faroff and/or long-ago place, or that it has to be “practical” in the sense of providing nuts-and-bolts guidance on how to live. Yes, I know this is the standard New Yorker short-story thing. But I take a Nabokovish view that the sort of self-reflection to which literature brings a reader need not be conscious and pragmatic—and indeed, ideally isn’t, and takes the form of what Stephen Kellman, glossing Big Bad Vlad, calls a “tingle… produce[d] when a book we are reading takes hold of us physically, from the brain down through the spine.”)

Of course much that is literary fails our complexity test in some way—think of Dostoevsky’s prostitutes with hearts of gold. But all literature must pass this test on balance, or it is something else. (On who gives such grades and how: ultimately, the process is subjective, and must rest with the individual reader. So what’s literature for some, isn’t for others, and while the weight of informed opinion is important, it can’t be determinative for everyone, reading every novel and story.)

There are other tests too. We also, for example, expect characters, especially protagonists, to be psychologically complex, and reflective, and want this reflection to play a key role in the work. But engaging, thought-provoking complexity, rather than its particular flavor, is the main thing.

Can non-text fictions be literary? Certainly—we can all come up with a list of films that meet this test. But I think there’s something about text that makes it the ideal medium for literature. With text, experiencing narrative is entirely an interpretive operation. Even basic sensory data, about what’s happening in the story, cannot be gotten directly from the words on the page. Say a story describes the sun as bright. Deciding what color that sun is, and how low it hangs, how bright it shines, and how it lights everything else—all this is done by the reader, if the writer so wills. Not so with an image of a sun in a film. And because a reader is always interpreting, his interpretive faculties, while reading, are sharpened, such that, when working with a good literary narrative, they become capable of creating an exceptionally powerful experience, one qualitatively different—and, for the lover of literature—more profound, than that which comes from experiencing narrative in more passive fashion.

Perhaps another medium will come along that will enable us to have similar, and similarly powerful experience. And that medium, then, will replace text as the best means of conveying literary narratives. But until that happens, even when books disappear, text will continue to flourish.

The credentialization of reading?

For good or ill, over the past couple of decades, universities, certain critics, and certain writers have worked to advance the notion that to “be” a writer, one must have a credential—the MFA, natch, would-be peer of the PhD, JD, MArch, and the like. Now, the Guardian proposes that that readers be credentialed as well. At least, readers for awards given to works of “serious fiction.” The editorial argues that to be “bookish,” and thus capable of distinguishing the good (and serious) from the bad (and thus, presumably, less serious), a judge must have a certain standing within the literary world. or have “made [his or her] career” in some field that’s part of same. The latter criterion is clear; the former is not immediately so, but on a moment’s reflection can be seen to boil down to the respect of those writers and critics and publishing folk who all consider one another to be writers and critics and publishers of serious fiction. Those who receive the awards, those who given them, and those who publish the award-winning books, that is, should all come from the same closed circle.

Harumph! says Norm Geras, and he has a point. The proposal is silly, not least because of the haut-snob tone in which the Guardian advances it. Though I’m not sure we should see their motivations as either base or stupid. The paper’s editorialists know that when a book wins an award, it sells better, and they have strong feelings about which should win this particular prize, and thus become better-known, and even if they have a friends among the nominees, and want one of them to win… Well, what of it, really? Writers are ill-paid, in the main, and who would begrudge any of them whatever cash goes to the winner.

Everyone is always worried about the state of literature—everyone, that is, who makes a living off being its protector—and I’m loath to join that group, but I suppose we should also ask, apropos the propos’, if it would be “bad for literature.” No, I don’t think it would. Or rather: it wouldn’t have any effect, if, in thinking about the state of literature, we mean the quality of the work, and its ability to find an audience.

When litprizegivers add the occasional celebrity to a jury, doing so, I imagine, has the desired effect, i.e. it makes more of the hoi polloi aware of both the prize and whichever book wins, increasing sales of same. And presumably said litgrandees have the savvy to pack the jury with enough of their own kind to outvote the ninny actress if she comes down on the side of a ill-crafted weeper-of-the-week. Thus preserving the award’s street cred, or stuffy-drawing-room cred, or whatever’s needed to appeal to the Serious. So what’s to the bad here? The phenomenon is akin to the Best American folks asking Stephen King to edit their fiction number, or Billy Collins to do the same on the poetry side.

And if the Guardian‘s proposal struck a chord among the cultelect, and prize committees and suchlike became (still) more insular, and thus fewer and fewer people knew or cared about the prizewinners? It wouldn’t matter, for literature. Other, more populist prizes would likely spring up, bringing more “ordinary” people to “better” books. But even if not, those who love such works—who love literature—would still seek it out, because they can’t live without it. And those who write those works would still do so, for the same reason. Yes, their readership would be small, as it’s always been, but culture would be just fine.

Little magazines

When you’re in a bookstore, and see a shelf full of so-called little magazines, do your eyes light up, and do you then run over to that shelf, and begin frantically leafing through them, excited about the wonders that await therein?

Or do you, like Daniel Green, stare and wonder, Why?

(Older, longer, screedish version available here.)

Punch me harder

Lincoln Allison on the insufferable sentimentality, and indisputable power, of Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol”:

“Yet when the little mite pipes up with, ‘God bless us, every one’ can I harden my heart? Can I implore the author to kill him off in a coaching accident? Can I say, ‘Bah! Humbug! Boil the little bugger with onions!’ No, I cannot; my lower lip wobbles with everyone else’s.”

Indeed.

Holidaze reading guide

One of the great pleasures of the holiday season is spending time with one’s family, in the comfort of home, and not having to leave same, even the next day, or, for the lucky some of us, the day or days after, either. Which presents, natch, the chance to engage in another of the season’s great pleasures: drink. And more drink. And after that, yet more. And then again. And then more, and more, and perhaps the occasional trick, and… Floor.