FORUM QUESTION: A NEW ARCHAEOLOGY
When the novel first emerged it was considered trivial entertainment. The literary productions most honoured were to be found in verse and sometimes on stage. As those media waned in their traditional states, the art of song writing matured and attracted many of the talents driven by poetry. Cinema rose into a global phenomenon—becoming the major cultural agent for all Western cultures.
We are presently watching the book dwindle into the doddering ineffectuality of old age as print media prepares for retirement. A new medium is already emerging. It is often considered trivial entertainment, just as the novel was in its youth. Will an e-form emerge in the coming generation as the new literary standard? Is the blog already the key artefact for a new archaeology?
I really don’t think this is the end of the printed book as we know it. Many publishers tell me this is a boom time for print publishing, actually. But I find the idea of blogs and so on being part of a ‘new archaeology’ quite interesting. Are you suggesting that the whole thing is about to collapse like a doomed ancient civilisation, fit for future archaeological digs? Or perhaps i’m reading too much into this …
The idea of archeology is that we use remnants of a vanished culture to reconstruct their society. With the blogging world we’re dealing with remenants that are constantly vanishing so that even after a few years we feel like sections of our culture have been lost. If we look through the blogs of the literary community in Australia we find a class of people relegated to almost total insignificance by the dominant culture. The comments back and forth between bloggers, the posts, the links, etc, become a document for a section of the population that is being beaten into the dust.
I must say I very much like hearing the word ‘class’ in this context. It is often assumed all writers are in ‘it’ together, that they have common interests and so on (especially in the postmodernist, post-political, post-ideological discourses apropos of the internet) most of which I find insincere and silly. So I agree with you that there exists a ruling class in the literary world, and that anything that might offer a way of resisting their hegemony is a good thing. But I’m not sure if online phenomena like blogging are, as you’ve put it, ‘being beaten into dust’ because they’re in the way of the ruling class or because they’re too fragmented and ‘dusty’ (that is, an effect of hegemony) to begin with. I think the digital scene does have the potential to challenge the inequalities that characterise the print publishing milieu (the wikileaks ‘event’, seen as a purely journalistic phenomena, could be an example; although it too was swiftly co-opted by print newspapers) but I feel this potential is yet to be realised.
If writers are being pushed further and further into cultural insignificance, then a street brawl among those that are devoted to literature is not what I’m hoping to see. The ‘ruling class’ of the literary world are themselves servants to the dominant culture, and there’s little point in trying to subvert their ‘authority’. There is a process of democratisation going on within our industry, in small press publishing and e-publishing, but the fight I’m more interested in, is for cultural relevancy. A blog is part of a forum, and voices that in the past were provided no opportunity to be heard, can now at least find places to speak. So much so, that there’s a fear of deluge, as though the masses will start speaking and destroy all literary values. It’s a panic that the barbarians are not at our gates but thrive within the city itself. There are no gatekeepers to a blog and it’s only commerce is with others who want to hear a blogger’s voice. The authority of the voice, the value of its message, is what distinguishes it. That’s all that a writer can ask for. So a blog can indeed become a new literary standard, judged purely on its merit. If it has none, it will simply be ignored. The goal of a blog can be to subvert dominant groups who seem to govern taste and distribute the small-change they have been granted by the dominant culture. I think it’s more important to look for an engagement with a readership. To reach beyond the Intelligentsia and reclaim the audience.
Well, I don’t think writers are being pushed into cultural insignificance – some are, but some aren’t. I’ve been to a number of literary festivals recently, and from what I’ve seen (lavish sums of many being spent to accommodate more important guests in five star hotels; very long queues of fans waiting to get their books signed; five figure advances for new books by commercially successful authors; literary awards each worth tens of thousands of dollars; major grants, commissions and residencies; and so on) the ruling class of the literary world are, for better or for worse, nowhere near extinction. If they are, as you say, servants to the dominant culture, then they are getting rewarded particularly well for their servitude. (I could quote some frankly mind-bugling figures here.) I know mainstream/popular media doesn’t pay much attention to contemporary Australian writers, but many contemporary Australian writers are doing very well without any need to plug their books on Hey Hey It’s Saturday. So I do think subverting their authority is crucial – even if you disagree with me that it’s something worth subverting in and of itself – if only because the Intelligentsia dominates and controls the means by which one can reach an audience. My earlier experiences as a self-published writer (particularly seeing my book removed from the shelves of a so-called independent bookstore to make room for books by commercially published authors) have made me aware of not only the injustices in the publishing/bookselling world, but also how these injustices result in some authors being deprived of, precisely, an opportunity to engage with a readership. Does the internet help us get around that? I.e. can class struggle – the unavoidable antagonism between unpaid and overpaid writers – disappear in the cyberspace? I’m not sure. I really wish the barbarians were at the gate.
Vox: Sunil Badami
Vox: Jessica Au
Vox: Laurie Steed
Vox: SJ Finn
Vox: Nigel Featherstone
Vox: Les Zigomanis
Vox: Louise Swinn
Vox: Ben Carmichael
Vox: Pierz Newton-John
Vox: Ashley Capes
Vox: Ryan O’Neill
Vox: Alice Gage
Vox: Sam Twyford-Moore
Vox: S. Van Berkel
Vox: Emmett Stinson
Vox: Maria Takolander
Vox: Peter Farrar
Vox: Jeff Sparrow
Vox: Emma Dallas
Vox: Kirk Marshall
Vox: Sam van Zweden
Vox: Ivy Alvarez
Vox: Eric Dando
Vox: Gabrielle Bryden
Vox: Demet Divaroren
Vox: Mark William Jackson
Vox: Bel Woods
I think blogs remind us of a time when life was more connected. In some ways they’re a new translation of something that has little to do with writing, and more to do with society trying to remember how to communicate in conventional ways. You know, when you bumped into your neighbour at the letterbox and just chatted.
Or when you were read books chapter by chapter at school, the teacher explaining the context of the novel, as you gazed out the window and let it all soak in; when families discussed a news story at the breakfast table, or your parents gossiped, where names were rarely mentioned though everyone knew precisely who was being spoken about; or when your uncle took you out to the yard and gave you gardening tips as you tumbled the earth with your fingers.
Blogs are particularly empowering for writers. They can showcase their flash fiction, or poetry, long before their work hits the shelves. As a new writer, I think it’s more likely we’ll look back at all our postings and cringe.
It concerns me though, this new archaeology (if it is, in fact, a new archaeology). As I watched Pixar’s Wall-E with my son the other week, I started to think about where we are headed if we become linked through technology alone. What if we forget the old ways of communicating? Will this then be a world of internal monologues not wholly shared? Stories created from lives not lived? If so, then it won’t just be the book dwindling, but story itself.
I was discussing this with fellow writer, Les Zig, and he pointed out that for the blog to evolve to that point, where they’re created from lives not lived, it essentially becomes fiction anyhow. To quote him: “It’s actually bizarre if you think about it. Like the snake swallowing its own tail”.
Perhaps it will come down to effort. For many, the novel has always required too much work. It’s an effort to pick it up, it requires effort to read, and it’s an effort to discuss, more so than a simple blog post. Maybe we have only enough energy to keep a narrative if we cut off at the 300 word mark.
Despite this, I firmly believe the book will live on. The novel as a book especially. I’d also advise you not to believe everything you hear.
I’ve been assisting with the selection of stories for an e-book that will be associated with an established literary journal. All pieces submitted to the print journal are being considered for the e-book, if accepted, writers will be asked if they are happy to be published electronically, they will be paid the same amount as the print edition.
Surveys have shown that it is older writers that are more acceptable of electronic publication. I don’t know if this is because they have already been published in print, probably to a limited readership and are excited by the wider distribution potential of electronic media. Younger writers might either be enamoured by the perceived credibility of print, or feel that they could vanity publish electronically and avoid the submission path.
Vanity publishing electronically releases all manner of worms from various cans. Apparently, a new blog is created every two seconds, obviously these are not all literature but it does make for a mammoth pile of crap to sift through in order to find the ‘good’ stuff. Most noticeable in the blogosphere is the omission of editors, that is; copy editors, proof readers, selection based on aesthetic guidelines etc.
With the works I’ve been reading, the e-book will be associated with an established and respected literary journal and will go through the same editing process as the print version in the interest of ‘brand’ protection.
This potential free-for-all vanity publishing threat leads me to Laurie Steed’s comments in this forum. After print dies (which I don’t believe it will entirely and will explain later) who will control distribution of e-works. An hegemony is forming, a three-headed Cerberus, Google-Apple-Amazon. Digital rights management (DRM) considerations threaten to bottleneck an otherwise infinite distribution channel, honest consumers could be punished for buying a book through legal means rather than choosing the bit-torrent, pirate channel and taking a non-restricted “free” version.
With a rigorous editing process, electronic media does offer amazing possibilities. Apart from the technological advantages – such as cross-media creations and active links within text – the distribution potential could reinvigorate the market. Not only the fact that a book could be released simultaneously around the work, but simple considerations like shelf space. Traditionally, unless you were Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, or, dare I say, Stephenie Meyer, the chance of a book store stocking your 200,000 word, wide spined book was next to nothing. It’s all about real estate, and shelf space is very valuable, shelf life for a new release is three to six months, then it’s back catalogue or the dreaded bargain basket. E-books remove the restriction on size. This works equally for smaller publications. As Nigel Featherstone wrote in this Forum, by quoting his interview with Mandy Brett, the cost considerations of print will no longer be an issue. This is great news for poets and short story / novella writers, and in turn, great news for readers who haven’t had this purchasing option for a while, the shorter form being ideal for the pace of today’s world.
Print will not die. This morning I listened to a podcast of the Book Show where the move of comics from 22 page single editions, to multi edition graphic novels, to electronic media was discussed. One panel member recalled that radio did not kill newspapers, television did not kill radio and the internet / e-book will not kill print. Print will find a niche market, to a large extent it has already – in a survey conducted by the Jenkins Group (US), 70% of adults in the US have not stepped into a book store in the last five years. Ironically this same survey found that 80% of the US population want to write a book (WTF?). The Book Show panel members spoke of the print future with regards to the e-distribution of comic books. A question at the end of some electronic graphic novels asks “like what you read? Buy the hard copy.” Click a link and you’re taken to hard copy distributors, both online and shop front.
There will always be people who like to be surrounded by books, floor to ceiling bookshelves, walls “wallpapered with savages”, words threatening to leap and choke you when you least expect it. The new media merely offers a cheap, but infinite, distribution channel which will ultimately lead to a wider readership.
The e-form is the future and will hopefully revitalise an industry that is otherwise in demise.
Broadmeadows shopping centre was packed with bargain hunters the day Barbie moved in. Prams and trolleys dodged human traffic and people rushed past oblivious to the twisting pain in my guts. In the left hand corner of a brightly lit shop plastic limbs cluttered the space where Angus and Robertson’s top 100 books used to be. Barbie and friends now lived where Jean M Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear series had lured me into a fictional world and inspired me to write. A sense of loss tailgated me for the rest of the day like a shadow.
Things were changing.
Younger cousins were balancing alternate realities, their bodies firmly planted in the lounge room, plugged into IPods. “Hi Demi,” they’d yell when the colourful devices were miraculously absent. “We’ve missed you!” Hugs would last until other devices beeped. “The pie’s ready!” they’d say, flying out of my arms and into artificial restaurants. Just as the tamagotchi was upgraded with sophisticated games and gadgets, it’s naive to think the novel wouldn’t face a similar challenge. Yes it’s the age of technology but some things are irreplaceable. Curling up with a good book, coffee in hand, staining it in your haste to get to the next page. That surge of excitement when you enter a bookshop or library where worlds and possibilities surround your physical space.
Reading is an intimate act that requires physical, emotional and mental connection. I choose to have no technological barriers in my experience and I’m not the only one. There’s naturally going to be a digital readership but that doesn’t necessarily mean that paper books will be forced into retirement. The arrival of an e-form offers readers wider access to books. As a writer, I couldn’t ask for a better agreement. As a reader I choose stained pages and curled ends.
Future generations will grow up reading from screens. This is what they will know. This is what they will love.
There will be a great choice of screens and content and they will be savvy navigators of this e-world. They will consider the world of paper books and newspapers to be quaint and slightly amusing. They will have looks of bemusement on their faces when their teachers tell them that people used to read predominately from printed materials.
They will have access to a variety of screens to read from (tablets, e-readers, mobile phones and other types of screens not invented yet). They may switch from screen to screen depending on whether they are travelling, at home, at work, in bed. Young people with good eyesight may be happy with the use of one screen.
People who can’t afford screens will be able to access public screens, big and small. Libraries will pay for the screens and the content; and the public will be able to loan these products. The general public will pay for the libraries if this is considered of public benefit (as it is today).
Everyone will be able to access novels, novellas, poetry, dictionaries, reference books, magazines, journals and other collections of words and pictures. The same screens will also be able to access social media (twitter, facebook etc.,) which in turn links to an endless variety of written content such as breaking news and celebrity gossip.
Future software and screen technologies will integrate the inflow of data in a seamless manner, ensuring the effortless exchange of information from screen to screen.
People will know about print media, but rarely read from a hard copy. Print copies will be available for some written and pictorial matter but at limited print runs, high cost and only for select ‘special’ materials such as art and photography books, and best sellers. There will be some small presses and independent publishers who persist with printing not for profit ezines and chapbooks of poetry.
Future generations will have never seen a newspaper. Breaking news will be accessed from twitter and facebook feeds. People will pay for the download of whole newspapers and magazines onto their tablets. Many people will get their news for free but quality will take a nosedive.
People will read updated blogs on a regular basis, as they used to read print magazines and newsletters, and will tailor their blog feed to their lifestyle choices. Mothers, fashionistas, foodies, home renovators, gardeners, lovers of stories, poetry and art, travellers, political groupies, environmentalists – there will be blogs for everyone.
Longer collections of words (novels, children’s books, collections of short stories or poetry, reference books etc.,) will be read from a screen. Many will be interactive, with videos, music, and links to further information. People of the future, with short attention spans, will demand an interactive experience (to match the entertainment level of games consoles, 3-d movies, videos and fast paced television shows).
Interested people will visit museums and select libraries to see collections of paper books. The elderly proprietors will tell anyone who is listening that paper books had marvellous hand held qualities and dusty smells that made people swoon.
I think the interactive nature of Blogs is fun and useful for serious writers. It reminds me a bit of sharing new writing with other students in a short story class at RMIT or something like that. I find that after I post something, many new possibilities and revisions will jump out at me as I reread the piece. I love how I can make these changes straight away and the piece becomes more economical.
So I use my Blog (ericdando.com) as part of my editing process and I am occasionally embarrassed about some of the things I post: sloppy, bad spelling, bad grammar, bad ideas etc.
I really love how I can scan cartoons/pictures/symbols and I am really excited at how these look placed with text in different narratives, the scope of that.
Essentially it is a little bit like producing chap books for friends and family but cheaper and instantaneous. I am sometimes disappointed that some journals and publishers consider work posted on Blogs already published. However this has often driven me to produce more new writing to accommodate them. New writing is always a good thing.
I recently got myself an iPhone so that I could view the Sleepers iPhone app sleepersapps.com which included 3 of my short stories and a poem. It is true that I am always eager to see anything with me in it. So I was very eager to see my work in this new format and nobody I knew would download it for me. I think most people didn’t know how. But if you like being economical with text, you will like reading all six Sleepers Almanacs for $6.
(update: I have five stories in the sleepers iphone app now which includes the Sleepers Almanac #7 – featuring my latest story Human Beans from my new graphic novel Beautiful Useful Things.)
I am also very impressed with the new Going Down Swinging online journal #31 goingdownswinging.org.au, which includes multimedia such as video and sound, my favourite being “Cheesie” by Grover Mapleton which is an overheard conversation about different fried cheeses, set to music. A conversation you can dance to. It’s very catchy and about time someone housed-up all that cheese talk that is usually wasted in the kitchen.
They also showcase text and drawings from my new graphic novel, Beautiful Useful Things and much more.
I have made an eBook version of my second novel Oink Oink Oink, but I had to use an early draft, slightly different to the finished manuscript. I’m still not happy with it and am constantly striving to make it as finished as it can be.
I think recently the price of such devices and their Android cousins have become more affordable and accessible. So now there is no excuse, everybody can consume eBooks cheaply and easily on their iPads and iPhones and Android knock offs.
When I downloaded the Kindle app on my iPhone I received a free copy of Treasure Island and began reading it at lunchtime at work, in an effort to avoid talking to people. Perhaps they think I am rereading the same text message over and over, I just don’t care anymore. I had already read Treasure Island as a real book in other lunchtimes a few years earlier and can report that the experience is very similar to reading a real book. I did not have trouble reading the text, I did not squint at the words. I was suitably engrossed and lost within the text as I usually am when reading a good book.
I’m up to the part where Ben Gun hides in the treetops and pretends to be the voice of the dead Captain Flint, as the rest of the pirates search for the treasure buried somewhere in the sand. ‘Fetch aft the rum,’ says Ben Gun from the trees in a spooky voice. ‘Fetch aft the rum,’ he says again.
After reading on an iPhone I do not feel the need to purchase a Kindle or similar eBook reader. As more and more people become confident with downloading and reading eBooks, they may also become comfortable with paying small amounts directly to authors to read their work.
Smashwords, for example, pays authors 70% of the royalties for each book sold and does not stake any claims to the intellectual property rights.
I still desire to self publish small press books which may one day become collectable artefacts.
I do not agree that eBooks or blogs will kill or damage or replace the tactile and beautifully made small press books that are pleasing to the eye and the touch and the collector. However, I do think they will compete with mass produced books from large publishers. But why should I care about the fortunes of large publishers?
I predict more and more troublesome ‘middle list’ authors will begin to self publish their own books very cheaply, selling them as small limited editions from their blogs and web sites, as well as making them available as eBooks for iPhones and iPads and Androids of all kinds on many platforms.
The Book Barn
As an author in the late 90’s, I was left without any copies of my first novel, Snail, when Penguin dumped them in a bargain bin. Perhaps they were pulped. I would have bought them all outright if they were offered to me. Up until then I had been buying boxes of them and selling signed copies slowly at poetry and spoken word events, and to family and friends. So suddenly, I was without a means to promote myself as a writer and this was something I had devoted my life to. Penguin turned me into a literary Craig McLachlan.
So I was and still am always on the lookout for copies of my out of print novel Snail. I search opshops, markets and second hand book stores. I found two copies at The Book Barn on Daylesford Lake during Easter this year. They were $8 dollars each. When I bought them, the guy said, ‘Wow, you must really like this book.’ I felt pretty weird and stupid for not telling him I had written it. I just sort of froze.
Then, I went back to The Book Barn a few months later and found another copy of Snail. It was also $8. I was really excited, I took it straight up to the counter and said, ‘I wrote this book,’ so the guy said I could have it for $5.
Published paperback copies of Snail (Penguin, 1996) have also appreciated in value over time, with copies being posted on eBay for $70 and upwards.
I’m not sure if this is a good thing, but more than one person has told me they have stolen a copy of Snail from their local library, such was their desire to own the artifact for themselves. Of course stealing an eBook will be much less of a crime in the future.
***winks enigmatically to camera and clutches chin for author photograph***
The rise of e-publishing is already enshrining the book (especially handmade books) as a fetish object. Perhaps one day people will go around carrying these books as jewellery, new status symbols denoting prestige.
But that’s the physical form of the book. The novel, the contents of a novel, its plots and narratives: these are not trivial. There is a reward in the reading, whether enlightenment, entertainment or escape.
I think we are in a state of flux. People will pendulum between the physical book and the ebook. Eventually, it will swing further in one direction but at the moment, not yet — not for me anyway.
My personal affections will always lean towards the book. Still, I am mindful that, as a writer, I would want my work to reach its audience, in whatever forms that might take.
Reeling between aloneness and togetherness. I am not panicked. I am excited by the places where the two worlds meet. Postmodern trickery on the page would make little to no sense if Google hadn’t changed the way we read. Last night a tweet-up saved my life.
pages. written. musty library books. overdue fines. rainy day curling up with coffee and. lining shelves. procrastinating by alphabetizing. holding a secret in my hands. my own copy. book shop. dreams – one day I’ll have my own. running out of room for. exchange. hunting op shops for. I’m feeling down, can you bring me a? lying in the sun reading. notes in margins. inherited notes in margins of second hand copies. judging by a cover. judging by embossed lettering and quality of paper. dog-eared pages. book art. perving on commuter’s reads. bags full of. café corner. lending etiquette. physical copy signed by physical author at physical launch. smell of pages, pages, pages.
www. one click. hyperlink. interactive fiction. free classics. twenty-three books in a 7×5” space. poetry slam via video link with some guy in Finland. narratology of WOW. screen caps of everything everything. @hashtag. like comment share. send it to me. networking on the network. saying something while pointing elsewhere (see: book art, above). sparknotes saving students worldwide. 99c publication. leave a comment. twitterature. inbox me. she popped up. pingback.
”One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.”
One ought, every minute at least, Youtube, Tweet, Instagram, and if it were possible, Skype.
Reeling between aloneness and togetherness, and I am happy at this impasse.
Here’s how I choose to argue the incommensurably debatable, incommunicably topical conundrum as to whether the emergence of e-publishing signifies the “demise” of print publishing (which I’m certain we’re all resolved to agree wouldn’t be an especially dignified or auspiciously indemnified death, but would probably involve blood, entail entrails, command carnage, inspire violence): I’m forever resigned to envision an alternative world, a feasible future, a caricatured grotesquery of reality populating some Philip K. Dick short-story, in which these sorts of speculative arguments collapse into one another like farts in an echo chamber. It’s not that the praxis of publishing, nor discussion, debate, hyperbole, hypothesis or even a literary soliloquy addressing the fate of formats is devoid of value – it’s not a question of intellectual economics, it’s a question of whether a rampant concatenation of contentions from writers and editors can constitute anything short of pretentious – but after the months of monotone dialogue that any individual invested in literature must endure when conversation about the future of publishing abounds, I’m left feeling somewhat devoid of a voice. Let me tell you a story as to why this is the case – as to why all vacillating views on the evolution of publishing might not even be valid. A few years back, when I was younger and more adventurous but no less handsome, I relinquished ongoing employment as a full-time teacher in Tokyo, Japan, and returned to Brisbane, Queensland, to work for minimum wage and free felafels in an Australian performing arts bookstore, which was sequestered below street-level and kept in a state of reasonable disarray where cats seemed to always spawn from between the floorboards. The bookshop will have to remain unattributed, but I’m comfortable enough to disclose the personal tyrannies of the shop’s pyrrhic inhabitants, and specifically those of my boss, a piratical sycophant with the heart of a giant aardvark. A kind of Zarathustrian übermensch who assumed the disquieting physical status of Hemmingway, equipped with the faculties of an elegant like Laurence Olivier and the facial hair of the Brothers ZZ Top, my boss was a fantastical misanthrope who would smoke Toscani cigars at the counter, swill cask wine from the only clean highball he claimed to possess, and swear at his customers if they asked him to locate a book by ISBN. I distinctly recall one torrid afternoon when, an hour before I would close shop, he arose storming from his back-office to explain to everyone currently occupying his establishment that they were all “cunts” and if he had a gun on premises, “browsing might become fun for everybody”. He was constantly amazed that his bookstore continued to attract patrons at all, but such an emotion manifested itself as a Gordian knot within his sheer interior, because he loathed the idea of transacting business – my boss was an avowed Communist, and often quoted aloud from The Communist Manifesto – and yet feared falling into bankruptcy by resisting to sell his wares. He was a gregarious ex-emeritus professor of Literature and Philosophy who had, for decades, engaged in combat with the “coterie of academic fucks” occupying Queensland’s pre-eminent tertiary institution, and had retreated into a tiny life of bookselling, daytime drunkenness and month-long heart attacks. On one profound occasion, he cornered me in the store during business hours to extol the pleasures of eating marijuana by the leaf, which he advised “was an elevator to the stars”. During my three-month stint as bookstore assistant, dogsbody, and infrequent fire warden, my boss paid me cash-in-hand from the same teapot he used to brew tea. He retained a corkboard honour wall with almost obsessive focus, which he decorated and scrapbooked with the many faultlessly eloquent civic complaints that he had published in the city newspaper. He chased me around the store chanting C.J. Dennis’s The Glugs of Gosh in an attempt to dismantle the mechanics of freeform verse, and when I found myself stonewalled between two shelves of children’s books, shaken and with no salvation in sight, I could do little else but succumb to song:
“Begone, red Devil!” I made reply.
“Parch shall these lips of mine,
And my tongue shall shrink, and my throat go dry,
Ere ever I taste your wine!”
What I am revealing here, perhaps for the first time, is that I loved the man: he was of angelic muscle, and his lust for life was violent and infectious. I harbour not a single reservation when I confess that, despite occupying only a crazy three-month ellipsis in my life prior to my move to Melbourne, he persists in my memory as a favourite boss. Perhaps the most significant disclosure in context to our discussion of e-publishing, however, is that the man was a rampant champion of technology: he preferred to populate his days by playing Space Invaders in preference to consolidating stock via Thorpe-Bowker’s Booknet, and found it appropriate to demythologise the 3D motion-capture rendering of Angelina Jolie’s Scandinavian porn-Gorgon in Robert Zemeckis’s Beowulf, insisting that a perfect world would be one in which we all participated in suitmation by wearing svelte spandex, to transubstantiate our flesh for pixels, our dicks for vectors. He took me aside one morning and confided that he was dying from heart disease, and that the bookstore was no longer commercially viable – I think we both laughed at this juncture – and that he would have to liquidate his assets. His speech wasn’t entirely lucid, now dislocated of his common bombast so that appeared small before me, a man of vast shoulders but small dividends. He kept mopping his face with the palm of his hand – it was a fact that we were seized by a Queensland summer, but it wasn’t the sort to squeeze from between your pores – and I discerned the image of a defeated lion at the threshold to our store, as he turned his back to me and gazed accusingly at the street. “One day soon, you won’t find a single fucking book on a shelf,” he muttered, his eyes squinting through the shopfront glass, a tornado whistling through his septum. “I’m not assuming the role of a doomsday prophet here, either. A book will either be electric, pure thought, reduced to an electronically-calibrated text document that people download, read, discard, pirate precisely like gaming shareware – or it will be a kitsch hardcopy print-object that is purchased via the internet, from behind the colophon of an online bookstore and from inside a cardboard box secreted beneath a web developer’s bedroom mattress. It will be both these things, and neither will come to occlude or cannibalise the other. I’m looking right square at the future,” he rumbled, the musculature in his neck summoning up visions of dinosaur flesh thrashing through gingko canopies. “I’m standing right at the brink here, Kirk, we both are, and this is the future. Books will be two things, and they will be the same thing, and people will again convey their monstrous ignorance by arbitrating false values that one of these things is superior to the other. But it won’t matter. Because booksellers will become new again. It’ll be like we’re finally all lycra-clad performers in a collective act of suitmation. We’ll forego these physical ramparts for pixels, and we won’t have to invest a flying fuck in the worries of pundits or patrons. Literature is gonna invade cyberspace, and people like you and me who it’s slowly killing might be able to retire, happy, fresh cannabis in our mouths. They’ll set us all on pyres to Valhalla, set upon the rafts with torches, and we’ll ebb out into the wine-dark brink, words crackling between fibre-optic cables within our earshot like a dying applause.” He turned to me then, and regarded me with eyes that were dry and full of sorrow for a day he would not greet. “No-one will ever say that I mattered. That’s the very point. If there’s words swarming behind computer screens or between covers in days to come, I wouldn’t want to matter. The words will be king, and we’ll all have won. Not a single cunt will interrupt our tea-breaks ever again.” At the doorway, his body spangling against the daylight, his shadow cast the store in a hue I don’t even think it’s important to debate.
There has always been, since the first painted palm was pressed to a cave wall, a desire to create a tangible impression of our thoughts. I’m beginning to think of blogs as paintings on our walls. If these are to be our artefacts, if the technology doesn’t become so obsolete that no one remembers how to extract data from it, then bring it on.
Thoughts as artefact. Imagine if we could press a palm against a cave painting and understand how the painter felt, what they were actually thinking. I know blogs aren’t always brilliant or literary in a traditional sense, but we are making them by the million and quite often loving it. What could be more interesting than browsing the unfiltered thoughts of a generation as well as the crafted books and print journals? Blogs add a layer, they don’t take one away.
It seems to me that a lot of people are saying print isn’t dying, its just becoming more beautiful. I call bullshit. I enjoy reading those mass-produced orange paperbacks as much as the rest of the population buying them by the armload, but I sure as hell don’t enjoy displaying them in my home.
Publishing has always been about technology. In the beginning, technology was simple: paper, ink, quill. When presses came along it changed the game and what a fucking gift it was. We have never looked back. Let’s not stop and stick in the mud now just because the game is beginning to change once again.
Let’s look at the game for a moment. Though the novel began as entertainment, it grew into a form so powerful we are fighting to keep it. I don’t believe the novel will die but I do believe the blog will rise to take a place quite near it. Good blogs are being written, coming in waves, the best rising into shining mackerel-backed crests, the poor ones remaining flat and blue, but you don’t have to read them.
If you want to, you can revel in the glorious mixed bag of everything. Now is a time when we can read what we want, how we want and then change our minds and go back again in half an hour.
If you’re a hard-backed literary purist, then I’m the worst offender there is. I write a blog and use a pseudonym – it’s a gossip channel from an imagined persona to the inattentive masses – and I also write long form; a traditional, likely-to-be-rejected-by-the-publishers novel. To round it out a little I also write for an online music journal and edit a print magazine.
Some days I want to be savage and remove box after box of books from my crowded house. I imagine what it might feel like to live in a genuinely clutter-free home. How easy it would be to move house the next time a landlord or lady decides to kick me out. The next day I want to raise the ceilings and pave the walls with beautiful tomes and this right here might be the trouble. Collectively, we don’t know what we want; we imagine one thing incompletely and then try to imagine it again, and end up somewhere else.
People seem obsessed with the physicality of books; caressing them, holding them, dropping them, bathing with them. Like taking a new lover, you might need to drop a guiding hand down once in a while until your body develops a feel for it but sooner or later it becomes second nature.
We’re gestating something here, preparing to birth a new beast. E-books could turn out to be fly, ointment or minotaur, but then again they might not. On my desk today, I have a pile of yellowing paperbacks, a smartphone, a laptop, two newspapers, three magazines, an e-reader, an mp3 player, a turntable, at least three notebooks and various pens and pencils. I’ve got choices.
Let’s stop predicting for a moment and take a photograph of now. If this is the dying light of the print era then let it shine on me. Right now, today, I can get it however I want it and that’s fucking great. Bring on the changes. I’ll take all the kinds of books you’ve got because, like so many people, my first and enduring love is reading somebody else’s words.