“In proportion as the mass of citizens who possess political rights increases, and the number of elected ruler’s increases, the actual power is concentrated and becomes the monopoly of a smaller and smaller group of individuals.” – Paul Lafargue.
In regards to the debate of e-books and how new technology will change the publishing landscape, I have a yes and no response to it all. On one hand, I can relate to a certain phrase that you may have heard:
“There is no avant-garde just those left behind…”
On the other hand I do wonder what relevance any of this could possible have to those less financial, given that they’re not part of the middle-class that wants to keep having this blowhard debate.
I am certain that if you went out into the middle of Australia, the Arrente tribe’s people wouldn’t be concerned with your Kindle, or how it affects the publishing industry.
Notice that I reference it as the ‘publishing industry’, because to be honest, none of this really concerns writers at all, and any bookseller, or publisher, that tries to steer such a debate into how it affects writers is clearly delusional, or in the business of political spin, and above all else, a rotting capitalist.
This has nothing to with polemics, or empirical concerns, or philanthropy, it’s about turning a coin, or from a publisher’s point of view, how to stop money severely leaking out from their industry, an industry that has all the hallmarks of organised gangsters.
When one reduces down the debate to what it’s really about, then one can’t help but become uninterested and realise that none of this is important. Imagine what aliens would think if they came here in their spacecraft and found us all raging about E-Readers. However, taking that into account, a bunch of toffs raging about new technology probably wouldn’t be high on the list of reasons that would make them turn around and take flight. You can see the absurdity of all this eternal guff. It’s the dog-chasing-it’s-own-tail conundrum. It’s a fallacy, this isn’t an issue to anyone except rich people wanting to get richer.
One of the ‘guilt trips’ during the parallel importing debate, and now the new technology debate, was that this would be detrimental for local writing. As if publishers, or booksellers, in this country had ever done anything for local writers, and if they had, they had done it from a point of provincialism.
What needs to be asked is what are they afraid of losing? People, who claim to be independent, are not, they clearly have their own political agenda, and any tripe messed up under the guise of ‘trying to assist local writers’ is all bulldust.
Booksellers and Publishers don’t care about you, or anything else except protecting their own monopoly in a marketplace. Will E-Books take this away, who knows, who cares, but it certainly has them worried.
Money and power is what this is about, not your reading experience, or even your shopping experience. This is about cartels and nothing else. It’s also interesting to notice their ineptitude. In progress, or say evolution, or change, one can reach a stage of stasis. This prolonged stasis, usually occurs before de-evolution. The industry is in a state of pointless debate, a stasis, but what’s really making them go mad, is their ineptitude to make a buck. They were high jumped at the first turn by other entrepanuers, in most cases writers taking control of their own fate, and this really gets up in their noses. They don’t like this. Oligarchies can suffer malnutrition and then evolve into tiny oligarchies, and because of this publishers become everywhere. Like I said, they don’t like this.
These robber barons have also, somehow, made something incredulous and downright psychotic, become known as fact. There’s this mass mind control thing going on. I’m sure you’ve heard saps saying things, in regards to them visitng bookstores, or why they don’t wish to read off a computer screen. The working poor have been stymied into believing frivolous things that the publishing industry states as fact, to prop up their failing proprietorships. Blurting from the mouth of people, you will hear them state that they like the experience of walking through a shop, the smell of the paper of the books. As opposed to what, the smell of the metallic and plastic of a Kindle? What type of person would be so interested to compare the smell of a book to the smell of new technology, and then have the audacity to wish to comment on which smell is better? The answer is a sociopath. A sociopath would claim that the experience of walking through a bookstore is somehow more wholesome or moral, than looking at a computer screen and experiencing the same piece of fiction by the exact same author. The sociopath that is detailed here, needs to seek out hackneyed ideas of culture and contentment. These sociopaths are complicit in maintaining the robber baron’s monopoly. They’re luddites quite frankly. They claim that the internet is abhuman, but anyone who would spit that much hate toward a poor little E-Reader, is much more than an abomination to humanity, they’re somewhat of a borish creep.
The other thing these people don’t understand is the lack of space. Book burnings didn’t occur because prudish people were against the ideas inside the covers of said books, they occurred because the Europeans needed space. With the advent of the MP3 and now the E-Reader, it is evident that we can remove all that superfluous waste that occurs in our environment. Now I have no idea whether the forest of trees required to make the latest fashionable tome, is anymore environmental than the plexus of metal, alloy, plastic and rubber that makes up one of those dinky devices, but what I do know about is space. If one can remove all of this detritus and rubbish from one’s household, think of all the space you would discover. More room for people to live, and I don’t mean people will have more space to air their dirty laundry, what I do mean is, one can invite 30 more people to come and live in their house where the books once stood.
As I said in the introduction, I don’t really think too much about these issues, the subject is too much of a soapy sponge for this streamlined body. Remember what is important, it is those people that we leave behind. And in this circumstance, it should be the devilish industry.
The book and the novel are not the same. The book has a much longer history, and has survived through a variety of forms. Even if you define the book as an exclusively paper artifact (and I’m by no means convinced you should), at present, it’s by no means dwindling — the last statistics I saw suggested that more books were being published in Australian than ever before. The vast majority of them were not novels but they were books nonetheless.
Will the production of books on paper decline? Yes but it’s by no means as simple a process as people think. You only have to shift the geographical focus to realise that, say, the rise of China is producing a vast population now able to read — and, at least, in the short term, they’re far more likely to be reading in print than on screen.
I suspect the real question is about the state of the novel. Even then, though, we need to be clear what we mean. Is the novel doddering and ineffectual? Well, I don’t know the exact figures but let’s remember that very few twentieth century novelists achieved anything like the sales of Harry Potter or Twilight.
Of course, the success of JK Rowling doesn’t cheer most writers up because their anxiety is really about the cultural heft of the literary novel, not the social significance of a YA Text.
On that specific issue, yes, it’s probably true that the novel will never again be as culturally important as it was during the mid-twentieth century. But, then again, these narratives of decline tend to take as their point of comparison the period of prosperity between the Second World War and the early 1970s, a time in which literary publishing did very well. The problem is that the long boom now seems not such much the norm as an anomaly, as we shift back into a cycle of slump and stagnation much closer to the first half of the last century. If literary publishing is struggling, it’s not really so surprising — whole sectors of the world economy are in crisis.
In any case, literary forms rise and fall but they’re never totally eclipsed. Novels still find readers, just as poems do, and it’s hard to make predictions of the specific audience of any particular cultural form in advance.
Will there be an e-form that dominates? Maybe. It’s notable that the digital revolution has led to an explosion of reading and writing, confounding the expectations of many that the future belonged to voice commands and video interfaces. Who would have picked that the telephone would be largely replaced by texting?
Nonetheless, I suspect that the search for ‘one art form to rule them all’ is a bit of chimera, since, at least to date, the digital scene seems to be as much about diversity as anything else.
In any case, does it really matter? In some ways, one doesn’t really have a choice in these matters. Yes, you can — and should — be looking out for new ways of communicating to new audiences but you also, over time, accumulate skills with particular forms. There’s something to be said about not chasing novelty but instead trying to do the best with the skills that you have.
Who will read this? I used to always think that as I started a new short story. As I rewrote that introduction over and over I at times tried to picture the reader. Maybe someone with a scalding cup of instant coffee before the household wakes, a traveller on the 7.38am to Flinders Street, a person in bed tilting the story into the beam of a reading light so not to disturb whoever is next to them or a worker hurrying out for a cigarette and a few pages while on a break. When I think of the next generation of readers the pictures are less distinct. I can’t see them.
When I first started writing it was for my children. They would have a legacy of their old man. Something besides a row of pruned roses and a beer stein with my name engraved on it. Here’s what caught my attention, the work would say to them. Now you can fill in the gaps between what we never made time to talk about or dream of. Eventually too I looked at their friends. Would they take a book off the shelf, open it at a random page before being drawn in? Now and then I hear them talking. The ideas in “Animal Farm” make no sense. “Year of Wonders” is boring. Why do we have to do Shakespeare?
You often hear how we have lost things along the way. Families don’t talk anymore. We rarely slow cook meals. Fewer people walk. We never seem to stop. Is reading the next casualty? Not the rushed reading of a quick couple of pages before falling asleep but the deep reading where you find nuances, themes, meanings and new ways of seeing the world. As my daughter’s generation pack away their study notes for the last time and prepare for post school life, what will reading be? Something between ad breaks and Facebook updates? A quick scan of the sports section? Reading is a baton I still want to pass to them. Along with a love of travel, films, recipes, art and all the things most parents would list. For this emerging generation reading is destined to struggle against the celebrity age, social media and dump down television. But I hope.
The demarcation between electronic and print literature, for writers at any rate, has been blurred for quite a while. I mean, I’ve been working in e-form—directly onto a computer—for almost two decades, which means I’ve also been reading in e-form for that long too. So I’m not too alarmed by the shift to an e-format. We don’t have a problem with having electronic libraries for our music. I’m sure we’ll also get used to having electronic libraries for our books.
I guess some people fear that the death of the material book means the death of literature, but storytelling and poetry has a long history—one that precedes the printed book—and will, I’m sure, have a long future. It’s also my experience that the pleasure of reading comes from a “virtual” experience, which is certainly not contingent upon the medium of the printed book, which I forget about when I become lost in the reading experience. As for the emergence of new forms (rather than new standards), why not? Playfulness and multiplicity are surely key to a healthy culture.
From the outset, I need to note a significant qualm with the phrasing of this question: the blog, whatever it is, is not an artefact, but a discursive space. I’ll return to this point in a moment, but I would first like to address a related issue, which confuses most cultural commentators who write on the convergence of print media with digital technology.
Digital technology is not replacing print, but, rather, is displacing it. Following the premises of canonical media theory, new forms of media don’t simply replace older forms of media because each form of media has its own symbolic logic, which is intimately connected to the form of media itself (or, to quote Marshall McLuhan’s infamous phrase, “the medium is the message”). So there are at least two issues, here, the first of which is the degree to which new forms of media will make print or bookish culture irrelevant, and the second of which entails the form/content of new media.
The first issue is already settled. Books are no longer central to discourse in the Anglophone world, and have not been for some time. The book industry is still a significant and—if considered over the whole of the last decade—generally successful economic enterprise, but it focuses on selling a variety of kinds of texts into a wide array of niches—all of which is to say that best-selling books in Australia are things like the Twilight series or the CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet, not books about politics and philosophy, or works of literature. What this means is that important political and cultural discourses now play out in images and audio on television or the internet, not in print (I am speaking in general terms here). In the rare occasions where a book does become “big,” it then graduates to the afterlife of movie or television adaptation; The Slap is only the most recent example of this. But this situation is at least half a century old, so mourning the demise of the book as the locus of important cultural discourse is a very belated grief, indeed, and the wake we are currently holding is for a corpse already in the late stages of putrefaction.
Ebooks (as opposed to books-as-software in the form of apps, which I won’t have space to consider) do replicate the artefact of the book; they are digital artefacts, but, as a medium, they also mark the shift of the book’s cultural significance from being a central discourse to a fragmented and specialized series of niche discourse that are only significant when taken in aggregate. This fact is replicated in the business models of digital asset distributors (i.e. Google, Amazon, Kobo, etc.), who rely on the long-tail theory wherein a large of number of small transactions for a diverse array of products (i.e. books) are aggregated through a network (and, indeed, an entire ‘ecosystem’ of networked services, to use the fashionable term) to produce a profit (for those interested, I’ve written on this in the current issue of Overland).
The blog, as a form, however is a distinct phenomenon from both print and ebook forms, although its trajectory is shaped by the same cultural logic and economic factors. As I noted, the blog is not an artefact, but a discursive space, wherein opinions are advanced, and conversations then often occur within its margins (i.e. in the comments section). Often these discussions are then folded back into the content of the blog itself in the form of future posts—so the content of a blog is inseparable from its form, which is itself that of a dialogue (of sorts) unfolding over time.
At level of typology, however, it is worth noting two further categories amongst blogs, the first of which applies to entities such as Verity La. From my perspective, Verity La is not really a blog qua blog, in that is primarily a communal space that contains bookish discourse, which is quite distinct from the traditional blog produced by an individual. It’s worth noting, though, that fiction tends not to function as well in these spaces as essays or “posts” because fiction is traditionally a form that doesn’t invite direct response—and in this sense is antithetical to the very form of the blog as medium. Following this, I would also suggest that if blogs have displaced an area of print, it would be the critical apparatus of the literary journal—a transformation that has already happened in music, wherein sites like Pitchfork have basically surpassed the old stalwart publications like Rolling Stone (and Pitchfork has also proven that the print mags hadn’t even come close to approaching the limits of the pretentious, self-indulgent and empty-headed prose to which music criticism, from Lester Bangs onwards, has always aspired). A site like HTML Giant is already doing this for the literary more or less, albeit with an MFA-program, hipster-twee aesthetic that ranges from being annoying to being very annoying.
On the other hand, we then have personal blogs, like my own (now largely necrotic) blog Known Unknowns. While these sorts of blogs do engage in communal discourse up to a point, their primary purpose—whatever their creators may believe—is to serve as an advertising or promotional tool for their authors (and often also to serve as an extension of or reflection upon one or more institutions and organisations associated with the author). I do not mean that bloggers are all rapacious entrepreneurs in their intent (this certainly wasn’t mine), but ultimately I think blogging, however well-intentioned, is a form of immaterial labour, which is to say a willing self-exploitation undertaken in the hopes of long-term, if indirect, economic benefit.
Literary and bookish blogs have been both prominent and successful, I think, because activity in these areas is almost wholly comprised of immaterial labour for the simple reason that there is no money in literature (at all), and comparatively little money in bookselling and production, even in its populist manifestations. Indeed, the general insularity and cliquishness of literary culture in Australia and elsewhere stems from the fact that it is an economy based almost entirely on what Peter Sloterdijk would term thymotics (or pride), which is to say that literary economies are based on reputation and symbolic capital (as well as rage and revenge!), rather than hard economics—although this is rarely admitted openly.
Short of a wide-scale social and political revolution (which appears unlikely), it is difficult to see how these conditions will change significantly, but, in my opinion, both writers and readers need to be aware of modern systems of book distribution and to question their validity (as we already do for other industries, such as the music industry and the meat industry, to consider only two that have come under public scrutiny in the last decade). The important questions for lovers of books relate not simply to forms—print, ebook, app, whatever—but rather about how we, as a culture decide what to value and how individuals are then compensated for their labour. Books are ultimately the products of human beings and cannot be abstracted from the larger processes of culture and capital.
I suspect many readers of Verity La, like me, feel that on both fronts, our current situation is woefully inadequate, and, in this sense, I welcome change—even if such change is precarious—because at least it holds the possibility of a better future, however unlikely.
The issue with print media at the moment is essentially due to a massive marketing fuck-up. I feel that the problem here is not the death of the novel itself, but a serious problem with the manner in which big companies cordon off the market, jack up the prices and stamp out all competition. I think it is somewhat ironic that some of the very bookstore chains that took over the market – I’m thinking Borders, Angus and Robertson etc. – are now going bankrupt as customers take their business elsewhere (i.e. online) in order to buy books at competitive prices. And fair enough. I’m a student, and I’m sure as hell not going to pay $35 for a book when I can get it for half the price online. I understand that rent and staff must be paid in physical bookstores, but the twenty dollars difference between buying Madness and Civilisation from a bookstore and buying it online makes me wonder, where the hell does that twenty bucks go?
Not that I’m not sympathetic to the plight of the bookstore; it saddens me to see those safe havens, those pockets of paradise, crumble. I found myself in Borders on Lygon St one Saturday night whilst friends went on the necessary food-finding mission that occurs halfway through a night out, and it was incredibly depressing to be in a closing-down bookstore. As I wandered around half-heartedly flipping through the detritus left on the shelves (obscure serial sci-fi; Mills & Boon-esque romances that I sincerely hope no impressionable young man or woman ever reads; remarkably uninspiring retellings of inspiring solo treks across some icy tundra or other) I felt like I was rifling through the pockets of a corpse, trying to scavenge myself a pretty trinket, a gold tooth, a coin-filled purse. I browsed the shop fittings, empty tables, shelves, CD racks, and thought Christ, even the bones of the beast are for sale. The great carcass is lying there, putrefying, waiting for the scavenging public to pick away at the dead flesh until it is stripped clean so that some other superfluous chain store can set up in its place, only to suffer the same fate in a few years.
I certainly think that the advent of the Internet has heralded a new form of writing, but I see no reason why novels and e-forms can’t live side-by-side and play happy families. After all, the photograph didn’t replace the painting, and cinema didn’t replace the photograph: all three mediums coexist happily, and feed into each other in a wonderful way. I see e-writing as simply another medium that can take its place alongside other forms of writing.
As a young person who is also a writer (I dislike the term ‘young writer’; it makes it sound as though the amount of years I’ve been alive is some kind of indication of my artistic merit) I feel that I’ve been expected to jump on the e-wagon with more fervour than my (perhaps less agile) elders. ‘Cross-platform media’ is one of the buzzwords in my creative writing degree, and we have been urged to look to e-forms as the future of the writing industry. Nonetheless I remain relatively technologically backwards – to me a ‘smart phone’ is a phone that can call the right person when I type in the numbers and press ‘call’, and twittering is that beautiful noise that birds wake you up with at sunrise.
After doing a work placement with Alec Patric (part of which involved starting a blog) I find myself being swayed ever more to the way of the web. Not least, e-writing opens up whole new pathways of collaboration not only through being able to create interactive forms of writing, but also with other forms of media. I feel there is a long way to go before e-forms become the new literary standard. Firstly, if we’re talking about literary standard then that brings in the whole debate about what constitutes a ‘literary standard’.
The suggestion of a ‘literary standard’ implies the sense of something that is more regulated than, say, Facebook. It’s like a toilet wall versus War and Peace (though it should be noted that I’ve read some incredible things on toilet walls, and I only got through the third page of War and Peace before I put it down to collect dust.)
The blog is the first step towards an e-form, though anyone can start a blog, and the interactivity and accessibility of the Internet gives everyone the opportunity to publish online. Does this mean that in the future, anyone can be an author in the realm of this new e-form? Regardless, the Internet has widened the playing field as far as writing goes, and I find that exciting. I’m not yet ready though to tweet my epitaph for the novel.
Print vs digital? I think we’ll eventually pound one of them into submission. Print will probably just bow out, sort of wounded and hurt after being told it’s dead so many times. Or digital will turn around and say, “Listen Jack, I’m a star” and die of auto-asphyxiation in some disgusting hotel room after letting it all go to its head. I don’t really care either way. It’s a bit of a boring conversation to me. Part of that boredom is because it’s like talking about the type of paper, rather than what is written on it. Which is to say, that we’re really caught up in the way we deliver information rather than the information itself. We’ve been acting accordingly – like tech-heads rather than writers – for a while now, and I don’t think I’m alone in looking forward to getting over this moment of technological transition and taking part in a deeper cultural discussion.
If we really want to get into that discussion though: one of the reasons that the debate is so incessant, is that we have literary journals – who for some reason seem to be caught in a much trickier position than mainstream books – that still have a foot in both camps, so it naturally becomes about the big VS thing we’re talking about. With some of the literary journals it feels like they’re just working on these websites out of some misguided sense of obligation and they are yet to offer content that differs from their print version. There are others – Overland, in particular, based on the strength of its blog – which I imagine would get on fine without a print version, but that very much depends on how switched on and online your readers are.
For now, those magazines will keep doing both digital and print and maybe the best thing is to do both simultaneously, but with equal creativity. The Penguin Plays Rough Book of Short Stories – an anthology of fiction resulting from a monthly short story event held in Sydney – got it right when they produced an objet d’art hardcover book – with limited edition wrap around print, prose poem cover and individual design for each story – as well as releasing an app for the iPhone and IPad with a much more perfunctory layout. This version, however, included audio versions of the stories in the book, recorded and read aloud by their authors and so captured something of the spirit of the live event that the book is based on. That’s the best case of working on both sides of the digital divide.
Going Down Swining produced a really messy and risky Epub version of their literary journal, which turned out to be excellent and very exciting, but now they’re following it up with the regular print version. I saw a copy the other night at the Sydney launch, which was held, funnily enough, at Penguin Plays Rough. It came with a CD and lift-out poster, in a beautiful cardboard-coloured cover – and while I will probably buy it eventually, I didn’t feel the need to buy it right there on the spot as I once might have. Partly that had to do with the fact that I got to watch videos in the middle of that Epub issue, while this one remained stubbornly static when I picked it up. There will be a point when I can step back from this next-ness of technology, but for the moment there is an “… oooh, look at that!” level of distraction.
This is all hypocritical, holier-than-thou bullshit on my part though – because, ultimately, if I was sitting with a publisher, I’d probably still want them to commit to a print version of my book. If they said they would commit to a print version but with no ebook follow-up, I probably wouldn’t care all that much. So I am, in fact, invested in one over the other and far more conservative than I might otherwise like to think.
We are not seeing the ‘retirement of print’. We are seeing the evolution of print. Some print mainstays will be hard hit – the newspaper, mostly. This disposable, emotionless (unless you’re reading the Telegraph or Herald Sun) loudspeaker of ever-ticking headlines need not be printed. It may even be better for the environment if it wasn’t. The newspaper dinosaur is yawning. There are so many excellent online news sites that have surpassed the pitiful quality of our two national media outlets – on our own turf, Crikey and New Matilda; for the Yanks, Huffington Post. These are publications of the New World that have scrabbled away for years, fighting to be recognised, and are now joining the ranks of the often inferior majors in question times and media lock-ins. And with such little competition we are lucky that they are there.
So what remains amenable to print? The novel, yes. The history book, questionable. As broached in the question, the novel was considered and still definitely is entertainment. We will always want to cuddle up with a book. You simply can’t take a Kindle in the bath. But when we want factual information we will go online.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we are 3D. We have an innate connection with the physical dimension. The tangible, touchable world is the essence of our very existence. Within this are our collections – our clothes, our gardens, our heirlooms, our taxidermied fish. Now for all you Matrix fans out there, let’s get one thing straight – I’m talking about the sham you long to expose. The world of expensive sandwiches and tiny baby shoes and 12-year-old scotch. I like this sham, so this is what we’re talking about right now, not quantum physics. So. I don’t trust my existence to the digital world. I’m no Steve Urkle but I’m pretty sure not every blog is a safe archive, or something that actually can be uncovered by ‘archeologists’ – often I come across ‘dead’ pages. The lack of physicality poses an innate threat to the lifespan of documentation. It also takes away from the pleasure of owning (there must be a German word for that). Even though I have a conveniently perpetually amassing Facebook photo album, I still like to get photographs printed every now and again. And I enjoy having the albums on my shelf. I still like to collect beautiful objects or things that have a deeper meaning to me. I like to show them off, show them to others to help explain who I am; keep them as a reminder of that person as I go through life and change. This impulse is why print will never die.
But print will change. As a publisher whom is very fond of the medium, I think it will make it better. Because printing is so cheap now, to do it offshore, and learning to use incredible design software is exceedingly popular, more people are doing it. More artists are making books, more students are making journals. The quality is getting better because it has to survive, and that’s what people have come to expect. You can’t tell the difference between what is a large-scale publication and what is made in a bedroom. Ask the photographer from the Sydney Morning Herald who came to photograph me last week – he couldn’t believe his eyes when I led him to my bedroom (that sounds weird but it wasn’t like that – you get me). I see more and more amazing publications, with such beautiful print qualities, innovative design and acting as a conduit of free thought. This is the evolution, and it shouldn’t be feared.
Alice Gage is the editor of Ampersand Magazine.
I have to admit that I don’t like change at the best of times, and seeing the havoc that Amazon, the Book Depository, Kindles etc have wreaked on the publishing and bookselling industries scares me. I admire those people who can see the positives in new opportunities for publishing, writing and reading. I can only seem to see the negatives. (I admit that in a previous life I would probably have called for Gutenberg ‘s head, thinking that nothing could be better than illustrated script.)
Where some praise the cheapness, versatility and instant availability of e-books, I can only think about the closure of so many bookshops, places where I have spent some of the happiest times of my life, and how words on screen never seems as ‘right’ as words on a page. Others celebrate the fact that publishers are running scared after being the ‘gatekeepers’ of literature for so long. Now, they say, all those great, ignored voices on the slush pile can rise up and be heard. Yet if publishers stifled some unique writers (John Kennedy Toole, for example) they also protected us from being subjected to a hundred million others that are now screaming out in all their shrill mediocrity online. I realise that the distinction between being published in a journal or a book, and being published online is gradually eroding. But for me the former will always seem more permanent, more important, more real than the latter.
Looking at what I have just written I’m aware I haven’t made a very good argument, or indeed any kind of argument. Instead, I’ve described my feelings. As I mentioned, I don’t like change, and we live in a time of unprecedented change for readers, writers and publishers. I hope that a lot of good will come out of it. Other contributors to this forum will be able to articulate that far better than I can. I’m hopeful their responses will make me feel more positive about the future of reading and writing in Australia and beyond.
This is a tough question and I hope I can add something relevant here. My first reaction was to ask myself if the e-form was entertaining – which has been and can be something of a ‘charge’ to be levelled at the novel, rather than a simple descriptor. Many art forms survive based on the answer to this question (and sometimes in spite of it) and I’d argue that the novel does live and die on its entertainment value.
And so I wondered if the e-form, if it isn’t always entertaining, is it at least fulfilling some need in society? The blog is useful in a sense of providing information quickly. There, it is surely King, and must be a key artefact. And while the blog is a great communicative tool, it’s not always the best tool to present writing. Consider reading the text of a poem with a mess of distractions, images, colours, layouts, links, pop-ups and so on. All of these factors alter the way a poem is received. Compare that to a clean, white page and there’s something different going on.
But – if the poem being read on that blog was hypertextual or more hybrid in nature (combining text, sound, image etc) then the blog is perfect. Powerful in its flexibility.
Of course, the blog also has the great boon (and great curse some would say) of the internet’s participatory nature. A text presented on a blog alters the Public and Private modes of reading. Reading on a blog can be public (via comments) and you can ‘be seen’ to read certain pieces/poets. At home, with a book, it is only public when you travel with it (bus, train) or write about it. With a blog, you write and read about it at home, in the private sphere (though that division has certainly blurred.)
Switching to the idea of the e-book, I suppose that any e-form needs a cheap, simple device to really take off. For Literature and the novel, I don’t feel like the Kindle or other e-readers can do it yet. Not fully. In fact, there a few steps to be taken. One thing that holds me back from grabbing an e-reader (aside from price), is the question of durability. They just seem more fragile. Drop one enough, step on it, expose it to extreme temperatures, have it stolen, and you won’t be happy. Drop a paper book for instance, and it will be fine, if scuffed. A stolen book might be under ten dollars to replace. A stolen kindle with hundreds of purchased books inside? Now, durability could use a deeper discussion (obviously a digital file has a longer lifespan than paper), but if the e-form becomes part of a new literary standard, it might have to wait until the delivery technology seems as indispensible to the content, the way paper, glue ink and card do for physical books.
At this stage, the e-readers replicate the shell of a physical and traditional book, limited in part by what is digitised by publishers. Because many writers (myself certainly included) don’t always take advantage of affordable digital technology to create fully multimedia texts, the e-reader becomes less than a computer, but more than single book (because it can store so many of them.) In that sense, it’s a hard drive with a screen. Although, perhaps when readers want multi-form pieces of literature, then a piece of portable technology will appear that combines the best features of the computer and the old school book.
All that said, in the grand scheme of the history of the way language is presented, e-forms are so new, that I don’t have the insight to predict much. But I am looking forward to the missteps and triumphs, as both will be pretty damn interesting.