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From Loaf to Crouton: It’s Literature, But Not as We Know it…

February 28, 2011

[Image: Prospect Magazine]

There is a nervous chattering from authors at the prospect of the digital bookshelf, the curated E-reader library and the electronic text. Tom Chatfield suggests that:

‘[T]he translation of books into digital formats means the destruction of boundaries. Bound, printed texts are discrete objects: immutable, individual, lendable, cut off from the world. Once the words of a book appear onscreen, they are no longer simply themselves; they have become a part of something else.’

Let’s take a moment to enjoy the daydreams this conjures of feather-wielding monks in some remote medieval village receiving word of the terrifying technology offered by Herr Guttenberg………

Wait, ‘lendable’? And PDFs and E-books are then..?……………Further Genette’s argument in Paratexts (1982,trans.,1992) is that all those elements which are thought to give the text its discrete form are not cut off from the world at all. Far from providing the secure boundaries inside which a text can cosily nestle, paratextual elements such as the cover-imagery, author-interviews or the quality of a text’s paper together form a semi-permeable membrane which speaks of/to the text as well as of/to the world. These elements both situate and direct each reading of a work.

On the other hand, there is a possible solution for all those authors in Chatfield’s piece who are suspicious of the occult world of the digized text, and that is to write their works in a very very….very obscure language for which no E-Book has been invented. Say…Spanish? Well, unfortunately Grammata has recently redressed Amazon/Sony/Barnes&Nobles et al’s monolingual…. bias…. in releasing a Spanish E-reader…Perhaps the best solution, in the light of rapidly changing developments is to choose a language as far from phonetic alphabets as possible. My advice to the digi-phobic author is that no language dealing in the roman alphabet should be even contemplated as a means of expression if they wish their work to remain awhile longer in the ‘immutable’ form of the codex.

Author Philip Pullman argues that ‘In the little time that I have ‘spare,’ I don’t want to sit tapping at a keyboard and staring at a screen, I want to read and think’ …at which juncture Chatfield cannily points out that Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy finds its various forms in a Hollywood movie, a radio adaptation, a play, a video game, and via ‘an online fan community of many hundreds of thousands.’ Though perhaps Pullman’s technophobia is judicious in that it may save him from ever experiencing the five new emotions that have been identified in the rewired and digitally interactive human brain.

Joseph O’Connor’s disparaging comment in the Chatfield piece that so many novels are a film script waiting to happen, expresses a concern that doesn’t seem to bother some in the industry in the slightest. Penguin Books for its lovely cuddly left-wing part has come up with the rum idea of a book trailer. The novel as Pre-quel. What’s not to like?

Perhaps other authors should take a leaf out of crime novelist (and I use the description loosely) James Patterson’s book and not actually write their novels at all. Patterson is the Warhol or Hirst of the book trade…and in a New York Times interview states that he’s less interested in sentences than stories these days, and hires others to write his bestselling works. Good show! The range for having your texts ghost-written for you opens up rather nicely in the digital context with a wider variety of outsourcing opportunities.

We of course can’t escape the darkness of an apocalyptic future in which the online-publishing slaughters every last book-shop. When this happens the ensuant uncontrolled masses of unfiltered dross that is propagated will have to be sifted through by frantic and uninitiated readers in in the vain desperate hope of finding a text worth reading. But there is a beacon of hope, there is an antidote to such gross profusion of digitized reading material. For digital culture can’t provide that which can only be found within the walls of the traditional publishing house, namely, that wonderfully exalted and objective condition of Expertise. No, no you haven’t done a reverse Rip-Van-Winkel and woken up in 1950, it’s true…ask Jeremy.


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