In the Age of Screens (Part I Redux)

Over the course of this week, we’ll be serializing an essay I wrote for the recent Non-Fiction Conference that took place in Amsterdam a couple weeks ago. If you’d rather not wait until Friday to read the whole thing, then click here and download a PDF version of the whole thing. Or you can click here to see all the posts.

Contemporary life is lived through screens. Initially, it was the TV that invaded our families and took over our free time. Now it’s computers, smartphones, tablets; it’s email, digital files, the cloud. For better or worse, the past quarter-century (or more) has powered a move away from the physical and into cyberspace—especially in terms of our work-life and entertainment options.

None of this is new, all of it pretty much why we’re here at this conference talking about what’s going on, what’s next, how publishers can adapt to these new techno-cultural forces, and what this means for readers. What I’d like to talk about for the next ten minutes is what’s lost in this shift away from human interaction and what that means for serious literature—specifically, fiction and nonfiction in translation—and what possibilities there are for new modes of audience development.

I want to take one quick moment and sort of define what I mean by “serious literature” and why I think this is a subgenre worth considering in special detail. What I’m talking about are those books_—the truly literary works that lend themselves to being read, appreciated, and debated decades in the future. Yes, I’m aware that without even really defining this it already smacks of elitism. And yes, I realize that to try and truly describe the parameters of what defines “literature” is an impossible task. Instead of trying to restrict this, or embark on endless, Borgesian categorizing, I just want to distinguish between “literature” and “entertainments.” These terms can apply to any and all genres: there are comic books and literary graphic novels, there’s James Joyce and there’s _Twilight, Thomas Bernhard and James Patterson, Dubravka Ugresic and Sarah Palin’s autobiography. You know it when you see it.

Generally speaking, most people read “entertainments.” And more power to them. For the vast majority of people, reading is just another way to kill some free time, once they’ve conquered all their videogames, the 359 channels are filled with drudgery, and the Internets aren’t updating themselves as fast as their growing boredom. In terms both of content and intended audience, all the Vooks and enhanced this-and-that are ideal for these sorts of books. And these are the sort of books reinforce the social impulse behind reading—it’s much easier to find people to talk to about these sorts of titles, because these tend to be those books that seemingly everyone is reading. Much easier to find Facebook friend with whom you can share certain experiences . . .

For a million different capitalist reasons, we tend to equate sales with success. If a book reaps profits, it must be a good book. And from the perspective of a struggling business, this is the sort of success one needs to survive. But there are other metrics . . . There are reasons to value works of “high literature” that may sell only a few thousand copies, but have a great impact on this select group of readers. As alluded to above, these are the books that may not crack the best-seller lists, but spark innovation and new ideas. Granted, there are exceptions to every rule, but speaking in broad strokes, “entertainments” tend to reinforce current dominant cultural modes, whereas “literature” can upend some beliefs, ways of thinking, assumptions. Which may well explain why these books have limited sales success . . .

In Jonah Lehrer’s Proust Was a Neuroscientist, he describes the neurological basis behind why we find certain music beautiful, other compositions stridently unpleasant, and why these standards change over time. No need to go into the whole explanation here, but it’s basically all about pattern recognition. When we hear a piece of music, we predict what’s coming next—we look for recognizable patterns. And in a wicked positive feedback loop, when we guess correctly, our brain rewards us, provides us with a pleasant feeling that is associated with that pattern, a pattern that we then seek out, anticipate, get rewarded for, on and on. This is one reason why hearing songs we’ve heard a number of times is such a warm experience.

Although I’m clearly extending metaphors and jumping frames from neuroscience to societal influences, but I think part of the constant recycling of ideas and easily recognizable plots, melodies, phrasings are based in our attraction to the patterns we’re already familiar with. We—meaning the aggregate of the hundreds of millions of people who bought and read books last year—like books, movies, art that’s, for the most part, smooth and unchallenging. Not all of “us,” clearly, but those of “us” who make books bestsellers and turn Mormon parables into a worldwide phenomenon.

Online Discovery Moment #1: I’m a consummate user of GoodReads. Within minutes of finishing a book, I’ve already written a brief review about it and updated my profile to review the book I’m about to start next. I scan the daily digest emails to see what my friends are reading, recommending, planning to read. I see this as one of the main ways I keep my finger on the pulse of the literary community, while finding out about titles worth checking out. (More on that below.) Recently though, I noticed that all of my friends are just like me. We read translations, we avoid “grocery store” books, we love the European modernists and the post-Boom Latin American authors. In a way, this is not dissimilar from picking out books that fit pre-existing patterns. My social group doesn’t necessarily inform me, it reflects back at me my own literary values.

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