In the Age of Screens (Part II)

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.

Broadly speaking, “literature” is pattern breaking. This isn’t necessarily always true, but most of the truly lasting works are the ones that shift our perceptions, that shock us with the new. This is one reason why these books might not sell quite as well as their more entertaining counterparts, but as mentioned above, these books can turn out to be much more influential in the long run. Take David Markson for example. His early books sold like shit (and I know—I worked for his publisher), yet writers thought him a writer’s writer, which influenced their writing, which spread virally, which lead to his books selling better, and also to things like David Shield’s Reality Hunger.

Not only would I argue that the cultural import of these books far exceeds their sales, but that the majority of these influential “literary” books are works in translation. America (and Great Britain) is notorious for sucking at the whole translated literature thing, and yet ask a crowded room to name their all-time favorite books and you’ll be inundated with a long list of titles not originally penned in English. (To hearken back: what could be better at throwing a wrench into predicted patterns than something coming from an entirely different culture, with a totally different semantic web, and unique way of perceiving the world? And it’s worth noting that although we may initially resist these sorts of titles, it’s the uniqueness, the upending that is most memorable and has the longest lasting impact.)

Nevertheless, for a long while now the cultural discourse as we know it has come to apply certain unfavorable words to the most serious of literature. Translated literature is talked about as “serious,” “European,” “difficult,” “dry,” etc. (Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, does a brilliant job of satirizing and taking this trend to its extreme.) It’s also always framed from the perspective that something has been “lost” in going from one language and culture to another—a perspective that diminishes the importance of the translation and provides yet another reason to avoid reading these books. (Unless the book being review is a Swedish crime novel, or something that fits our patterns perfectly, like The Elegance of the Hedgehog.) All of these phrases make it sound like reading these books would be work, no? Whether it’s acknowledged or not, this is part of the overriding prejudice that results in the oft-cited figure that only 3% of all the books published in America are works in translation. We know they won’t sell, that only the most sadomasochistic of people will read them, that reviewers will view these books as being secondary to the original version, etc.

This “musty” European literature—in outmoded printed book form!—is, in some ways, the antithesis to this Age of Screens in which every new gadget is “slicker,” “sleeker,” “sexier” than the last. We fetishize devices to such a degree that the common subway rider is more likely to judge their fellow commuters based on what Droid OS they’re using than what book someone is reading.

Despite all my depressive and resigned statements above—“the masses want Britney Spears ad infinitum!”—I do believe there is a countermovement. There is a group of readers, small but powerful, who see “literature” as something the cool kids do, analogous to listening to the hippest of the indie rock, to residing on the marginalized fringes of culture where trends are set. Which is what really brings me to the key set of questions I have when thinking about our book culture—both from the view of an avid reader and a publisher of “serious translated literature”: given all the other pattern-fitting entertainments available, what pleasures does a reader receive that cause them to pick up a work of “literature”?; how does this overcome the “negative priming” that’s become associated with literature in translation?; how does someone actually find out about a pattern-shattering book and what actually gets them to pick it up?; especially in an age of abundance where more than a million books are published every year?; which literary books are the ones that acquire a sort of “cool” veneer that helps them find a cult audience—one that slowly moves from cult to mainstream in a way that mimics the viral spread of internet videos?; and can our Age of Screens facilitate the development and expansion of this fringe?

Since the launch of the first idea of an electronic book, there’s been gallons of ink spilled comparing the publishing and music industries. There are some fruitful comparisons there, several lessons to learn, but there are a few key disconnects that influence the answer to the questions posed above.

In Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail, he used the Rhapsody music service (which I swear by and am using as I write this) to show that in a digital marketplace, the niches find their consumers. When everything is made available and is equally accessible, the “fringes” can find their thing. We’re unbound by the physicality of space, where all that’s available is the top selling items. In other words, suddenly anyone can access those musicians who shatter patterns and help change the world.

But music does not equal books. Music is communal, immediate. You walk into the Gap and you’re exposed to the latest “indie” bands while you procure a sweater to keep you warm. And then that song shows up on a Volkswagen commercial, in a Starbucks CD . . . We are constantly exposed to music and we can become attracted to it within seconds. I’ve shopped at Banana Republic hundreds of times and never once have I heard someone reciting a Cavafy poem. And when I buy I book, I know I’m setting aside at least ten hours of my life . . . Whereas I listen to at least a couple new albums a week just driving to and from work.

So how does anyone find a pattern-shattering work of literature? Not on TV commercials. Or in the mall. Or in reviews. And there is no Pitchfork.com for edgy books.

Online Discover Moment #2: I’m curious about what kind of impact a Pitchfork for books would have. Not just because a tastemaking sort of site like this would imbue reading with a sense of being hypercool, but because I think the numbered grading system would revolutionize the way readers relate to book reviews. As things are now, reviews are written to be read and pondered. Some are more obviously positive (or negative) than others, but most are crafted to be somewhere in between. This book “shows promise,” but is also “overly ambitious.” “Brilliant, yet flawed.” So on and forth. I think there’s a reason the majority of readers just look at the first and last paragraphs—they want the punchline: is this book good? Rather than deny this impulse (which is only ramped up in our age of abundance and screens), we should take advantage of the desire for fixed knowledge. By giving Franzen’s Freedom a 4.4, readers will immediately engage—either for or against. They’ll be encouraged to engage because they’ve been given a clear base against which to react. They’d be more likely to become involved in discussions, or read the book to reinforce (or dismiss) this very clear, numerological judgment. At least this is my hypothesis. (And yes, I know that Complete Review uses letter grades. And yes, these do function in a way similar to what I’m proposing. Except how many grades are really possible? Assuming Michael uses A though E, with pluses or minuses for everything except an “E,” then he has 13 possibilities. But a D+ or D-? Insanely unlikely. In all actuality, there are about 10 grade possibilities, with the vast majority of titles earning an A-, B+, B, or B-. Everything is always a 3.5. A 10 point scale with one decimal leads to 100 possible scores, and shades of reaction that far exceed the letter-grade format.)

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