In the Age of Screens (Part IV)

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.

What does this all mean? So, we live in an age that values the slick lines of an iPad, that chases sales of books that fit pre-existing patterns, that wants to go all-in on the digital in order to revolt against (with good cause) the hegemony of the Big Six Publishers, and believes that behind the omnipresent screens in our lives is a fledgling democracy where we can get whatever we want and that talent and the ability to connect will reign supreme.

More importantly: where does literature—especially translated literature, whose “voice” is hindered by non-English speaking authors and the view that translators are second-class—fit into this Age of Screens?

To rephrase: we’ve stripped away all the institutions that supported the ways in which most outsiders found their literature, leaving texts to float untethered in the ether, there to be found . . .

There is no serendipity on Amazon.com. As much as I love buying books for cheap—and knowing that they’ll “be there”—I know that Amazon is nothing more than a kick-ass checkout counter. It’s not a bookstore; it’s not an informed reader telling you things. “Those who bought X also bought Y”? It’s nothing more than an algorithm of sales. If you bought pattern-reinforcing Twilight you’ll probably also love The Da Vinci Code. It’s nearly impossible to come across something totally out of nowhere on Amazon. And yet, for the long-term benefit of society, we need people to have—and be exposed to—ideas from the out-of-nowhere.

Online Discovery Moment #4: This semester I’m teaching a class on “Translator & World Literature.” I have ten students in the class, and we’re reading ten books. The other night I was on Amazon.com looking for info on a book I was reviewing—a title that’s actually included in our class. On that book’s Amazon page, the scroll of “Customers Who Viewed This Item Also Viewed” simply listed all the other books in my class. By putting titles on a syllabus I had subtly altered the experience of every Amazon customer looking for Thomas Pletzinger’s Funeral for a Dog.

Some time ago, Random House studied what caused people to actually buy books in bookstores. They observed customers, they had them fill out surveys, they figured out a set of attributes that lead a reader’s “willingness to pay” to exceed the price of the book, resulting in a purchase. What they found: a book cover is the most important thing, followed by whether a book is displayed or not. (Big piles equal big sales! “We” trend like sheep!) Reviews? Very near the bottom. (Although anyone who worked in a bookstore will attest to NPR being a million times more important that the _New York Times Book Review_—we’ve all dealt with the customer seeking the book that “they talked about on the NPR . . . I think it was blue, with the word “age” in the title?”) Word-of-mouth was higher . . .

Again with the recap: Everything is available instantly. Or almost. Any obscure French translation can either be downloaded immediately to a Kindle-iPad, or be overnighted from Amazon. But how someone found out about this book is still mysterious . . .

All the presentations and chatter focus on how the Age of Screens is the most democratic and egalitarian. About how an author can directly reach her/his audience. And this is true and beautiful in an anti-capitalist way. Traditionally publishers have hated interacting with their readers and done all they could to avoid having to deal with them—something that’s finally changing.

Online Discovery Moment #5: A couple years back I attended a Salzburg Global Seminar on translation. There were about 80 translation related people there (publishers, translators, reviewers, etc.), including a very high-profile German publisher. During a session on the “Internet and Translation” that I moderated, this German publisher railed against the influence of the “free Internet” and how online publishing was destroying his newspapers, literary journals, etc. When I pointed out to him that another value of the Internet was the ability to actually interact with fans and readers his reply was simply: “Why would I ever want to talk with those people?” This distain will not draw the readers seeking the literary fringe to actual literature.

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