Ebook Impermanence: Jonathan Franzen Edition

Jonathan Franzen is upset about ebooks:

“The technology I like is the American paperback edition of Freedom. I can spill water on it and it would still work! So it’s pretty good technology. And what’s more, it will work great 10 years from now. So no wonder the capitalists hate it. It’s a bad business model,” said Franzen, who famously cuts off all connection to the internet when he is writing.

“I think, for serious readers, a sense of permanence has always been part of the experience. Everything else in your life is fluid, but here is this text that doesn’t change.

“Will there still be readers 50 years from now who feel that way? Who have that hunger for something permanent and unalterable? I don’t have a crystal ball.

“But I do fear that it’s going to be very hard to make the world work if there’s no permanence like that. That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government.”

This is easy to mock, and I already have on Twitter. But there’s a serious conversation to have here about technology and business, and how one is driven by the other. It’s very true that, to a large extent, ebooks and ereaders have become so successful in recent years because giant corporations like Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble have taken an interest in them. And their interest is primarily a financial one. The technology and infrastructure for ebooks simply wouldn’t exist without these companies. And despite whatever rhetoric comes out of people in Silicon Valley, large tech companies are not about changing the world. Maybe Tim Berners-Lee or Linus Torvalds want to use technology to make the world a happier and healthier place, but Steve Jobs and his acolytes don’t really care about that. If they did, Apple’s stock wouldn’t be trading at 450  a share. They’re a business and they care about money. And ebooks are a new way for them to make money. The end.

That being said, not every technological development is only about business and the insatiable maw of capitalism. New technologies also give us important tools and news ways of approaching problems in our world. They’re not a panacea, of course, but they’re not all inherently evil or suspect, either. This is not a very complicated point of view. Most people can deal with this kind of ambiguity before they reach the legal drinking age. Being ambivalent and cautious about technology is fine, even healthy; dismissing it as never anything more than a corporate scam is juvenile.

Point is, Franzen isn’t wrong when he notices ebook technology being heavily promoted by Amazon and Apple and he isn’t wrong in being skeptical about it. But he’s wrong when he doesn’t notice that ebook technology and the disruptions it causes to the publishing industry can also be a good thing. It’s never been easier for an small publisher or self-published author to get their work out there. You don’t even have to go through Amazon’s retail channels if you don’t want to. You won’t sell as money books, but for a truly independent-minded publisher or writer, that’s probably not the point. I could set up a website today and sell my ebooks through it with production costs being nothing except the cost of web hosting. I won’t be rich, but again, that’s probably not the point. If you want to defend the status quo, in which a few major writers have all the sales and all the attention, maybe this distresses you. (I will allow the reader to contemplate the irony of Franzen railing against capitalism because it will hurt his status as an elite writer.) For the rest of us, this can only be a good thing.

And so we get to the real error in Franzen’s ebook hatred. He’s complaining about technology and capitalism but has nothing to say about art. At least nothing resembling reality. When he pines over the “permanance” of the printed word, he’s not thinking about how literature actually works. Almost no written work has a single, authoritative, unchanging text. Even Franzen’s example of The Great Gatsby has this problem, as the marketing copy for the Cambridge Critical Text makes clear:

The first edition of The Great Gatsby contained many errors resulting from Fitzgerald’s extensive revisions and a rushed production schedule, and subsequent editions introduced further departures from the author’s intentions. This critical edition draws on the manuscript and surviving proofs of the novel, along with Fitzgerald’s later revisions and corrections, to restore the text to its original form. It is The Great Gatsby as Fitzgerald intended it.

This is far from unusual. It is, indeed, the norm, and the farther back you go in time the more complicated it gets. Even Franzen’s own books have had revisions after publication. So complaining about changes to the static, permanent status of print is just a completely inaccurate way of thinking about how literature works. It’s always in flux and it’s always a case of writers and publishers responding to each other, to other texts, to their cultural history, to the anticipation of future cultural changes. Literature – and art, more generally – is a conversation, not a series of proclamations of Great Writers Which Will Withstand the Test of Time. What’s most distressing is that Franzen, despite all of his essays about the importance of the novel, doesn’t seem to understand how the novel works in the world. This is why he can’t comprehend ebooks. They just make more obvious what was there all along: a fluid, ever-changing and adaptable textual conversation. He cloaks his complaint in a concern about big capitalism and the death of liberalism, but his real complaint circles around a naivety of his art.

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