Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Franzen Gets It Wrong

By Steve Weddle

Speaking at the Hay Festival in Cartagena, Colombia, [Jonathan] Franzen argued that e-books, such as Amazon’s Kindle, can never have the magic of the printed page. -- from the UK Telegraph

Best-selling author Jonathan Franzen has been rather silly in his attack on ebooks. Let's take a look at his argument, with his points from the Telegraph article.

“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.”

You ever try to read a page you’ve spilled water on? I have. Doesn’t usually work.

As with most of his complaints, Mr. Franzen seems confused about how ebooks work. Yes, it’s called an “e-book,” and I think I understand part of where Mr. Franzen’s confusion comes from. He seems to be under the impression the book itself will “short out,” much as his cassette player would if doused with a can of New Coke.

If I spilled water on my Kindle and it stopped working, I could still read my book. I could read the file on my computer. On my phone. On my wife’s Kindle. When my new Kindle arrives in a day, I could pick up where I left off. The bookmarks and notes, like the ebook itself, exist on my local device, sure. But they also exist on Amazon’s servers and on any other device I’ve loaded them onto.

Mr. Franzen says that he loves the “American paperback edition of FREEDOM.” Leave that out in the rain and you can’t read the book. Leave your Kindle or Nook out in the rain and you still can. The book isn’t ruined at all.

Sure, a Kindle is expensive – the same as about two hardbacks of Franzen’s FREEDOM. Don’t leave it out in the rain.

“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.”

I, too, am a “serious reader.” I have a very serious chair in the library of my home. I sit in the chair, listening to Dvorak and drinking my dark coffee from my serious Keurig brewer. And I have checked the files loaded on my Kindle. I have looked at the PDF of this Telegraph article every five minutes for the past two hours.

So far, the file has not changed. If the files on Mr. Franzen’s ereader have been changing themselves, I would suggest he return the reader to Amazon. They have fantastic customer service. In fact, they’re quite serious about it.

“Someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it. They were so sure of it that they printed it in ink, on paper. A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it’s just not permanent enough.”

Yes, books can change, I suppose. But this is not simply a paper vs. screen issue. In 2010, for example, 80,000 copies of a book called FREEDOM by a Mr. J. Franzen were pulped because of numerous errors. Sometimes, these things happen. Sometimes printing the book on paper might cause problems.

The publishers have made the rare decision to pulp the remaining books at a cost of tens of thousands of pounds. A spokesman for Fourth Estate, the HarperCollins imprint that publishes Franzen in Britain, said: 'The error was minor - the odd word, spelling, punctuation, that sort of thing.  'Jonathan has spent 10 years writing this book, so obviously he wants every word to be as it was when he left his computer. But he understands that it's just one of those things.'  -- from UK Mail

Consider the logistics of pulping 80,000 books. Consider the tens of thousands of pounds in cost. Then consider updating the file on your Kindle or Nook with the corrected file.

 “The Great Gatsby was last updated in 1924. You don’t need it to be refreshed, do you?”

No. I do not. I wonder what copy of THE GREAT GATSBY Mr. Franzen has downloaded and read. Perhaps he stumbled into one of those mash-ups. I can understand there'd be a problem if someone had accidentally purchased one of those Jane Austen fighting the werewolf books. GATSBY AND GHOULS, perhaps.

As I mentioned earlier, you can easily return the ebook to Amazon. In fact, as soon as you purchase an ebook on your device, a message that allows you to either immediately read the book or immediately cancel the book appears.

Perhaps it is unfair to ask Mr. Franzen to be an expert on technology. As the article in the Telegraph notes, Franzen “famously cuts off all connection to the internet when he is writing.”

I admit that I have read as much of Mr. Franzen’s writing as he has of mine, which is none at all. Therefore, I can’t with confidence judge whether his self-exile has improved his prose. I am aware that he has sold millions of books, much as Nicholas Sparks and James Patterson have done. So he must be doing something that is working for him.

I am also aware that Mr. Franzen’s own books are available as ebooks, which seems an odd choice for someone who so dislikes them. Perhaps the opportunity for selling millions of books has some advantages.


Perhaps most telling in the Telegraph article is the closing section:

Critics have pointed to the absence of religion in Franzen’s novels and he explained: “I don’t believe in a God who’s sitting in some undisclosed location at a switchboard receiving and answering prayers.

Interesting that Mr. Franzen thinks that God communicates via a switchboard. Also interesting that Mr. Franzen’s comments were reported by a newspaper called the Telegraph.

Switchboards. Telegraphs. Rocket books. What’s more important to most readers is the story, not the delivery mechanism. A $10 pdf of Franzen’s writing is just as much his story as is that same pdf in a bound volume, stitched and trimmed and shipped for $30.

Whether people are reading their literature on Kindles or Nooks or paper or phones or rolled-up scrolls penned by priests, a “literature-crazed” person would do well to remember that the play’s the thing, not the stage.


Thomas Pluck said...

I think what devalues fiction is not the medium it is read in, but the rehashing of tired themes, such as "It's so hard to be rich and white!"

Richard Yates and John Cheever did it well, in the '50s and '60s. Nothing has changed, except women have joined the rat race and we suck at the iPhone tit instead of the television.
Move on, like readers have.

Anonymous said...

When you start getting, like, all rational and shit, that ruins everything. I mean, like, isn't blogging supposed to be all about, like, ranting and stuff? I mean if we have to start, like, you know, researching shit and stuff and, you know, like, making sense and shit? Where's the fun in that. You've ruined the internet. I hope you're proud of yourself.

M.A. Brotherton said...

In a way, I can understand the nostalgic love of holding a printed book in your hands. It has nothing to do with the story, it's a tactile experience that brings back memories of being a kid and hiding under a blanket with a flash light, reading well past my bed time.

That doesn't mean that my kids won't one day have that same nostalgia over their kindles or nooks. It has nothing to do with the format, it has to do with the act of reading.

I can't take Franzen to be a "serious reader" if he doesn't understand that.

What he understands is that his royalties are larger on a hardback sale or paperback sale, and that is all that matters there.

Jessica Meats said...

I will always love paper books. No question. There are some books in my collection that are special in a way that an ebook can't be. I have a first edition of a Baroness Orczy book. I have a first edition of the Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf that was a present from my parents. I have a beautifully illustrated hardback of The Lord of the Rings that I bought as a teenager.

An ebook simply can't convey the same emotion to me as those books. But that's because the books themselves mean something special to me.

That said, I have an ebook reader. I love the fact that I can come across a review or recommendation and then instantly go online, buy a copy and have the book at my fingertips.

And paper books can't compete with the compact nature of an ebook reader when I'm travelling. If I'm off on a week's holiday, I could take a heavy suitcase full of paperbacks or I could tuck my Nook into my handbaggage.

Yes, papers books will also have a special place in my heart but you can't just ignore the benefits of ebooks.

And, yeah, I think not having to trash 80000 books because of typos is a big benefit.

Barry Napier said...

I see his point to some degree, but don't see how ANY author could be SO against e-readers.

I love paperbacks. In fact, I've probably read more books in paperback form in the past few months than I have on my Kindle. Honestly, yes, I like the "feel" of a book and I'll even also admit that I am a sucker for filling bookshelves with physical books until the cases start groaning.

But the convenience of e-readers is unbeatable. You'd think any author that is concerned about the future of their craft could understand that and, even if they don't like the format, accept it humbly rather than make pretentious remarks.

Screedster said...

I'm always struck by how readily one can substitute "book" with "cock" in those comments about book lovin'.


"I love holding a book in my hands. I love the smell of it. The firmness. Nothing can replace the feel of a good solid book."


"I love holding a cock in my hands. I love the smell of it. The firmness. Nothing can replace the feel of a good solid cock."

Works every time.

Ben said...

I'm the biggest Jonathan Franzen fan I know, but sometimes I just wished he kept his mouth shut or think a little more about the weight of his words before saying stuff like this.

He's obviously uninformed and disinterested in anything outside the blinders he set in his little world. It's sad to see somebody like him close his mind the way he does. I can understand technophobia for writers up to a certain degree, but this is ridiculous.

Mike Wilkerson said...

Then again, look at the response he is getting over his remarks, positive or negative. When people are talking about you, brother, you must be doing something right.

I'm not defending the guy. Can't. Never read his books and could give a solitary fart about what some guy likes or dislikes. I like mountain oysters. Plenty of people don't. I cannot let this influence my willingness to eat the crispy goodness of sliced and fried bull's nuts.

Like the last paragraph in this commentary states, it's all about the story in the end, print or electronic or digital or whatever.

Lamar said...

Mr. Franzen is entitled to his opinion, and he is entitled to enjoy reading in whatever medium he prefers. There's nothing wrong with the traditional codex as a medium. I have read, written and designed print books for many years, and like will continue to do so.

That being said, what I find objectionable in his statements is his rather smug assumption that his preferences and experiences are the only legitimate preferences and experiences, and that those who disagree with him are simply wrong.

It is likely this blunt arrogance that has made his work impossible for me to read, and will no doubt be a contributing factor in the reason his work is unlikely to be read, or even remembered, in 50 years.

Ellie Ann said...

I love books. I love e-books. I have a funny feelin that Franzen will be very sheepish the day he actually picks up an e-reader, understands what is happening behind all the techno-magic, and maybe actually...likes it?
I don't understand how anyone who loves books would be against e-readers. They do get people reading, after all!

Anonymous said...

I'd just like to second what Mr. Pluck said. The luddite Franzen can go on bleating all he wants but that won't stop the sea change.

David said...

I've been reading books on my computer for decades -- my books, as I write or revise them, the books of friends who have asked me for my opinion, occasionally books I've been asked to blurb.

The Telegraph article mentions that Franzen writes on a computer, so he's obviously doing the same thing. He's drawing an artificial distinction that's artificial even in his own case.

Bill Cameron said...

If you were a serious reader, you wouldn't drink from a Keurig. You'd roast your own beans at home and make your coffee using a Hario or, at least, a Chemex.

Freakin' dilettantes. Sheesh.

John McFetridge said...

Still, I'm looking forward to the HBO adaptation of, "The Corrections."

You know, if my TV doesn't get rained on...

Leonore Dvorkin said...

I assume that Mr. Franzen is unaware that there are many of us serious readers out here who feel that we have quite enough printed books clogging up our houses and who wish to buy mainly e-books from now on. He will probably change his silly tune when he realizes that his books are selling better as e-books than in the printed editions -- as I assume will happen. Also, a recent study (sorry, I can't link you to it) reported that little kids now prefer e-books to printed books. I myself, age 65, am reading more books now that I have a Kindle, which I LOVE. My husband (David Dvorkin) and I are now making sure that all of our own books, both previously published and new, are available in both e-book and print format. So get with it, Franzen! You need a serious attitude adjustment and some more education.

Anonymous said...

When I was a kid, books were my only solace. I loved their feel, their look, their smell, the escape they represented, and the strange realities they contained.

With the Kindle, I own the public library. I can read Dickens, and Twain, and Thucydides, without effort beyond stabbing a button.

New releases? Please. The publishing industry has been screwing the author for decades. Maybe they should stop trotting out token 'successes' like Mr. Franzen (who, by the way, I've never read -- what can I say, I'm a Western Canon guy and he ain't on the list yet) -- and show that they're encouraging new talent in any realistic way. So far, though all the old school aristos deplore it, Amazon is the only one offering said opportunity.

kamagra said...

Steve Weddle are leading the charge, offering venues for and information about short crime fiction.