Monday, September 28, 2009

books, bookstores, reading groups, and writing ciricles: the future of the word

And at this point I do mean the "word" and not "writing." Writing is evolving, writing is more than the word and evolving past the word. Writing is the converge and divergence of text, of image, of moving image, animation, sound, and every other form of expression. Despite the evolution of writing, though, most of us are not ready or willing (will we ever be?) to give up books, books as text based objects, stories bound by the limitations of text and enhanced by those same limitations. Frankly, I don't see the reading public giving up text based books, even text based ebooks, for ebooks with a little bit of text, a lot of images and a couple movie clips. I don't see anything wrong with an ebook that is a combination of text, image, and movies and I would argue that it would be equally good art (at least in form if not in every instance of execution). But I don't see us giving up reading text any time soon. Just because the word is limiting does not mean that there is no value in it. People haven't stopped reading for the radio, television, or film projector. They won't stop now either. The written word, the work that remains primarily text based, that does not add (or enforce) a particular soundtrack, that does not include video clips will persist. More interesting is not the work that seeks to provide everything but rather the work that opens itself up to collaboration: a text that asks a reader to provide a soundtrack which then shared and commented upon by other readers, a text that asks readers to share their own short films that have been inspired by the original. The interesting book is not the book that provides everything but the book that opens the conversation, that allows every manner of interpretation, collaboration.

And then the question becomes how does the written word persist, and how we ( as readers, as writers) will interact with it. Because interaction is indeed the key.

I recently read, and then tweeted, two pieces (the first from The Institute for the Future of the Book and the second a comment from Vroman's Bookstore's blog) dealing with the future of the book in both the physical and digital and the nature of publishing as branding.

Both pieces are thought-provoking and you should read them. It would bring my rambling into focus, make sense of some of my digressions. The argument that I am borrowing from the first piece is that despite going digital, bookstores will hopefully not be replaced by online superstores like Amazon because as anyone who has ever spent hours wandering around a bookstore knows, the physical store is vastly superior for its browsing. Moreover, bookstores and attendant cafes are great places to connect over books, to extend the individual reading experience into a shared experience, to comment upon what has been read, to contribute to the greater distributed conversation that makes up the future of reading/writing. Indeed, as reading and writing become less isolated activities and more social activities the location of reading, writing, and the socialized life of reading and writing needs to evolve. I do not mean this to imply that writers will now all have to set up shop in their local bookstore and produce pages on demand for a voracious public looking on like kids at the zoo. Rather, the acceptance that a work is not finished once it is published and put out into the world but just beginning. That a work is established in its reading, its commentary, its influence, and the social interaction it inspires.

Reading and writing are interacting in different ways, those interactions are only going to grow to be a greater segment of the reading experience (some people will always read alone in the bedroom and speak of it to no one). There is not currently, however, a good space wherein these developing interactions can occur. The bookstore/cafe seems a good one to me. As long as there is internet to facilitate our increasingly hyperlinked lives where in casual conversation no definition can go undefined, no topic not subjected to a wikipedia search. Bookstores retain their capacity for browsing, their cafes keep the coffee and pastries (and would do well to add beer and wine), and they provide the space for book talks, author interactions, book group discussions, the ability for lay readers to contribute marginalia and errata to published works in a means that would get wide distribution (digitally, not a sharpie in the margins).

The point is that our reading and writing experiences are becoming more linked, more social, less bound to any specific meatspace location. But as our conversations become more distributed, asynchronous, and virtual it would be nice to have a space in the real world that could bring us together as bodies with similar interests. Because spending more time digitally linked does not mean (and should not devolve into) more time sitting alone in front of a computer.

As to the publishers becoming noted brands of their own:
The notion of book branding whether via publisher, editor, or author seems to come down to a trust issue. With only so much time/money to spend on books, readers are looking for what they like and recommendations from those they trust whether that be an author whose work they have previously read and enjoyed, imprint that is notable for publishing strong work and whose authors they consistently enjoy and would like to be introduced to more of, or book savvy friend who has great (read: similar) taste. Frankly, publisher branding is the the answer to solve the publishing crisis. But it could help for some imprints. Smaller ones, mostly, that have a cohesive thread across the brand whatever that may be (and it doesn't mean that they all look alike or need to look good on a shelf together, though it could). Author branding is clearly important, but publisher branding could help authors too. An author with an established brand can go it alone, but perhaps they are established but only within a small community. And so they look to the publishing brand that fits and they collaborate. Just because authors can brand themselves does not mean that a publisher can't do the same to everyone's mutual benefit.

Ultimately the project seems to be about connecting with readers, about reaching out to people as people and interacting with them. Saying, in a personal way (and not just something that sounds or seems personal but real person to person interaction with the customers/readers as equals) that this is what we represent, this is the product that we provide, and you can trust us to provide this product consistently. That does imply that staying small and personal is the better route. I hope it is. The faceless Culture Industry hasn't been good for anyone save the fatcats and the douchebags. But that personal interaction can come from the publisher, it can come from the author, it can come from the editor, it can come from your knowledgeable neighborhood bookseller, or it can come from your trusty friend who tells you to read all those books you've loved. Hopefully, it comes from some combination of those, or, with luck, all of them. That all publishing imprints will mean something to readers is likely a stretch. That some can come to mean a lot isn't and is something to be striven for.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

pardon the silence


I have finally given up trying to take naps during the day. There were a couple of days that spoiled me. Finn would take 3 hour naps in the morning and I could go back to bed and wake up before he did wondering why he wasn't crying. And there he would be, just lying in his crib quiet and content and smiling up at me. This week has been a much different story.

Not to blame him, the teething is hell on a kid, but he isn't napping well any more. This morning his nap was 45 mins instead of 3 hours. The kind of thing where I was more exhausted waking up from than when I went down. I'll stop tempting fate. I can manage without the nap. And being woken up like that just ruins my mood. Which I can do without.

Which brings up the point that I have noticed some by listening to people I don't respect talking about their children and glancing over a few baby books that don't offer the best advice (that being trial and error; the kid has a better chance of breaking you that you breaking him) : guilt. Apparently it is quiet common (normal?) for parents to feel guilty about, well basically, everything. Guilt about anger or frustration when the kid screams. Guilt about not being able to fix every problem. Guilt about not knowing the right thing to do even when there isn't a right thing to do. And that is a problem.

I think the issue stems from the fact that most people want to think of babies as babies first and then as people. That babies are by their very nature exempt from all social rules and thus should be treated as such, and should bring about only exceptional emotions. That is total bullshit. Babies are people first. They are social beings and part of society and thus elicit such emotion as any other member of society. When someone at work screams at you, your first reaction is one of anger or resentment or fear. You suppress that emotion because it is not conducive to keeping your job to scream back, to fight, or to run away crying. Just as you suppress anger at your screaming baby, frustration at your failed efforts to soothe said screaming baby, &c. Having and suppressing your anger is basic part of the social condition. There is the knowledge that the job is just a job, that the teething eventually must end in glorious teeth, and so on. There are appropriate outlets. But you rarely feel guilty about being angry with your boss or coworkers or rude clients. So why is it common to feel guilty about being angry with children? Why is it inappropriate to express (calmly) that you are, in fact, angry? (Clearly there is no point telling a baby that you are angry, that would be for older kids, but your partner, your friends, confidants, &c.) Why do we feel that we cannot have normal emotions about babies? That we must not only suppress the emotion but the very fact that we have experienced it as well?

And then there is the contrast, the new movement (mainly of mommy bloggers or that is the impression that I get) of reveling in these "dark" emotions. As if they were somehow illicit instead of commonplace and dull. Who cares that you once thought to put your kid's head through a wall? That's like saying "I once thought that I might like to take a car up past 150 mph on the Autobahn." I suppose it is once again the case of American's being out of touch with their bodies/thoughts/emotions/whatever. But frankly, when faced with the choice of the guilt or the guilty pleasure I choose neither.

I guess no one wants to realize that life is dull. Even life with a new baby. It's routine and repetition and boredom. And when the only break from the boredom and routine is violent screaming, you tend to prefer the tedium.

To wit: life at home with Finn is, in general, a rather simplistic routine. I haven't been writing so much about it because there isn't that much to say. I've learned his routine, he keeps me to it. I know when he needs to be eating, when he should be sleeping, which of his play areas he wants to be playing in and when he wants to be moved. When to lull him into quiescence with my dulcet baritone reading voice and when to rile him up with fart noises and Chewbacca impressions. He eats, he sleeps, and he plays on a relatively standardized schedule and aside from shitting/pissing himself along the way, that is about all he does. The issue is finding ways to fill the time. Or, now that he is teething, finding ways to keep him quiet and on schedule so that I can keep my normal sedate calm. And I have been trying to get back to writing. Serious writing.

Writing a novel while your kid is napping is not as easy as you'd think. Especially when he isn't napping well. I am getting a lot of research done and clarifying plot points and crafting the outlines of scenes. But given that I am meant to be on his schedule, there is no real time for me to get into the zone and bang out 5-10 pages of prose. You can't stay in the zone while a baby is screaming for you from the next room. I'm still working on how to figure that one out.

In case you are interested, the novel is provisionally titled:

Who is Dexter Burroughs?
a mediated noir.

P.S.: In case you ever wondered if you can change a baby on the toilet seat of a Manhattan cafe onesie, you can. It is awesome!