In a 1999 interview with the New York Times, Annie Proulx was quoted as saying:
’The internet is good for bulletin boards on esoteric subjects, reference works, lists and news – timely utilitarian information, efficiently pulled through the wires… Nobody is going to sit down and read a novel on a twitchy little screen. Ever.’
We’ve come a long way since then, but the sentiment expressed in Proulx’s statement is clearly still relatable for large numbers of readers and writers, who remain uncomfortable with the movement of literature from print to electronic screens. While the technology of eBook readers has certainly improved – offering better lighting, faster and more adaptable reading, more convenient sizes and weights – many readers retain an affection for print that goes beyond the content of the texts, appreciating the feel and smell of the pages, and the aesthetics of a book as an object.
Other objections stem from the types of publishing and marketing arrangements that e-books allow for. Ali Alizadeh, in a 2014 article for the Australian Humanities Review, presents a convincing argument that the expansion of the eBook market represents diminishing opportunities for literary authors, noting that blockbuster successes on the e-book platform have largely been highly commodified works of romance, science fiction thrillers and fantasy (E.L. Jones’s Fifty Shades of Grey standing as an exemplar of e-book success). The low cost and easy circulation of eBooks has certainly done little to revive or even prop up the diminishing literary mid-list.
While there are now opportunities for writers of all kinds to get their work out into a public sphere, avoiding the traditional gatekeepers of print publishing, it is still just as hard, or even harder, to make writing pay. Furthermore Alizadeh contends that the ability provided by e-readers to accumulate large numbers of texts very cheaply distracts from thoughtful engagement with their content. Readers can often become more focused on the imaginative possibilities of the gadget rather than on the possibilities of the text. .
However, while the eBook market and environment may not be favourable to literary writing, as Alizadeh rightly points out, neither is print publishing to a large extent, with the same commercial, commodified novels tending to dominate the fiction best seller lists. The idea that the low price and convenience of eBooks encourages a relationship with books, where they are prized more for their acquisition as cultural capital than they are seriously engaged with is compelling, but the same is true of books in print culture – where they just as easily can be purchased as commodities and proudly displayed, regardless of whether they are actually read or not. The rise of eBooks and their market are more symptomatic of the problems that face creative writing in a new media era rather than their cause.
The status of the eBook is complicated, given that it is not just the next evolution of the book’s form (the next step in the movement from scroll to codex, parchment to paper, etc.) but also a form of digital or electronic writing. The eBook arguably offers greater freedoms and affordances than print in terms of accessibility and circulation. As a form of electronic writing, however, it is remarkably and regressively restrictive. While an eBook follows the form of a print book closely: a defined beginning and end, content broken down into chapters, its architecture is essentially the same as that of a website in that it is built in HTML, and has potentially all of the same capacities in terms of hyperlinks, sharing and searchability. Still, the adherence to the form of the book means that we cannot easily copy and paste text from an eBook for example, share passages with other readers, or move files in general due the constraints of the ePublishing format, the control over digital rights and the lock-ins that restrict purchased eBooks to specific devices: kindles, nooks, etc. If we understand the eBook as an intentionally hamstrung, hermetically sealed website then its limitations become starkly apparent. As a part of the electronic reading tradition it is cut off and isolated from developing discourse. It is not possible, for example, to enter a term into a search engine and land within an eBook, or to easily provide a link to a specific chapter or page within one, or perform a host of other functions that we could expect from the text that is delivered through a normal website. These limitations disconnect eBooks, like print books, from evolving online writing and discourse, uneasily positioning them between print and online writing cultures, between the individual ownership and authorship of print and the less rigidly delineated, more interactive domains of digital writing.
With these limitations in mind, what then is the appeal of the eBook as a form of writing? Ironically, I would contend that eBooks are valued because they replicate the experience of print rather than diverging radically from it, and in so doing briefly extend the failing dynamics of print publishing into a digital world. Even for the most ardent eBook advocate, the use and reading of eBooks is heavily steeped in nostalgia for print, with each watershed innovation of e-reader technology arguably bringing the reading experience closer to that of a print text. This is demonstrated by how closely the spread and success of eBooks is linked to developments in mobile media technology. The first versions of eBooks, electronically scanned and circulated books that could be accessed via PCs and other terminal technologies were not generally widely read, because their arrangement and interface did not follow the metaphor of the book – clicking and scrolling rather than turning pages, being unable to travel with them or lie down. The popularity of the eBook coincides with the development of forms that allow them to be read in a way that preserves the experience of the tangible book, to a certain extent (kindle, e-reader, smart phones, tablets) – the artificial slowness of seeing an animated page turn over in certain eBook formats, for example. In this regard the eBook could be considered a compensatory or nostalgic form of technology, making up for the inability to always have a print book to hand, to transport them with us in bulk, or to purchase, store and display them in large quantities. We are more than happy to read novels on twitchy little screens, but only because doing so constantly reminds us of reading them on a page.
Because of their reliance on an awareness of the print book, eBooks are unlikely to operate as a ‘replacement’ for the print book in the way that much of the dialogue around them tends to assume. Rather I would contend that their effective lifespan is limited by the extent to which the reading population is likely to retain their nostalgic affection for print books, and it is questionable as to whether this will be retained to such a degree by the next generation of digital natives.
Writing in Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto, Hugh McGuire argues that the eBook can be understood as an intermediary technology, a bubble that preserves the form of the print book in an electronic world that will eventually go the way of the cassette tape, the CD, the wireless or the electronic typewriter. He predicts that the book of the future will simply merge more fully with new approaches to writing and circulation that have evolved online.. We can already see some existing models, which give an indication as to how this might work: such as the electronic textbooks that are constantly updated and modified, offering what amounts to being more like a subscription service than a book, or ‘networked’ books or ‘book blogs’ where the author begins the writing process in open dialogue with their audience and other online writers and continues it long after conventional print publication. This ‘merging’ with the mainstream internet may work to de-emphasise the importance of individual authorship as more interactive and collaborative forms of writing and knowledge construction start to emerge and the linear constraints of the form (beginnings and endings) to such an extent that much or all reference to the print book may be lost. In his recent book The Future of Creative Writing, Graeme Harper notes that this is the world that creative writers must prepare themselves for. Harper makes the useful point that while habits, activities and professions have been associated with what we now refer to as creative writing throughout almost all of human history, the particular condition that we now most frequently use to define success within the field, the widespread publication, circulation and sale of books, has only been possible for a few hundred years.
While we are unlikely to ever see the ‘death’ of the book as a mode of transmitting narrative, information and aesthetic pleasure, I do think that we must give more thought to how creative writing will function in a post-book world, one where the book as a form of media no longer possesses the reverence and cultural centrality that it has enjoyed for thousands of years. New modes of storytelling, monetisation of creative writing and understandings of ownership and authorship are emerging as online and new media platforms become more widely engaged with. The eBook as a form, while radical in some respects, sits apart from these developing trends, constrained by the artificial limitations imposed through its nostalgic relationship with print. It can be understood not as the replacement or even the evolution of the book but rather as its ghost, the electronic afterimage that briefly remains after the page has vanished.
Julian Novitz is a lecturer in writing at the Swinburne University of Technology. He is the author of two novels and collection of short stories and his work has appeared in The Penguin Book of Contemporary New Zealand Stories, Best New Zealand Fiction, The Sydney Review of Books, Wet Ink, Landfall, The NZ Listener, Sport and other publications. He has won various awards for his writing, including the Hubert Church Award for Best First Book of Fiction and the Katherine Mansfield Award for Short Fiction. He is currently the reviews editor for Antic: New Writing (www.anticmagazine.com.au).