Cover of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Bu...
Cover via Amazon

Recently, two notable authors came out against the proliferation of e-books — Maurice Sendak in a hilarious interview on “The Colbert Report” and Jonathan Franzen in a much less charming speech, one that reeks of paranoia and superficial thinking.

Sendak’s disdain for e-books is not fully articulated during his wonderful two-part interview with Stephen Colbert. He just “hates them.” This is fine. Sendak comes across as a crotchety old man who has little to lose by speaking his mind. While this lends itself to a terrific interview by our clown prince of parody, it’s not very informative.

Part of Franzen’s more discursive thoughts echo Nicholas Carr’s general concerns about “fixity,” which Franzen at least has the sense to call simply “permanence”:

The Great Gatsby was last updated in 1924. You don’t need it to be refreshed, do you? Maybe nobody will care about printed books 50 years from now, but I do. When I read a book, I’m handling a specific object in a specific time and place. The fact that when I take the book off the shelf it still says the same thing – that’s reassuring. 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.

It’s ironic that this comes from Franzen. You may recall that thousands of copies of his book “Freedom” were pulped when it was discovered that the compositor sent the wrong computer file to the printer. How permanent were those? Was print’s fixity or permanence able to overcome the pulper, the executive decision, the economic reality of unsellable versions?

What Franzen and Carr miss when it comes to this specious “permanence” or “fixity” argument is that permanence is an economic deal, not a publishing technology deal. When thousands of copies of a new novel are basically unsellable, they are destroyed. Books stripped of covers are headed for the incinerator. If a book will sell more by being updated, abridged, or having a new forward, these things happen. If a book needs to be reflowed for paperback, a new cover designed, and a few typos fixed, so be it. If an author wants to update plot points or change a character’s motivation and has the market power to do so, it will happen. If a publisher thinks a new version of the Bible will sell, with updated language and new footnotes and so forth, it will get produced.

Franzen gets this gloriously wrong, claiming that capitalists hate print because they can’t make it obsolete fast enough to generate the kind of profits planned obsolescence generates in, say, the razor blade market:

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.

Lance Ulanoff at Mashable points out that publishers (one of the capitalists for the book) both appreciate and respect books, and they like sales:

I have no idea why Franzen assumes that publishers and authors are changing their books for the e-editions. With the exception of no longer knowing exact page numbers, I don’t see anyone changing their books for [ebooks]. An ebook reader is just a new delivery mechanism for literature. . . . I think capitalists like any kind of book they can sell you in mass quantities. I don’t think they love ebooks more because they won’t last as long (or at least the platforms they’re on won’t). My guess is that capitalists appreciate the speed with which you can get an ebook to market and the enhanced opportunities for broad distribution.

Not only do capitalists appreciate speedy and broad distribution of books, but authors probably do, as well, Mr. Franzen. This is called alignment of interests.

As for permanence, Franzen doesn’t seem to know that he can also spill water on the hardcover edition, the audio book discs, or the e-book device. He can spill water all day long, and permanence won’t be affected in any format. Permanence is something e-book, audio, and print publishers all have worked hard to preserve. For e-books and audio books (sold online), you can retrieve your books from their servers even after a subscription lapse, a device change, or a deletion. Permanence is expensive and risky to eliminate, cheaper and easier to leave in place, so changing it requires an economic incentive.

There is implicit in this the conflicted idea that local permanence is the defining aspect of permanence as far as cultural change goes (“My copy doesn’t change”), and the mistaken notion that this equates to some larger cultural permanence, an observable reality of general fixity. Travel a bit, and you see how this breaks down. Print editions are all around us — new, authorized, revised, updated, and so forth. The version of Harry Potter I bought in London differs from the same book (one might think) published in the US. Hardcover, paperback, audio book, e-book, large type, translations, adaptations — the list goes on. Publishers can make print do a lot of things, including making it feel or seem or actually be obsolete. Take, for instance, “The Great Gatsby.” Which edition was Franzen referring to? The Cornell Edition? The Penguin Critical Studies Guide? The Collins Classic Edition? The Scribner Edition? The Chinese Edition? The Bantam paperback from 1974? The version in the collection along with “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”? Was printing on cheap paper a way of making books that grew stinky after 20 years, so you’d need to buy a new one? How cynical do you think your publisher is, Mr. Franzen?

I have a hard time with the notion of cultural fixity. Have you ever read the Bible? You know, the permanent Bible, not some rendering or reformatting or translation or interpretation of it? Or the permanent Shakespeare? Or the unmodified Chaucer? Or the definitive Goethe? Books that have achieved the level of cultural importance are often reinterpreted for each generation, in some manner. If print is permanent and fixed, certainly there can only be one version of any of these, so your answer in each case must be in the affirmative.

Either that, or Carr and Franzen have a shaky concept on their hands.

Oddly, Carr has articulated many benefits to fluid texts, and still he frets. Scholarly publishers know permanence has its downsides, just as Carr does, so this isn’t about right or wrong but about cost:benefit. Our PDFs are the coin of the realm, but we’ve been working like dogs for the last decade to create PDFs that are less “fixed,” less “permanent,” so that corrections, errata, comments, and editorial updates can stream through them. Having sheltered PDFs on a hard drive somewhere risks outdated information creating misperceptions. Luckily, most fastidious researchers will check for updates when needed, so the saved versions are starting points in many cases.

A single book is permanent in a sense, fixed in a way. But it’s no different than an e-book file or PDF being fixed or permanent. The books are reproductions of a version of a finished work, just as e-books are. There is no difference. Franzen’s pulped books are a lesson in this. The computer file sent was a definite, finished file, one that hadn’t been deleted and wasn’t subject to some mysterious fluidity. It was reproduced thousands of times because someone erroneously thought it made economic sense to do so. Once the error was discovered, these reproductions were  destroyed for the same reason — economic necessity. If there is a new edition of Faulkner’s works produced, my old editions may feel outdated. I might buy the new ones, replace the old. These become my new “fixed” versions. The old ones weren’t permanent except in that very limited way of being fixed as an economic bet at a particular time, one that someone shared in by purchasing a certain version.

Permanence is perceived to be a print fact, but it is instead the passing impression left behind by an economic variable.

For all their erudition, Franzen, Carr, and Sendak perhaps forget that at one time, the permanence of writing was viewed as a threat to intellectualism, as Socrates worried about the “forgetfulness” that would result from a culture writing things down. The broad distribution created by the printing press was a concern for Johannes Trithemius and others in the 15th and 16th centuries — scribes would become lazy as printing took over the act of copying. And now we have reactionaries of our own, worried that another set of sweeping changes in the distribution and permanence of ideas will lead us astray.

From Socrates to Trithemius to Carr to Sendak to Franzen, there is apparently something permanent in our culture — grumpy old men shouting the intellectualized equivalent of, “Get off my lawn!”

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


3 Thoughts on "Grumpy Old Men — Franzen, Sendak, Permanence, Capitalists, and E-books"

Everyone should watch the referenced Maurice Sendak interview on “The Colbert Report”. It is truly side splitting hilarious.

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