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Where are books like “I’m Not Stiller”?

Drats. I was hoping I could include the post about celebrity deaths and leave it at that. Turns out Tomorrow Museum has a lot more bloggable stuff (I hate  when that happens).

I am treating these posts rather breezily. Can you believe that I need to continue revising my short story so I am eager to finish this post off? (I may make more leisurely thoughts later on).

First, thanks to Joanne for pointing me to  a new hilarious term: tl;dr

From her post on self-publishing, here’s her thoughts about why folksonomies and social networks tend to equalize self-published works with ones pushed by commercial publishers:

Still, the major stumbling block for a self-published author is audience building. Maybe Wheaton could sell as many books this way if he never appeared on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” But there’s no way self-publishing could be profitable for him without his broad Internet fanbase. Authors, by nature, tend to be a shy sort, who would rather not go about the business of shaking hands and kissing babies. But that’s also an issue easily corrected with folksonomy and greater participation in the book world social media like GoodReads. It’s pretty hard to find books similar to that last book you really loved, for reasons I described earlier. If I could enter Max Frisch’s “I’m Not Stiller” in a search engine and receive several recommendations of similar books, you bet I wouldn’t care if they’re self-published or not.

I love I’m not Stiller! But – I would never write a book that would be mistaken for I’m not Stiller. And I would never want to read a book that is anything like I’m Not Stiller. That’s an effect I noticed on Netflix Recommendations. If I say that I like one episode of Twilight Zone, then every single episode of Twilight Zone will be recommended to me. (  Would I want a book that is superficially similar to I’m not Stiller? Or would I want a book that is written by someone who also enjoyed I’m Not Stiller?  One (impractical) solution is to have every author complete a literary survey where they rank a standard list of 500  authors. They must choose from the list the 10 authors who  most influenced them and then 20 more authors on the list  who the author liked. Finally, the author completing the survey should be allowed to add 5 new names to the list (write-in candidates, so to speak).  You could do a lot with such correlations; on the other hand, it would be easy for readers to fill out such a list. In a way, writers are careful readers, but they don’t have the time to read as widely as critics or general readers.  As a writer, my literary tastes show a lot of depth but not so much breadth.

But what about Jack Matthews? What about Jack Matthews? No wikipedia page, no Amazon comments, no social media campaign,  no fan clubs, no flurry of critical attention (full disclosure: I have decided to write a collection of literary essays about his fiction).

From her article about iphones and comments:

A computer is designed to do both things at once so you no longer even think of reading while writing as multitasking. Often times the experience of writing an email is consuming and processing at once: as the message you are writing and the message you are responding to are in the same frame. I’m not old enough to remember the conventions of handwritten letters, but I doubt my grandmother sat at her desk composing a letter to her friend with her friend’s prior letter folded above it, going line by line, making sure she’s responded to every question in sequence.

(She cites a remarkable post by Tyler Cowen about whether the quality of comments deteriorate overtime).

Here’s a post about saving emails:

Think of a box of old photographs. There’s usually one mistake per roll — someone’s head is cropped out or yellow spots ruined another. At 30 or 40 years old, it seems wrong to throw out those photos now. But we think nothing of deleting digital images that come out poorly, as it doesn’t cost anything more to take several extra frames per shot.

Similarly, there is no reason to junk personal email except for peace of mind. All past billets doux courriel is in an eight-year old email account I only use for social network logins. I so infrequently need to check it, I sometimes wonder if Yahoo hasn’t just deleted the account by now. And if they did, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

The funny thing about romantic internet correspondence is at some point, one person or the other will say how much he or she wishes the text were instead on paper. It’s sort of like the inevitability of talking about 9/11 on a first date. But only in special circumstances will anyone send a letter by mail and it wouldn’t be the same. It would be formal, maybe less romantic. Writing email accesses different emotions than pen and paper. No drafts. No rewriting, as the delete key is intrinsic to the process (more on this here.)

If you’ve ever been a college student instant messaging someone who is just down the hall, you know just how easily secrets spill out with technology to mediate. We don’t record our conversations over drinks. That would be creepy. We shouldn’t. But we tend automatically save all of our instant message chat files. Is it worth it to hold on to these memories?

God, I could write a book on this topic alone. There is nothing wrong with trying to save things, especially because people implicitly recognize that emails are a digital and reproducible medium. But the effort involved in doing so is enormous – especially when you have to deal with spam. I have 5 years of important personal emails on yahoo, hidden behind an additional 4 years of spam emails. (I don’t mean spammy spam; I mean mailing lists you once subscribed to, etc).  But overall, I think the labor involved in documenting and archiving is considerable. (Another reason to switch 100% to gmail).

Here is a great wrapup of an MIT Comparative Media studies conference on the future of entertainment.

Here’s her general thoughts how the audience for novels differ from audiences of online writing:

  • Size — selling 50,000 copies of a first novel is good run. Long Tail or not, 50,000 pageviews or tickets sold wouldn’t qualify as a major audience.

  • Time – Reading a book is an investment of one’s time. And we read books at different stages. Someone who read Sleep Has His House seven years ago might have trouble conversing with someone finishing it now. There’s no broadcast or event unifying the audience.
  • Solitude – Reading is a solitary experience. The reader’s imagination is as integral to the construction of the journey as is the writer’s words. We may share our books and love the same books, but with a good book, there is always the sense the journey was a private one.
  • She relates an anecdote about the value of unread books:

    I’m reminded of Neal Stephenson’s comment at a recent reading. I believe the question was was — as remembered by Diana Kimball — what is the point of writing if the world is full of unread books? He said the life of a writer is now like a monk’s experience. In a world of “creatives” with sky-high income, we’re the ones who live simply and act simply.

    The novel won’t ever die. The more I think about it, the more I agree that fan culture/spreadable media is essential to literature, and will succeed in spite of constraints on time and size. The first step is a great book.

    McNeil feels that the best solutions involve publishers who can use social marketing tools to unite literary communities. I’m skeptical. So where is this alleged community for Felipe Alfau? Jack Matthews? Dino Buzatti? (All right, I did sign up for a facebook group for Dino Buzatti; what next? – all right, bad example – he’s dead.)

    Here is her thoughts about teenagers and reading:

    As I explained in my talk at the Media in Transition conference at MIT a few months back, YA book sales are rocketing. Young people, who learned T9 before long division, have no problem curling up with a good book. Sales of young adult lit remain high even in this economy. Why is it other than teenagers are the most passionate readers?

    There are several reasons why so many teenagers are passionate readers. A book is a pathway inside another person’s head. When you are young, you have few deep relationships, maybe no real emotional connections with others at all. You connect in the text. At that age, it is a revelation to see an author has the same dreams and insecurities as you do. Plus, there is a confidence and conviction to a fiction narrative’s voice. You are eager for someone to look up to, but certainly not your parents, not your teachers. A novel is an opportunity to really listen to another human being.

    The solitude, the sense of emotional connection, and the guidance of a novel are all appealing to teenagers who might otherwise busy themselves exclusively with videogames and the Internet. And it shows. For the most part, young adult sales continue to rise even while book publishing is experiencing a significant decline.

    Industry experts will say sales reflect the new diversity in the young adult market. There is a Harry Potter gold rush of writers who might never otherwise consider the genre. These writers are pushing the boundaries, introducing ideas and themes darker and wilder than ever before.

    Certainly, the increasing quality of young adult books is a draw. But there are exceptional videogames, there are exceptional websites and exceptional television programs to fight for a teenager’s attention. So why are they still reading?

    I think there is another reason why young adult novels are doing well, and it is less easy gauge. As of yet, there are no real studies determining this, but anecdotally, we all relate to it. A book is an opportunity to get “off the grid.” We read to break free of their digital tether. To experience what life was like before the net. To disconnect. To finally feel alone.

    A book holds your hand in solitude and says, here you are alone in your room and everything is alright. You don’t need to call a friend or Twitter something. The world is still turning. If you go for a forty minute walk without your mobile, don’t worry, you’re not going to miss anything.

    My explanation for the alleged uptick in teenage reading is more prosaic. Teenagers is a  demographic with lots of spare time on their hands – especially when they get to college and learn to avoid doing classwork. The other key demographic is retired people who read a lot. Then again, all of them could just as easily spend their time watching videos on Netflix.

    Finally, a general observation about literary bloggers like Ms. McNeil. Tomorrow Museum is a high quality blog; lots of great stuff, but they occur infrequently – maybe every 2 or 3 weeks.  By blogging standards, that is downright incompetent/verboten, but in the real world her posts are well worth waiting for.  We need to develop online reading habits that make it possible for us to keep track of infrequent posters like Tomorrow Museum. Even the habit of using RSS feed readers teaches us to check the frequently updated blog (FUB)  more frequently; let’s just hope that the FUB has sufficient attention span to catch these infrequent posters in their nets.

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