Franzen Knows a Lot about Writing but Less About Publishing

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I’m a fan of Jonathan Franzen’s books. I read The Corrections voraciously when it was released and did the same (in digital format) with Freedom. He’s a witty, insightful writer and essayist and is rightfully spoken about as one of the greatest living American literary talents. This is why it disappoints me so much that he engages in arch-snobbery of the kind quoted virtually everywhere on the web this morning. I haven’t seen anything like it since the last time Franzen got his snob on. He was wrong about Oprah’s book club and he’s wrong about ebooks. Let’s start with a quote:

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.

He’s confessing right here from the get-go that this entire argument is based on a ‘feeling’. Specifically that screens feel less permanent than paper. This in itself is intellectually weak (and quite unlike Franzen when speaking about other less emotional topics). But it’s also wrong. Let us interrogate the term ‘permanence’ here. Franzen is talking about the specific physical permanence of paper and ink. Paper books last pretty well, but on the continuum of physical permanence, they don’t last nearly as well as, say, stone tablets (stone tablets, for example, don’t burn). But stone tablets are inconvenient to create, to sell and to move about. Even Franzen would probably agree with that (though I may be underestimating his emotional rigour). On the scale of difficulty, we can say that the paper book is to digital books what stone tablets are to paper books. The sheer physicality of the dead tree format means that it is an effort (an economic effort) to make (and keep) available to readers. A digital book, once published, will never go out of print. It is virtually free to distribute. You can burn an e-reader, but the ebook still exists out there in the ether and can be re-acquired, usually for free. Digital information is almost impossible to destroy.

But this brings me to Franzen’s other point, and I suspect it’s his main one. Digital books are easy to change. This is what he means by impermanence – and he probably should have started with that instead of his whole paper-and-ink metaphorical fuckwittery:

For serious readers, Franzen said, “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,” he continued. “Will there still be readers 50 years from now who feel that way? Who have that hunger for something permanent and unalterable? I don’t have a crystal ball. But I do fear that it’s going to be very hard to make the world work if there’s no permanence like that. That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government.”

For serious readers. Have you ever read anything so laced with smug self-satisfaction? But I digress. Digital books are easy to change. This is Franzen’s main point. And he’s right, on a number of levels. For the same reason that digital books are cheap and easy to produce and distribute, it is commensurately easy to make a change to a digital book and then make that change available to readers. But does this automatically mean that digital books will be endlessly fiddled with? This was the same argument made by Nicholas Carr on the Wall Street Journal last year and it’s been comprehensively disemboweled by many responders – including Bethanie Blanchard at Crikey.

In a nutshell – just because you can do something doesn’t mean people will. The threat to justice and responsible self-government is more than compensated for by the benefits of the format. There are plenty of very good reasons why publishers don’t endlessly fiddle with books, but if we want to take up Franzen’s capitalist ball and run with it then a very good reason is that it makes no economic sense. It costs money to change a book, even a digital book, because editors need to check and re-check everything and further mistakes can be introduced. There is virtually no economic benefit to significantly changing a fiction title from its original form. We’re better off just starting from scratch with a new book.

More importantly, for Franzen’s argument in particular, is that no printed book is completely permanent either. I’ve never seen a book published that didn’t have a few errors that weren’t corrected in a subsequent edition. Plenty of non-fiction titles are re-issued frequently to take in new information, and this is generally seen as a valuable addition for readers. Franzen himself has benefited from this, after famously refusing to continue at a reading for Freedom because the publisher had messed up some of the last minute corrections. To correct these errors thousands of books needed to be pulped and the book was reprinted. Do we really believe that the original version of Freedom – errors and all – is helping prop up justice and responsible self-government?

The threat of disruption to our lives by technology is a valid concern for any modern thinker. But I would have thought that someone who put a bit of thought to the issue would realise that digitising books is not the best example of this. Specious arguments like Franzen’s hold back the reasonable inclusion of digital formats in ‘serious’ literary discussions – endlessly miring us in pointless witterings about the smell of books instead of discussing the content, which is ultimately why we read (and why we should read) in the first place.