“Hasn’t ‘the tremendous expansion of the literary talent pool’ and its systematic training in the ‘self-conscious attention to craft’ resulted in ‘a system-wide rise in the excellence of American literature in the postwar period’? It has. If you take ‘good writing’ as a matter of lucidity, striking word combinations, evocative descriptions, inventive metaphors, smooth transitions and avoidance of word repetition, the level of American writing has skyrocketed in the postwar years. In technical terms, pretty much any MFA graduate leaves Stendhal in the dust. On the other hand, The Red and the Black is a book I actually want to read. This reflects, I believe, the counterintuitive but real disjuncture between good writing and good books.”—Elif Batuman, Get A Real Degree, London Review of Books
“I first met McEwan many years ago, before I was published myself. I was nineteen, down from Cambridge for the holidays, and a girl I knew from college was going to Ian McEwan’s wedding party. This was a fairly normal occurrence for her, coming from the family she did, but I had never clapped eyes on a writer in my life. She invited me along, knowing what it would mean to me. That was an unforgettable evening. I was so delighted to be there and yet so rigid with fear I could barely enjoy it. It was a party full of people from my bookshelves come to life. I can recall being introduced to Martin Amis (whom I was busy plagiarizing at the time) and being shown his new baby. Meeting Martin Amis for me, at nineteen, was like meeting God. I said: “Nice baby.” This line, like all conversation, could not be rewritten. I remember feeling, like Joseph K., that the shame of it would outlive me. I didn’t get to speak with McEwan that night—I spent most of the party hiding from him. I assumed he was a little annoyed to find a random undergraduate he did not know at his own wedding party. But I had just read Black Dogs (1992)—that brilliant, flinty little novel, bursting with big ideas—and I was fascinated by the idea of an English novelist writing such serious, metaphysical, almost European prose as this. He was not like Amis and he was not like Rushdie or Barnes or Ishiguro or Kureishi or any of the other English and quasi-English men I was reading at the time. He was the odd man out. “Apparently,” said my friend knowledgeably, as we watched McEwan swing his new wife around the dance floor, “he only writes fifteen words a day.” This was an unfortunate piece of information to give an aspiring writer. I was terribly susceptible to the power of example. If I heard Borges ran three miles every morning and did a headstand in a bucket of water before sitting down to write, I felt I must try this myself. The specter of the fifteen-word limit stayed with me a long time. Three years later I remember writing White Teeth and thinking that all my problems stemmed from the excess of words I felt compelled to write each day. Fifteen words a day! Why can’t you write just fifteen words a day?”—Zadie Smith talks with Ian McEwan. via ennelletti. (via tobia)
Overwhelmingly, e-books and e-readers have emphasized — and maybe over-emphasized — easy reading of prose fiction. All of the rhetoric is about the pure transparency of the reading act, where the device just disappears. Well, with some kinds of reading, we don’t always want the device to disappear. Sometimes we need to use texts to do tough intellectual work. And when we do this, we usually have to stop and think about their materiality.
We care which page a quote appears on, because we need to reference it later. We need to look up words in other languages, not just English. We need displays that can preserve the careful spatial layouts of a modernist poet, rather than smashing it all together as indistinguishable, left-justified text. We need to recognize that using language as a graphic art requires more than a choice of three fonts in a half-dozen sizes. Some text is interchangable, but some of it is through-designed. And for good reason.
I can’t think of any household-name-type bestselling author who’s done this, though. While I’m for digitizing every damn text in the world (Instant access! Weightlessness!), I believe we still need information filters, and traditional publishers do that very well, even if they’re not going to be the only ones in the future.
But right now, digital trumps dead tree when it comes to backlist and out-of-print titles that traditional publishers hesitate to put out if there isn’t popular demand. I like Patricia Highsmith, who liked Theodora Keogh. I’m dying to read Keogh, but none of her books are in print. Major Grars.