03 February 2012

But after my makyng thow wryte more trewe

The literary districts of the internet have buzzed a bit lately over a recent round-up of things novelist Jonathan Franzen dislikes. These range from e-books, smart phones, and the internet, to outdoor cats, to Michiko Kakutani.

Most of this is unremarkable, really. 'Middle-aged novelist is suspicious of technology, dislikes critics.'

He is of course entitled to dislike anything and anyone he pleases. I did roll my eyes at this statement, about Kakutani:
The most upsetting thing nowadays is the feeling that there’s no one out there responding intelligently to the text.
No one? Really? No one at all?

Good grief. Or, to use the modern vernacular, hyperbole much?

But it was his statements about e-books, made at the Hay Festival, that really made me choke on my diet soda. Again, that he does not like them is unremarkable; many people in these literary circles tend to think e-books are bad for both readers and writers.

I am not convinced that the Kindle represents breaking the sixth seal of the cultural apocalypse. I do not own a Kindle, but I have the Kindle app on both my phone and my home computer, and I have both free and purchased e-books loaded. I will never be caught in a waiting room without a book again. However, my library is still mostly in codex form, and I have no plans to replace the physical volumes I already own with electronic ones. Furthermore, e-books have a serious flaw in that I cannot hand them off after I've finished them, in the way I can force a physical book into your hands, saying 'you have to read this, it's really good.'

Never be caught without a book again

What Franzen said was this:
I think, for serious readers, 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.
We will leave aside the 'serious readers' crack, which suggests that only consumers of the textual equivalent of Coca-Cola would want to use e-books, an implication that is patently false, and focus on this idea of permanence, of the text that does not change. One can certainly make a case that electronic media present concerns for long-term storage and compatibility with future technology, but that doesn't seem to be Franzen's argument. His remarks continued:
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.
Again we have that idea of permanence, this time coupled to the idea of authorial authority. Franzen has (not surprisingly) invested in the idea, and apparently fears that a person or persons unknown might be able to change the text in an e-book without permission. I respect and understand this -- which of us really likes other people 'messing' with our writing, even when it's an editor with our best interests at heart? -- and given that Amazon once made the egregious error of deleting copies of 1984 and Animal Farm from Kindles without warning, I can even see why one might fear someone tampering with the text itself. On the other hand, people have been tampering with texts for centuries. Perhaps you are familiar with Thomas Bowdler? Printed editions going back to the First Folio didn't save Shakespeare's text from deletions and changes.

I am a mediaevalist and textual critic by training, not the product of an MFA programme, so the idea that committing one's words to ink conveys permanence or even real authority makes me giggle. No text is permanent; no text is perfect. In addition to whatever infelicities of style occur despite (or sometimes because) we've worked really hard to make the language 'just right', simple human error always encroaches, even when writing and proofreading are done with the best of intentions. Anyone who reads has spotted typographical errors somewhere -- books, newspapers, magazines, and advertising copy are all littered with them. We make them with our own texts, whether we type or write longhand. I myself have a terrible habit of writing down adjectives where I want adverbs, e.g. putting down 'infinite' when I mean 'infinitely,' a thing I do as often when writing longhand as when typing, for reasons unfathomable to me. I know I want the adverb, I just write the adjective instead. Then I say a lot of bad words, and go back and fix it, sometimes even after I've pressed the 'publish' button. I hope that none of my readers here are too offended that I interfere with your sense of the permanence of my text by correcting those errors.

Any mediaevalist knows also that scribal errors are not a modern problem; hell, they're not even uniquely a mediaeval problem. I imagine the author of Gilgamesh may have flung a few tablets while shouting that his secretary was a raving moron. Google 'textual criticism' and most of the sites that come up will be about Biblical or Quranic textual criticism. If God can't get an authoritative text of the scriptures, what hope do the rest of us have?

While I was 'up' at St Andrews, I read a book on how to create a critical edition of a mediaeval text. I don't remember the names of the authors, and it was painfully out of date; it assumed typewriters, and might even have talked about specialised IBM Selectric balls. The one thing the authors hammered on incessantly was that one should never re-type the transcript of the text. Ever. Under any circumstances. Use correction fluid. Use a razor blade to excise an error. Tape a patch over the hole if necessary.

Yes, they actually advocated cutting holes in your transcript over retyping. Why? Because recopying is how scribal errors creep in. If the goal is to establish a critical edition of the text, adding new scribal errors is not what you want to do. As I read the book, I remember thinking 'Thank God I have WordPerfect on my laptop.' Whatever errors I committed in transcription were less likely to be compounded with correction fluid, razor blades, and black ballpoint pens (not to mention the horror of producing four identical copies at time of submission).

I did, despite my best efforts, commit some errors. Most were caught, either on my subsequent passes or by my supervisor, but one slipped through to my examiners, who very gently pointed out that German city wasn't 'Renchbrig' but 'Reuchbrig'. A classic minim blunder. The context should have made the correct reading clear enough, but I missed it anyway. I smacked my forehead with my palm, corrected the text, and also added a gloss ('Regensburg') before I took clean copies to the bindery. No one's sense of permanence was offended by that -- in fact the internal examiner was pleased by the new gloss when I walked him through the revisions I made after the viva.

I am not suggesting that editors shouldn't strive for editions that are as close as possible to what the author actually wrote; I don't support carelessness or illicit monkeying around with texts, be they your own or someone else's. But the history of literature says nothing quite so clearly as 'Oops.' The possibility of an authoritative text is more theoretical than actual, even in the modern era. Under the circumstances, the idea of a 'permanent' text actually seems undesirable. If the printed word is permanent, how is a writer to defend herself against the malevolent ghost of Adam the scriveyn?

Geoffrey Chaucer


  1. Nothing is permanent,and if Franzen doesn't know that he's an idiot.

  2. Yeah, it seems a little odd for a 50ish man to be unaware of the fact that permanence isn't possible, but I didn't make those quotes up.

    I should probably point out that the text displayed on my phone in the picture is from the 10th anniversary edition of Neil Gaiman's American Gods, which is (shocker!) not exactly the same text that was originally published. It incorporates some revisions and edits made after the original publication. Sort of like director's cut. So far no one's sense of the stability of the universe seems to have wobbled too badly.

  3. I agree. If Franzen is so scared of losing control of his text, he should stick it in a drawer as soon as it's finished. Years back I wrote my dissertation on what happens to a book between the author putting the final full stop and the reader opening the first page that influences the reader's interpretation of the text. E-books seem to me to be the latest variation of those influences, not something new,as you say.

  4. I kind of wish people -- Franzen and herds of others -- would just be happy to say: "You know what -- I just like books. No e-readers for me." Sure, there are concerns for me with e-readers(mostly in terms of having my reading profiled and other spooky 1984 stuff) but, as you point out very well, it is certainly not a threat to the written word's sanctity. Books are just plain cool, let's face it. I think people like Franzen work hard to justify their preferences with some sort of analytical reasons for them. Me? -- I just like to hold books.

  5. Oh, I agree. If you like books, by all means, buy books. I like having the choice. And honestly, if I were trying to sell my writing on the open market, I'd be as happy to take the money of people with e-readers as the money of people who want a physical volume.

    I'm wondering if, at the time the codex supplanted the scroll, some poet or playwright staged a protest over this shocking new format that was going to destroy civilisation as it was known. If he did, we can see how successful that was.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...