The Tongues of Men

A novel in redraft by Gabriel Smy

Franzen vs Coelho on digital books

Two authors with very different attitudes to literature online spoke up recently. Jonathan Franzen defended the physical object of the book at a festival in Colombia:

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.

He seems to be conflating form with content. Books are lovely. Almost sacred. I still mostly read physical books. Ebooks will never compete with the sensual, material experience of a book, nor the ability to get a sense of the whole book by flicking through its pages and scanning endings and beginnings. That's why I think the idea of free electronic version for everyone, alongside a premium special edition paper version for fans, might be a sustainable future route for fiction.

But it’s hard to see Franzen’s comments as much more than pure conservatism. So he doesn't like screens. He should see how my one-year-old moves physical books around. That would make him weep. Pages of T.S. Eliot studded with raisins and stuffed under the sofa.

Ebooks, and the devices through which we access them, are going to continue to develop, absorbing all the advice and habits of people who love reading, who love books; they are going to become even more brilliant for reading and browsing, for sharing and annotating, for adapting to our quirks and preferences. That’s the beauty of the digital arena: openness, connection, and rapid evolution.

Franzen is wrong. There might be “a trillion bits of distracting noise” on the Internet, but that does not mean, “all the real things, the authentic things, the honest things, are dying off.” (These are lines he gives to Walter Berglund in Freedom). There might be a terribly low signal to noise ratio on the Internet but there is reality and authenticity if you know where to look.

Take Paulo Coelho for example. The Brazilian author recently made headlines by advocating online piracy. It’s hardly surprising – when a pirated Russian edition of The Alchemist was posted online, it opened up the market and contributed to the sale of more than 12 million copies. That’s because:

When you’ve eaten an orange, you have to go back to the shop to buy another.

It’s not just his attitude towards sharing his writing freely that is polar opposite to writers like Franzen. He also blogs several times a week, posting videos and links and smart competitions that connect him to his fans and have contributed to him having more than 3 million followers on Twitter.

He uses the opportunities that the Internet age has thrown up to connect generously with people and spread his work. Readers are lapping it up.

I have a tiny bit of sympathy for Franzen. I wonder sometimes how the good stuff is ever going to rise to the surface in the rubbish-infested oceans of the Internet. It was much simpler taking a book off the library shelf. But unless the best writers embrace ways to publish and share their work online, they are part of the problem. Coelho is doing it better than most. I’m with Paulo.


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