Friday, February 17, 2012

Friday Favorites: Paper and Ink

Nathan Bransford posted this week wondering why it seems that literary writers are always decrying the electronic age, and as always, he asks some really good questions, and posts some really good links. You should go to his blog here right now and check it out if you haven't seen the post already.

And as always, since I'm a wordy and also a slightly arrogant person (you might not believe me, but just ask my mom), I came up with more than would fit in a comment on his post.

So here it is:

First: Can we all stop calling print-lovers old curmudgeons? I'm only 33, and I want to make it at least into my late forties before anyone starts calling me "OLD." The argument for old-fashioned networking can't be simplified into a simple age breakdown, anyway.

There's the time it takes to learn a new thing, and to learn how to use it effectively. That's time that could (should, even!) be spent writing.

There's the fact that we all (and by "we" I mean "in the writing and publishing business," not "we literary writer folks," because I don't think of myself as an exclusively literary writer) make this distinction between "literary" and "commercial," and while the latter is OBVIOUSLY helped by having a big e-presence, there is a perception (maybe incorrect! But still there) that it's not the same for the former. In fact, I believe that one of the distinctions people draw (even if they don't want to admit it) between "literary" and "commercial" fiction is that commercial stuff sells to the masses because it's hip and cool and relevant and has a fast plot, while literary stuff sells to a few brainy people because it's intellectual, which is kind of the antithesis of Twitter. I mean, look at what they called it: Twitter. It doesn't exactly conjure up images of intellectual greatness. More like the incessant, mindless babble of people with nothing better to do than stand around on a corner and swap gossip.

(And let's remember that most literary stuff DOES NOT SELL WELL. There might be something to the argument that the point of commercial fiction is making money, while the point of literary fiction is making people think, and that's for another blog post. And it should be said that even though I think one could argue that, I don't necessarily actually believe it to be completely true.)

There's the fact that, in my own personal experience which might not be applicable to anyone else at all so please don't be offended, it took WAAAAY longer to write my literary manuscript than it took to write my commercial ones. This does not mean literary writing takes more work or is harder or anything like that. But for me, it takes more mulling. More quiet time. More playing with phrases and punctuation and the look of the page. (See the first point I made about this e-presence stuff taking a serious chunk of time to figure out and do.)

There's the fact that the whole point of browsing is to take your time over it. That's what browsing is. Scrolling through an electronic list in an e-reader kind of takes away from the experience.

There's the fact that studies are coming out showing that the act of cursive writing, old-fashioned and outdated as it is, actually helps improve information retention and language fluency. (Here, here, and here. Just Google it if you want more.) I would venture to say that the same can be said for the act of turning an actual page. Body and mind are not as separate as we like to think.

But there's also this:

When I read blogs and tweets and Google+ posts, I'm not really getting to know you. I'm only getting to know an extremely tiny piece of you. Only the teensy, weensy parts of your life that you're choosing to share in the extremely public electronic forum. And when you read this blog and follow me on Twitter and Google+, that's all you get of me: a teensy, weensy part of me. You don't really know me. I don't really know you. If we met in person, we'd be more likely to shake hands than hug. If I met an author whose posts I follow in person and went in for a hug, I'd probably be removed from the building by security.

But when I meet my writer-friends in person, we hug. We swap stories about our families that we wouldn't share in the too-public forum of the Interwebz. We can see in each other's eyes the excitement of a WiP, or the pain of another rejection or - even worse - months of silence from an editor we've queried, even though our words tell the story of the cheerful writer pulling herself up by the bootstraps and keepin' on. Our conversations last hours, instead of milliseconds, and we jump freely from topic to topic. We see in an instant clothing choices, lifestyle choices, the condition of each other's idea notebooks. I see the whole person. And they see the whole me.

I love email: without it, I'd have lost touch with my closest friends in far-flung places long, long ago. I use Twitter, although I sure don't use it effectively. I blog, obviously. I use Goodreads. My husband has an e-reader, and I've held it and turned it on and poked around.

But I'd rather read a real book than an e-book. I'd rather be writing when I have solitary time, and connecting with people in person when I can. Because no matter how good Twitter and Facebook and Google+ and Goodreads get, they will never be as good as the real thing. No matter how good e-readers get at simulating e-ink, it will never be the same as appreciating the texture of the paper and the quality of the binding. It is the reduction of a book to its content only, which for me is not what a book is. It's like looking at a print of Starry Night, instead of seeing the real thing. It's like watching a 3D movie about climbing a mountain.

No matter how good it is, it will never match up to the real thing. Not ever. It will always be less. And less is for the birds.

What do you think? Agree? Disagree? Feel free to carry on the discussion in the comments.


  1. What a great post Ishta! There's so much to weigh up and ponder these days. I do hope real books stay around, but I don't mind e-books as much as I thought i would. I prefer literary books but also like the odd commercial. I've noticed a shift in the last two years where a lot of writing in commercial books is veering towards literary. I like that a bit of both.

    1. You know, it's so funny, but I LOVE commercial books. Which I guess means they did what they're designed to do! But I like books that are a blend, too, like the ones I mention in my reply to Matt's comment. I like that agents and editors are looking for books that are at the crossroads.

  2. Hmm. There is too much to say for a blog comment, but I will just sum up by saying that I do not personally believe that literary fiction and commercial fiction are mutually exclusive terms. Not saying you said that, but people often seem to think that.

    1. Yes, people do often think that, and I agree with you that they aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. So many agents now are saying that they're looking for a manuscript that is at the point where commercial and literary meet.

      Since I was responding to Nathan's question about why literary writers tended to shy away from e-everything more than commercial writers, though, I stuck with keeping a distinction between them.

      Good comment! You make a good point. We writer folks could probably go on for days about it.

  3. I don't think I know what "literary" means. Much of Mark Twain's work was once considered popular fiction but is now considered literary. I think this has more to do with cultural taste and perspective than style.

  4. First of all wonderful blog entry, Ishta. I guess we could discuss this topic for days indeed. I agree with Stephen though, I find it incredibly hard to decide what is literary, what is commercial, where is the border line.

  5. Wow, I wish I could write blog posts this intelligent. I think you're right on many counts, especially this: "Body and mind are not as separate as we like to think."

    I just want to shout YES!!!

  6. I'm going to leave a teeny comment to say - WELL SAID!

  7. Superb post. There's a deep part of me that simply loves print books. I want to hold them and feel them and even gaze at them when I'm done. If my own work is ever published I want to be able to hug it.

    While writing, my favorite part is printing it out, marking it all up, and going back to work.