Dispatches | October 22, 2010

Seance (via Wikimedia Commons)

Another interesting posting on e-books floated to the top of the Google News filter recently. Andres Oppenheimer of the Miami Herald interviewed Nobel Prize Winner Mario Vargas Llosa concerning the future of literature in an age of e-books. After commenting on the portability benefits of e-books, Vargas Llosa sounds a cautionary note:

But, on the down side, “it could bring along an impoverishment of literary quality,” he said.

“There is always the risk that literature that is written for the screen will be more prone to triviality, banality, to a deterioration of intellectual activity.”

We hear a lot of such talk about “new media” these days, how e-books will change literature, how blogs are changing journalism.

But, really, why should the medium change the message? Why do so many seem so convinced that a writer producing a work that will be read on a screen write in a different way than a writer who expects to see his or her words on the printed page? No doubt there will be further experiments utilizing the unique properties of digital distribution to create more multimedia “hypertext” literature (are we even using that term anymore? The “hypertext” novel already seems passé, obsolete before it even got its natural platform). But lots of novels — most novels, even — will continue to be plain text. Why should the means of displaying that text seem so crucial?

Certainly, there is a McLuhanistic argument for how the specific qualities of a medium shape our perceptions of content, and there are perhaps compelling hypotheses for why digital consumption can somehow devalue the content (of course, similar arguments were made when the printing press replaced hand-crafted manuscripts, some of which would cast the modern binding-sniffing bibliophile as a downright philistine).

However, it seems to me that the more significant force affecting artistic quality is not the development of a new medium, but that of a new market. E-books appear to be opening up a new market for a kind of reading. Maybe that market wants more ephemeral and superficial content (and then again, maybe it doesn’t). But is this destructive of the market for quality? Vargas Llosa goes on in his remarks to compare e-books to television, saying:

“Television is, on one hand, an extraordinary source of information. But in general, the products created for television are very trivial, banal, compared to creative products that end up in books.”

Anyone who has been watching HBO’s original programming for the last decade (to name just one example) can dispute this statement. If much of what is produced for television is banal, is that a fault of the medium, or is it simply a response to the largest market? I think it’s been amply proven that there’s no limitation on aesthetic and intellectual quality to the television format. It just happens that television is also the principle vehicle for serving a mass audience that also wants its daily escapist fare.

Moreover, if you really crunch the numbers, I suspect the number of trivial and banal books published every year utterly dwarfs offerings of high-quality literature. Indeed, it may well be true that, per capita, television has a higher ratio of high-quality art to schlock than book publishing does. (Even if there are several hundred bad TV series for every The Wire, there have to be many thousands of bad books for every masterpiece.)

There might well be a digital market for banal content, for which many terabytes of bad writing will be produced. But it is not the digital screen that leads people to write badly.

The optimistic argument (often trotted out by new media revolutionaries) is that the opening up of any new market, even a market for crap, produces spill-over for older kinds of content. Buyers of e-books (like buyers of digital music) may not be more inclined to start buying more paper books or compact discs, but they are likely to buy books and recordings in their general sense. Quality will find its audience even across changes of media or distribution platform, and vice versa.