Jonathan Franzen:Ebooks are damaging society

 In Books

I’ve been thinking about this for a little while now. No, not that ebooks are damaging society (Oh the horror, I must throw my Kindle away right now and transcribe my novels onto parchment using quill and ink, before society is irreparably damaged!) but a tangential subject: the difference in writing technique that the computer age has offered (forced upon?) us as opposed to those days when we wrote on typewriters.

You see, even as I am writing this post, I’m constantly editing it. I’m deleting words, sentences, sometimes whole paragraphs. That’s how I write. That’s how I write everything from short stories to massive length novels. I cannot switch off my inner editor while I am writing. I have tried, oh how I’ve tried. Apparently I’m supposed to vomit up a first draft of words, not caring about spelling, grammar, continuity, or any of the other craft that goes with writing a novel.

I succeeded once, and abandoned my work in progress at the 30,000 word mark, it was so disorganised and dreadful. It still sits on my hard drive, waiting for me to return and fix it.

Fat chance.

But that wasn’t the way back in what I shall now on refer to as ye olden dayes of manual typewriters, before all those zeros and ones began streaming their way into our lives and turning everything digital. No, back then, an author wanted to make corrections, she had to resort to Tippex, or horror of horrors, pull the sheet of typescript out of the typewriter and start again.

Back in those days, editing was nowhere near as easy as it is now.

So, I fail to believe that there was any vomiting of words onto pages going on then, either. Imagine typing up a 80,000 word novel, and then having to go through it to check spelling and grammar (no automated solutions here remember, this is the dark age, before Microsoft Word), plot continuity, character continuity, and all the other things we authors fret about when trying to tell a story in words. After having checked it through and corrected, presumably with a pencil or pen, it would then be time to insert a fresh sheet of paper into the typewriter and start the laborious process of typing out the whole damn thing again, taking into account the corrections.

But neither would the author from Ye Olden Dayes be able to edit in the way that I do. I dread to think how much correction fluid I would get through, constantly typing, deleting and typing as I do. My finished sheets of paper would be twice the thickness they started off at.

Crime writer Lawrence Block famously used to buy the most expensive paper he could find, in an attempt to make sure that he never wrote sloppily, or had to resort to any extensive editing. He wanted to get his story down right the first time.

So, today’s lesson is this: Writing a novel? Great. Just try your damnedest to get it down in one draft, okay? No more rewriting.

Here endeth the lesson.

Back to Jonathan Franzen.

Franzen, author of The Corrections and a literary superstar, is worried that ebooks are sending us merrily on our way to the apocalypse.

Don’t believe me?

Here he is, quoted at the Hay Festival, Cartagena, Columbia, comparing the permanence of physical paper books to the apparent ‘impermanence’ of ebooks.

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.

Will there still be readers 50 years from now who feel that way? Who have that hunger for something permanent and unalterable? I don’t have a crystal ball.

But I do fear that it’s going to be very hard to make the world work if there’s no permanence like that. That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government.

That’s it, I’m throwing away my Kindle right now. I know what the apocalypse looks like, I watch The Walking Dead.

And if you don’t believe he’s talking about BOOKS, here’s the link.

These literary types are always announcing the death of the novel. (Here’s Will Self predicting it’s demise last year. And guess what? It’s all that pesky Kindle’s fault again.) But this is the first time I have come across a literary type predicting the death of society, due I suppose, to the death of the novel, which has been brought about, obviously, by the advent of the ebook.

I suppose it’s our fault, really.

Because, gosh darn it, us simple folks are just too stupid to be able to read proper, sensible novels, as they don’t exist in digital formats do they?

Except they do.

Here are Jonathan Franzen’s books available for Kindle.

And here are Will Self’s.

Which leads me to one conclusion.

When the apocalypse finally arrives, as it surely must, it will be the fault of those literary superstars.

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Showing 2 comments
  • Lexa Cain
    Reply

    LOL! Very well written and true. I edit as I go, too. Plus, I post chapters in a CP group. I’d rather catch trouble at the beginning, fix it, and incorporate the fixes as I go on. Nothing’s more horrible than the idea of writing scenes that have to be deleted later. All that wasted time!

    • Ken Preston
      Reply

      Yes, exactly. And I have at least two novels that I abandoned around the 30k and 40k mark because they had changed so much as I wrote that I was too confused and disheartened to go back and alter the beginning sections. I think Lawrence Block says it best: When you have just run a marathon why would you want to go and walk the whole course again looking for your dropped keys?

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