What may be more insidious is the pressure to fiddle with books for commercial reasons. Because e-readers gather enormously detailed information on the way people read, publishers may soon be awash in market research. They’ll know how quickly readers progress through different chapters, when they skip pages, and when they abandon a book.

The promise of stronger sales and profits will make it hard to resist tinkering with a book in response to such signals, adding a few choice words here, trimming a chapter there, maybe giving a key character a quick makeover. What will be lost, or at least diminished, is the sense of a book as a finished and complete object, a self-contained work of art.

Not long before he died, John Updike spoke eloquently of a book’s “edges,” the boundaries that give shape and integrity to a literary work and that for centuries have found their outward expression in the indelibility of printed pages. It’s those edges that give a book its solidity, allowing it to stand up to the vagaries of fashion and the erosions of time. And it’s those edges that seem fated to blur as the words of books go from being stamped permanently on sheets of paper to being rendered temporarily on flickering screens.

Nicholas Carr

There is so much to unpack here! It seems so weird that there are laws that keep private what library books you borrow (i.e. the titles), yet, if you’re an ebook reader, someone’s analyzing how long you pause on each individual page. I suppose it’s analyzed in the aggregate, but still. Somewhere, someone knows what you, individually, are doing. I guess that’s also true of the library info, but again, they only know the titles of the books you read, and again, laws.

Beyond privacy or the lack thereof, how accurate is that kind of info anyhow? Maybe you just got distracted by something. You know, like when you leave a browser window open for a half a day. You’re not actually spending 12 hours reading a 500-word article. You just haven’t got around to reading it yet.

And the rest gets into the whole literary vs. commercial work, especially when you’re talking about fiction. Everything I’ve read about ebooks makes it seem like people are more keen on fiction ebooks than nonfiction ebooks. This just seems backward to me. I totally see the benefits of ebooks for books that are frequently updated (guidebooks, textbooks, etc.). There’s also the convenience. Physical textbooks are heavy/bulky; with ebooks you can have them all with you at once. Same for guidebooks. These kinds of books are about the content, not the form. They’re also, frequently, works for hire, written by multiple authors working for a corporation.

But fiction? Fiction is an art. It’s a creative work. There’s an emotional investment in the work on the part of the author. While it’s true that some authors have revised work after publication, this is their own choice. Suggesting that writers revise their completed/published work on the basis of market research (i.e. reader feedback), changes the whole artistic process. No longer would the writer whose name is on the work be the sole author, whether or not this acknowledged. This is not to say this can’t (or hasn’t) been done; it’s just that it’s a different creative process.

You can see this how this happens by looking at the evolution of blogs. Early blogs were clearly the product of individual writers, but at this point, the voice of any blogger who has a substantial readership and continues to blog, has been drastically affected by their readers (& sponsors/advertisers). What they write and how they write it is a collaborative, not individual, process. (It might be a subconscious effect, but it’s still there.)

Revising published fiction based on reader feedback would be like an artist revising a painting after reading the comment cards from the gallery where the painting hangs, then rehanging it, so that the visitors who see the revised painting are seeing something different than the original visitors did, even though the painting has the same title. Would this change be acknowledged? Or would it be something that is not mentioned unless a visitor happens to return and notice the difference? And would the changes continue? Would the process be repeated again and again? And what happens when the artist dies? Would someone else continue the revisions? And how does all this revising affect new output? Is the artist so busy revising things already created that s/he has no time to create anything new? Shouldn’t an artist’s energy be put into new projects?

So many questions.


2 thoughts on “Edges

  1. kingmidget

    This is one of those posts that I kind of skimmed. What got my attention is the first line of the last paragraph. Horrors!!! That is just so unimaginable, I can’t even … well, imagine it.

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