Responding to an audience question about ebooks and the internet at a recent Brooklyn Public Library event, Jonathan Franzen expressed his worry that the solitude needed to write literary fiction was increasingly impeded by online distractions like the email ping of the Blackberry. Similarly, Wells Tower recently said, “My main gripe with the web is that it’s toxic to the kind of concentration fiction writing requires. It’s difficult to write good sentences and simultaneously buy shoes.”
At the risk of going on a tangent about Nick Carr’s The Shallows, I’d rather focus on Steven Johnson’s NYT article on social reading. He opens with a famous David Foster Wallace quote (“The point of books is to combat loneliness.”), then talks about reader-to-reader quotes and annotations in ebooks. I think this is a specious lede, in that Wallace, like Franzen, is chiefly concerned with the writer and reader reaching one another.
Franzen has noted before, in How to Be Alone, that he’s had to manufacture a kind of sensory deprivation environment to write. Might there be merit in a reader doing the same?
I’m proposing what I call Empty Hours: a few evenings a week for curated solitude. The idea is to turn off the cell phone, close the laptop, avoid the TV. Spend a couple hours reading on the couch. Tempted to play iTunes in the background? Fight it! Empty Hours are about the novelty of doing one thing, and only one thing for an extended period of time.
This isn’t in any way a rejection of technology or online communication, merely a step back to reassess. You could think of it as a secular sabbath, a different approach to media consumption.
I’m going to try it out for a few weeks. I would report back on the results, but I fear that might undermine the whole idea. (Only half-kidding.)
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Filed under reading, writing
In the new year I’ll be starting a new job, moving from the corporate level of Macmillan to the publisher level at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (More on this later.)
And since the holidays are a time of giving, I thought I’d burn all my bridges by revealing our corporate secrets. I’m like The Insider guy without the accent!
Ebook Pricing – The hot debate in publishing this year. How do you set prices for a new format so author, publisher and reader all get a fair deal? While some houses like Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins are experimenting with windowing ebook releases, we’ve tried a more controversial method. Ebooks are released the same day as the hardcover, but the pricing is determined by those numbered balls you see on lottery drawings. If the three balls come up 981, then the ebook is $9.81. (Or $981, depending on how we’re feeling.) We’re still fine-tuning this, and may introduce glow-in-the-dark balls in 2010.
Author Advances – Many point fingers at high author advances as part of the problem. If a publisher commits $500K or more to a book, it’s in their fiduciary interest to make a blockbuster right out of the gate. (Obviously, this may draw publicity efforts from smaller but no less valid books.) We’ve solved this problem using advanced game theory. The Fairmont Method indicates that where author advances X exceed market stability at Y, the percentage differential A is squared by X through the author writing “a really good book everyone will read.”
It’s All Mad Libs – All of our fiction is written as Mad Libs, with blanks for character names and places. Then, just before going to press, we insert the name of the most recent scandalized celebrity. Wonder why that moving debut novel about 1920s life in the deep south is narrated by a precocious twelve-year-old girl named Tiger Woods? Wonder no more. (We tried this with historical nonfiction, but everyone just got confused.)
Bailout Money – Obama gave us, like, $4 billion in February. So we’re coasting on that for a while. Thanks taxpayers!
In no particular order, here are the best books I read this year. You’ll notice some are reissues and some are from previous years; this is more of a survey of my favorite reads than anything pretending to be comprehensive of the literary scene in 2009.
Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter (NYRB Classics)
A beat book before the Beats. Thrilling reading, tragic characters, and every conceivable mid-century American taboo deftly covered through the prism of the down-and-out crowd.
Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli (Pantheon)
The best graphic novel in ages. I thought this would top everyone’s lists this year, but it remains sadly underrated. Supposedly Mazzucchelli spent ten years working his tale of a failed architect and professor in the post-divorce doldrums. To be read and reread and reread.