While in Boston this month, Peter Jurmu took the time to compose another guest post for Treated & Released, perhaps anticipating my response as a counterpoint.
Peter Jurmu, Creative Byline
Most writers I know are young, or at least around my age, and from the Midwest. We spoke as adolescents to each other on AOL Instant Messenger, comprise the demographic (18-34) most enamored with digital media players, propelled Facebook to ubiquity, and still queue for each new video game console from Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo. We’ve benefited from the rapid escalation of technological potential while remaining somewhat oblivious to the proportionate escalation of expectations. We still buy or participate in what amuses us, and until now that’s all anyone has asked of us.
Only one writer I know in better than passing acquaintance owns a Kindle, but she received it as a gift. The price of a Kindle—$359—pays a little more than one-quarter of my rent in Boston. It also will buy about one hundred used paperbacks from Brattle Books on West Street, within sight of Tremont and Boston Common. Amazon wants us to know that $359 (or $489 for the one they want to sell to students) will buy “20% faster page turns” and a “paper-like display” so we can skim Baudrillard and Signs on a simulacrum. I understand the appeal: 1,500 books in a duffel tend to raise TSA eyebrows.
Amazon’s Kindle has become—or, Amazon has made it—one of the poster children for booksellers’ attempts to suggest digital publishing to readers. Google Book Search is another, and various other e-readers and ebook apps on smartphones broaden the ranks. While writers are readers, too, and the Kindle has won that side of a million readers over, Amazon sells the book, not the writing of it. The writing process remains unchanged, with a few exceptions (such as Peter V. Brett and his HP iPAQ 6515 smartphone). Creative Byline doesn’t help you much until you’ve already completed your manuscript, and only the very famous strike book deals without having written the book in question. Even self-publishing won’t write your book for you.
So it seems writers’ responses to e-readers and digital publishing are those of consumers, businesspeople, or lawyers, and not those of artists. Artists have little of note to say on these matters, since no one has begun writing yet with anything other than the structures established during the era of print-only publishing in mind. Digital publishing only augments what already exists. (Serialized novels with special illustrations, for example, are nothing new.) Whether a publisher sells print and Kindle editions of a book, an agent or author submits query packages digitally, a writer decides to self-publish, or an online bookseller provides another way to read books, the manuscripts were typed or handwritten. This prosaic method of composition has proved resistant to evolution.
The autumn after I completed undergrad, I visited Dr. David Klooster, the English chair at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. I asked Dr. Klooster if he intends to require that English/Creative Writing majors take a course in editing and publishing to better prepare them to find jobs and publication. While he sees no value in total ignorance of the industry, he said, greater value lies in learning the craft and not the technology or mechanics. Writers will master the latter, if they haven’t already, and can do with it what they like.
People apply technological mastery to what they already know how to do; the technology itself ought never become the focus. When I mention Mr. Brett, I don’t say he’s revolutionized anything. The keyboard on his smartphone is smaller than a laptop’s, but it’s still a keyboard. A stylus and touchscreen still produce handwriting. A manuscript still causes birth-like pain when you tease it out of the ether. Once you hold (or have saved and backed up) a copy in your hands (or on internal and external hard drives and a flash drive), you can worry about text-to-speech features. Until then, you’d better write.
Peter Jurmu will begin work on his MFA at Emerson College in the fall, and has interned at Creative Byline since August 2008.