Birth of the e-reader

It is almost 40 years since Roland Barthes announced the death of the author and called for the “birth of the reader” in that annus mirabilis of French history, 1968. For Barthes, it was the reader who should decide literary meaning.

To a degree, authors were already playing this game before Barthes. The Argentinian novelist and short-story writer Julio Cortázar published Rayuela (Hopscotch) in 1963, a dazzling experimental work that invited readers to determine the order in which its 155 chapters would be read. Cortázar further included chapters that were extraneous, leaving it to the reader to decide whether to include or jettison them in their reading of the novel.

Bryan Stanley William Johnson created Albert Angelo in 1964, which came complete with holes cut in its pages to create a “flashforward” effect. Later, with The Unfortunates (1969), Johnson gave readers a box with 27 unbound sections, indicating only which were the first and last.

Interactive fiction of this sort has really accelerated with the advent of CD-Roms and the explosion of internet technology, married to the boom in role-playing games on the world wide web. The interactive author programme MOO (no, not the Jane Smiley novel of that name but an acronym for Multiple User Dungeons, Object-Oriented) is to the virtual writing community what Second Life, and Nano-technology Island are to their virtual communities — a very real alternative to real life.

Nonetheless, it is unlikely that a majority of readers will want to embrace the type of texts that typically arise from such sources. There, the (always debatable) hegemony of the author and the tyranny of the story are not merely destroyed but subsumed in an authorless welter, a feast of the demotic in which such traditional roles as author, reader and critic — the so-called golden triangle formed between the first two elements by the intervention of the third — are virtually one and the same.

All this, though, is old hat. The very first novel in the Western canon, Don Quixote, sees Cervantes anticipate postmodernism by some 370 years. In The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Laurence Sterne is forebear to the 20th-century novelists who denounced story and played and twisted with the genre’s form; his masterpiece was published between 1759 and 1767.

There will never be a shortage of those creating stories and those eager to read them. And today there are more sources than ever before, with something called the Friday Project, which specialises in making books from internet blogs.

What might be in shorter supply is the so-called literary novel. Its future is brought into question not by matters of form and content, but rather by the ways in which it might be produced, transmitted and sold. For there is a publishing revolution afoot that strikes at the core of the literary novel: its initial appearance in the world in hardback form, which marks it out as an altogether superior book, the apex of the writing, editing and publishing process.

It seems odd that Picador’s decision to release 80% of its literary fiction in paperback should have sparked almost as much hand-wringing about literary fiction as about the old hardback format itself. But then Picador is the number eight United Kingdom publisher, and any apparent loss of dignity for its eminent writers — who include the likes of Cormac McCarthy — might have wider consequences than merely cloth covers or not.

On the face of it, Picador’s is solely a commercial decision: typically, readers wait for the cheaper paperback to appear, a year after the title is launched in hardback. Furthermore, it claims it will continue to publish in hardback where it has a “guaranteed profitable hardback market”.

But the downgrading and diminution of the literary fiction hardback can also be seen as part of the continuum that has seen quality fiction treated with loss-leader desperation and disdain. One need have no particularly fecund qualities of imagination to extrapolate how badly selling authors are treated.

In South Africa, authors aren’t bothered by the hardback/paperback two-step. Books go out first in trade paperback format — what looks to the common reader, and is, a larger paperback — and are followed, if sales are good enough, by a paperback (a paperback paperback, so to speak, smaller in size).

It is not merely a matter of size counting, or appearance. If only we could apply Milan Kundera’s dictum about Tristram Shandy to the hard cover/soft cover scenario: “In the art of the novel, existential discoveries are inseparable from the transformation of form.” (The Curtain, Faber and Faber, page 12)

Still, another “existential discovery” is the rapid improvement of the e-reader. A reviewer for the Mail & Guardian was impressed by the Sony eReader in 2007. Now even that relative leap forward has been outdone, apparently by a device called the Kindle. Courtesy of Amazon — nothing like enlightened self-interest — it was praised in The Observer by John Naughton, who declared: “After years of unfulfilled promises, the e-reader business has just become interesting.”

Will the Kindle spark the birth of Barthes’ true reader?

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