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The physical book: A feature, not a bug

Frisch & Co. Electronic Books is a Berlin-based ebook company that focuses on publishing contemporary literature in English-language translation. In partnership with prestigious publishers from around the world—including Suhrkamp Verlag, Editorial Anagrama, Edizioni Nottetempo, Otava, and Companhia das Letras—Frisch & Co. seeks to bring innovative and original writing into English for a worldwide audience.

Perhaps I’ve been naive about what I’m actually doing. In the beginning, I thought Frisch & Co.’s method was simple–bringing the same content to the same readers in a new way. Before readers bought novels on paper, now I would sell them novels on screens. The process isn’t simple, of course: it’s necessary to change the payment model with your partners, to distribute and market the books in new ways, and so on, but once readers had the books on their devices, I thought, the experience of reading was just the same. War and Peace is War and Peace, to boil it down, and if I could make it possible for there to be more translated fiction available, it was all to the good.

On most days, I still feel that way.

But lately I’ve begun to feel a certain amount of ambiguousness about what I’m up to, about ebook publishing in general, and about exactly what I’m doing to books by publishing them in this way. It’s unsettling, of course, to look at your bookshelves and see no physical representations of a year’s worth of work, though that feeling passes quickly enough, but there’s a sense in which this absence portends the possibility of a more significant one, and it’s this feeling that is proving harder to ignore. And I’ve begun to wonder, also, if the unspoken concern that lies behind resistance to ebooks among literary-minded people isn’t somehow related to this feeling, that the novel is on the cusp of changing irrevocably, becoming something unrecognisable to we who care about it so, and in the traditional capitalist manner: with little to no discussion about what these changes might mean and lots of racing pell-mell toward the ever-retreating utopian future.

Without my quite knowing it, I’ve joined in this pursuit, siding with the ‘disruptors’ who ‘generate value’ through ‘creative destruction’, and all without thinking about whether the novel might not fare so well in the watery embrace of the internet.

The future of the book, we’re told, is interactive. The internet is a participatory medium. Books will become web pages. Books should have APIs! We should be making it possible for readers to interact directly with the text, share their comments with their internet ‘friends’, recombine the text in new ways. Authors should write in the open, be in conversation with their readers, and take advantage of their readers’ suggestions to ‘improve’ the text. The traditional book is ‘constrained’, ‘rigid’, ‘disconnected’, ‘read-only’, while the future book will be ‘free’, ‘open’ and ‘social’.

But, like everything, the novel was developed under a specific set of constraints, and it seems that it draws a great deal of its strength from what it does with these limits. The author makes their argument, tells their story, within the confines of the book. Authors can’t stand over your shoulder and tell you what they meant by this passage, or why this character decides it might be better to lock himself away in a sanatorium rather than face his future, and you can’t, generally speaking, ring them up and ask. The reader is left alone, with their own resources, to come to their conclusions about these mysteries. This is the space in which the novel lives. In modern terms: this is a feature, not a bug.

As is the fact that a novel is experienced, primarily, in private. Both the novel’s existence and its effects depend almost wholly on this privacy. (After a beer or two, I might even say the obfuscation of authorial intent behind character, narrator, and plot is itself an attempt to seek a kind of privacy.) Privacy, the fact that mistakes can be made alone, dead ends can be pursued alone, characters can be born, live, and disappear behind closed doors, all without a prying eye to suggest, or correct, or complain, privacy allows a writer to write, to have the time to say what they want to say, how they want to say it, and in the time they wish. And once they have done so, and the publishers have done their work, the reader has to decide to spend several hours attending to someone else’s mind, listening, in private. It’s a space where even an underline or a highlight left by a previous reader can feel intrusive, destructive. It’s privacy that allows the novel to effect its change on us, should we decide to accept. But we grant or deny this permission privately, away from our friends on Facebook, away from the judgements of others. Once this privacy is violated, by constant access to outside comments or annotations, the novel’s ability to persuade or inform or delight is seriously diminished.

On this view, it seems publishers, certainly without their planning it and perhaps in part due their general technological competence, have stumbled into the right format for electronic books, at least as far as novels are concerned. They’re shareable and portable and, though they could be better, ebooks retain the constraints that allow novels to be novels. And on my good days, on most days, I believe Frisch & Co.’s ebooks are only participating in the world in this way, that I’m not on the side of the disruptors.

Of course, writers will learn to take advantage of the constraints of the future book, of writing in public and reader annotation and internet commentary, the naked humanity of internet commentary, and, I have no doubt, do exciting things with them. If the novel is anything, it’s flexible.

But it won’t be the novel we know now, or knew, the private novel, and there is a sadness in contemplating the empty space which the absence of this particular experience would leave behind.


Image © Maria Keays

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