Reflections on Reading and Writing in the Digital Era

bob steinLast Friday I attended a talk given by Bob Stein, who develop the first ebooks in 1992. You read that date right. It was 22 years ago, but the craze only began to catch fire with Kindle in 2007. During his presentation Mr. Stein said that he has always been 15 years ahead of tends in the digital book world. I thought I’d share my impressions of his talk because I believe that the future of the book  is a fascinating topic, one of the great technological transitions of this age.

Since Gutenberg’s day (the printin’ 50s, I might coin it–the 1450s that is), the printed codex (or book) has come to be the world’s dominant form of information dissemination. However, since the rise of the silicon chip in the last 30 or so years, ebooks and the Internet have slowly supplanted the codex. They have not conquered print books yet, but given the popularity of ebooks and ereaders, in 5 to15 years the landscape will be different. I do not personally believe that printed books are going extinct–technologies transform more often than they vanish. That transformation may be enough, however, to change how we read forever.

Traditional publishers have a legacy to protect, said Mr. Stein at the Atwater Library in downtown Montreal during the meeting for AELAQ (the Association of English Language Publishers of Quebec). I was under the impression that many of the publishers in attendance were beginning to think about retirement. Those retiring soon have a reluctance to invest too heavily in digital publishing and a desire to defend the printed word. However, for someone like myself at 22 years of age, the world of ebooks, audiobooks, the Internet, and social media is where I will lay down my professional roots. Not that I don’t believe in print–quite the opposite–but I recognize the potentially exciting things that could emerge from digital publishing too. If you are reading this, you are witness to it; this is a blog, after all, and not magazine or private journal (see the irony in my blog title?).

I will have to come to terms with digital publishing if I desire to enter the industry as an editor or publisher–or even as an author. Authors are being asked to have build a platform through their social media presence. We are asked to not only be authors, but bloggers, directors (of YouTube movies), public speakers, and even voice actors (if we give our voice to an audiobook). Moving with this changing current is part of the purpose of The Vinciolo Journal, so I suppose you could say that you are glimpsing the future while reading this.

I myself have an ereader and the first book I’m reading on it is John Crowley’s Aegypt: The Solitudes, which I shall review next week. The ereader is the size of my hand and contains an entire library, including a thousand-page book of the complete short stories of H.P. Lovecraft–which would no doubt make my bag a lot heavier were I carrying it around all day. I find myself more reluctant to buy any physical book, no matter how badly I want it, because the shelf-space in my bedroom is packed and I still need space for school books next semester. Kobos, Kindles, and Nooks may be the only way to keep up a voracious reading habit.

A pile of rejected books. Is this the future of the physical book? Will digital books rise from the ashes?
Is this the future of the physical book? Will digital books rise from the ashes?

There are other, more unexpected changes that the digital world could bring with it. Here is a list of some changes which Bob Stein said, or suggested, might come to the publishing industry:

-Printing will become more of an aesthetic choice. Ebooks will become mainstream, the option of utility.

-A new genre of literature may emerge once ereaders are the dominant form. It took 40 years for the novel to emerge as the main genre of print literature (from Gutenberg to Cervantes’ Don Quixote), so by 2054, perhaps we will see literature structured like a video game, where readers form their own narratives.

-A transition from solitary reading back to communal reading may be in store. Social media book clubs may become popular, the twenty-first century equivalent of the dominant mode of reading in medieval universities. Comment Press and Social Book allow you to write comments in the margins, renewing a habit of marginal notation that was popular in medieval manuscripts, incunabula, and early printed works.

Since public domain books will remain free, it will become popular to buy glosses on a book. For example, if you were reading A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, you could get the book for free, but pay to have a historian’s notes on the text. If this becomes a thing, I suspect people will also pay to have a celebrity’s opinion on their favourite books, even if they have no academic understanding to bring.

-Digital books can be handed down through generations like family bibles. Your (grand)sons/daughters will read what you thought of A Tale of Two Cities if you write comments online. They will respond to notes you made twenty, even fifty years ago–and your comments will eventually outlive you for generations and generations.

-People will pay extra for supplementary material. Mr. Stein was one of the pioneers of including director’s commentary on DVDs. Would you be willing to pay extra to learn the author’s commentary on his/her own book? Something like that might be in store.

-Celebrity editors, like chefs, will be an effective way of increasing the branding of books. I find this last prediction fascinating, since I have yet to start my career as an editor. If I am interested in pursuing such a career, I would probably do well to pay attention to setting up my own brand right from the get-go.

I was so inspired to be thinking about the future of the book that when I came into Place Alexis Nihon, bound for the food court to grab my supper, I saw the bright lights and colours of a sports shoe department and thought to myself: what if we began selling books like Nike sells shoes? So much of consumerist culture is about branding and “the fetish of the commodity.” If we arranged shelf space in bookstores around either editorial or publishing company brands and set up rows of finely crafted hardcover codices of bestselling works, could a publishing company with money to invest arrange for a bookstore to sell titles in a way that emphasizes the premium quality of physical books, as opposed to digital books? Will such a niche market for codices arise after the ebook becomes dominant?

I know for a fact that I would visit such a store regularly. However, I cannot say the general public would take to it, at least not right away. For one, the price of these books would have to be relatively high, a reflection of the finer material qualities used in production. Why buy expensive $75 codices when paperback airplane thrillers come in at $5-10? But once everyone has an ereader and traditional books become rare, could this brand shop idea become a viable business plan? An opportunity to decorate one’s living room with attractive book spines?

Would you enter such a bookstore of the future, or would you not? While you search for an answer, I will give some thought to branding myself as an editor and await the coming of the day when I can sell comments on my favourite book for money. There may be money in being an author yet!

The future of reading? Or just one other stone in the causeway to an unknown future?
The future of reading? Or just one other stone in the causeway to an unknown future?

 

Photo Credits:

Bob Stein: http://lib.fsu.edu/conference/TheFutureOfTheBook/index.html

Pile of Books: http://walrusmagazine.com/blogs/2007/12/17/new-blog-how-to-read/

Ereader: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kobo_Touch

The Secret History of Fantasy, edited by Peter S. Beagle

Secret History of FantasyIf you’re like me, you have probably starved for an original fantasy novel. So many novels and short stories rely too heavily on The Lord of the Rings and the epic fantasy genre that spawned from it. Are there any original fantasy works that use impossible situations without having elves, orcs, and dragons run across the page? Oh, and I don’t have that much time to read.

The answer? Peter S. Beagle’s anthology of short stories The Secret History of Fantasy.

True, it has a dragon on the cover. But it is half-concealed, placed against a minimalist white page. If we were to judge a book by its cover, we might guess there is a literary sensibility that went into these selections. You’ll find big-name authors like Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Yann Martel, Gregory Maguire, and Ursula K. Le Guin on the cover, as well as other authors with whom you may be unfamiliar, but will remember once you’ve tasted their stories.

This anthology represents the top fantasists of the field. Each story has its own original flavour of the fantastic. Who could forget the remarkably compelling mythagos of Robert Holdstock’s “Mythago Wood?” What is a mythago, you ask? It is a “myth-imago” or “myth-image,” basically a mythic archetype that runs amok in Britain’s oldest forest in Holdstock’s classic novel–here cut to the length of a short novella.

A John Howe illustration of Mythago Wood.
A John Howe illustration of Mythago Wood.

This anthology is filled with other wainscots. For example, there is Stephen King’s tale of Mrs. Todd, a lady who is obsessed with uncovering the shortest shortcuts from place to place, and ends up driving her car into another world. Jeffrey Ford’s “The Empire of Ice Cream” is a tale of a boy who is forbidden from eating ice cream due to his medication and forms a relationship with a girl he sees during one of this synesthetic trips.

Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked, which is perhaps the most famous reworking of the classic novel The Wizard of Oz, returns with a story about the Scarecrow. Steven Millhauser’s description-heavy story of the P.T. Barnum Museum is also remarkable in how it is nothing at all like a fantasy adventure–more of a reflection on a setting’s affect on the people who visit and work there. The museum ends up becoming a metaphor for how we all encounter the fantastic, the wondrous, the inexplicable, and how we all remember our childhoods. Yann Martel, the Canadian author of Life of Pi, adopts an even more alternate route and writes an experimental poem in “The Vita Aeterna Mirror Company.”

Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin

Another brilliant feature of this anthology are the supplementary materials. Peter S. Beagle is serious about fantasy and he lets readers become serious about the genre with him. Ursula K. Le Guin, author of A Wizard of Earthsea, and David G. Hartwell, also a fantasy anthology editor, each write essays which Beagle includes in an appendix. Le Guin’s essay “The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists” describes the critical reception of fantasy up to the present day and how perceptions that fantasy should be dismissed because it is childlike and escapist have improved over the years. The roadmap to fantasy, she argues, is more inexplicable than the simplicity of Tolkien-derived drivel would suggest.

Hartwell in “The Making of the American Fantasy Genre” gives the history of how Del Rey capitalized on the Tolkien phenomenon in the late 70s and published The Sword of Shannara, the first of many Tolkien homages that sold like hotcakes.  Terry Brooks’ first novel thus helped make epic fantasy the repetitive form it eventually became. Both essays provide you with a historical perspective on the development of a genre you love to read.

The Sword of Shannara: the book the popularized the epic fantasy genre.
The Sword of Shannara: the book that popularized the epic fantasy genre.

Peter S. Beagle uses this anthology to propose that fantasy has become stilted due to the staleness of epic fantasy. The market tends to favour a 2,000-page, derivative, Tolkienesque trilogy over more experimental but well thought-out fantasy novels. He attempts to show readers the diversity of fantasy–which may be the broadest genre in the world in terms of narrative possibility. If you ask me, it is impossible not to love this anthology. I would say fantasy is more diverse today than it was 40 years ago. But I would have to agree with Beagle that it is difficult, at least for new writers, to escape the stranglehold of genre.

If it is time for a renewal in fantasy, then it will be through short stories and novels like the ones Beagle has published in The Secret History of Fantasy. There are infinite angles to a fantasy story and Secret History attempts to show us some of those doors. But, like the myriad rooms and passages located inside and underneath the Barnum Museum, you can always count on the fantasy genre being bigger and more expansive than your even imagination can acknowledge.

Peter S. Beagle
Peter S. Beagle, author of The Last Unicorn and editor of The Secret History of Fantasy

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Image Credits:

The Sword of Shannara: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sword_of_Shannara

Mythago:http://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/dec/24/le-guin-authors-guild-deal

Ursula K LeGuin: http://www.rc.umd.edu/person/ursula-k-le-guin

Cover: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/7850063-the-secret-history-of-fantasy

Peter S. Beagle: http://www.jeancocteaucinema.com/ai1ec_event/peter-s-beagle/?instance_id=

Antioch by William Harlan

The following is a book review of Antioch by William Harlan. Below the review is a criticism of the book, which I hope can help all first-time authors develop their talents. You can learn more about the series and read other reviews at http://www.williameharlan.com, as well as see his magnificent illustrations. You may also listen to the audiobook version on the same site. Click here to like his series on Facebook.

 

AntiochTwo worlds separated by an uncrossable ocean meet each other in the midst of a zombie apocalypse: this is the premise behind William Harlan’s novel Antioch, which is Part One of his series The Circle.

One world consists of a primitive medieval society, built around the authority of the church (a group of knights gifted with healing powers), and a distant northern king. The second is the more advanced world, either Victorian or twentieth-century, and is the home that a group of gun-totting, slang-speaking sailors have left behind, in the wake of the Fall.

Both societies have lost loved ones to the plague that is turning ordinary folk into deadly undead killers: bauran, also known as “devils.” Their meeting results in the breaking apart of the authority structures that bind Antioch, the largest city in a medieval wasteland.

Michael and John are two knights of the church who begin questioning their vows in the wake of the apocalypse. They are capable of summoning riin, a mysterious power that can heal wounds and make them the strongest warriors in their land. Riin bears some resemblance to the Force of the Jedi knights in Star Wars, but Harlan gives it a twist…

The Captain, Biggs, Andalynn, Ditch, and Drake are among the sailors who survived the deadly crossing of the ocean, only to arrive in the ghost town of Meroe, which has been devastated by zombies. They carry the big guns and strike up a friendship with the locals of Antioch. Except for Drake, they are much older than they appear—while in their sixties, they appear to be in their thirties. A mysterious figure named Ezekiel once saved them from the zombies, using riin to restore their youth and leaving behind only a single message:

Armageddon is arrived.

Break your silence.

Open the library.

The survival of both worlds hangs in the balance. The violence in the novel may be gruesome (what else to expect from a zombie apocalypse?), but the foul language is kept to a minimum. The concept of this book will appeal to any lover of zombie apocalypse movies or fiction, and to post-apocalyptic aficionados in general.

 

William Harlan is the author of Antioch.
William Harlan is the author of Antioch.

Congratulations to William Harlan for finishing his first self-published novel! Having written a novel myself, I am aware of the challenges that a first novel can bring, and the path of discovery the author inevitably journeys on in its process.

Harlan openly posts reviews that both criticize his novel on his novels, and those that praise it. This is a humble gesture that I respect. I could make a list of faults that I found with this novel, but instead of striking his novel over the head with a hammer, I will examine the work for what it is—a work written by a developing author. Hopefully, his future novels will overcome the setbacks of the first. All authors must evolve, and no one is more aware of this than myself, an unpublished novelist. For making the bold move of self-publishing his work, I can only praise William Harlan.

To a certain extent, my criticisms are biased towards the printed word–you might find that hearing the audiobook read by the author is smoother than reading the novel.

Now I invite all first-time novelists to look over my shoulder as I briefly examine his novel, to hopefully learn something for yourselves.

My first criticism would be the development of his characters. At the beginning, Michael has little characterization, though we see he is an accomplished warrior with vows he holds dear. About a third of the way through, Harlan starts exploring the relationships of his characters, which is good. They appear more fleshed out as the book continues. One scene, a flashback, presents Drake’s point of view quite well. However, the book does open weakly with characterization, and I would stress that what readers remember most about a book after setting it down are not action scenes, exquisite descriptions, or even world building, but characters.

An illustration for a chapter of Antioch by William Harlan
An illustration for a chapter of Antioch by William Harlan.

The result of Harlan’s exploration of character is that more than half the book, it seems, is taken up with the characters’ boisterous camaraderie as they laugh at each other and crack jokes in a medieval restaurant. The historical inaccuracy of such a location aside (perhaps Harlan meant an inn?), the end result may be that character relationships are deeper, but it is at the expense of the story. While the opening of the novel promises a story of kick-ass zombie slaying and an attempt to find a cure for the disease, most of the novel is composed of talking-head scenes where nothing much happens.

The book is best when dialogue, setting, and characterization are balanced evenly in a scene, though many scenes are dialogue heavy and disembodied in the setting. Especially for fantasy authors, setting is important.

Furthermore, the medieval society seemed to lack many of the defining constraints that defined it, such as the aristocracy and the vassalage system, among other things. Perhaps Antioch is closer to a Renaissance city state? Also, the Continent has a vastly different history from our own world, but the customs are essentially the same as in the Unite States today, which I found to be unlikely. The book would have benefited from more setting details, and more world building.

DrakeAnother rookie mistake is the author left me, as a reader, wondering why things were happening. Most scenes, especially at the beginning, but also in the middle and end, left me disoriented. This is because things about the world are simply not explained, or if they are, they should be explained sooner. While it is true that an author should not dump massive piles of exposition in the middle of a scene, Harlan seems to take that rule too literally. It is okay to explain backstory and world-building details a little bit, otherwise the context is lost on the reader. Doing it cleverly, sneaking it in through scene tension, is the best way to do this. It happens that first time authors may have a whole world plotted out in their head—I certainly struggle with that myself—but if it does not appear on the page, it does not transfer to the reader’s head. And if that does not happen, the writer has not done his telepathic job.

By page 19, I did not know anything about the characters or context, other than that Michael kicks zombie butt. But if that is so, why should I care? We need to bond to Michael right off the top, in the first paragraph, or even the very first sentence. The first sentence should announce a question to be answered, or a hint at a problem, and if possible the stakes of that for character. And we need context to follow that introduction.

In terms of style, Harlan has potential to be a good prose writer—many of his sentences are pithy, short, effective. However, it would be best if he stayed away from writing the Southern accents into the sailors’ dialogue, which distracted from what they were actually saying to each other. He can probably hint at the accent through word choice and sentence structure instead of cutting off vowels with apostrophes. (Also, it would be fun for the medieval people to speak more formally, to contrast better with the sailors.) There were also some common grammatical mistakes and awkward sentences, perhaps made awkward due to an attempt to antiquate the language. Worse was the repeated letters in dramatic, emotional dialogue (“Noooo!”) which reduced moments of deep emotion into bathos—emotion that fails because it tries too hard. The result of the accents and clumsy, unprofessional-looking prose is that I could not take the novel seriously. This would be fine if Harlan was writing a comedy, but given the post-apocalyptic scenario, I would doubt this was his intent. Mind you, this problem disappears slightly in the audiobook, since there is no physical page to frown at.

Devil's MArkFinally, I would say his plot needs tweaking and more structure. The ending does not end with an obvious success or failure, but more or less in the middle of things. While it is in the middle, in a way, of the series, after reading nearly 200 pages of buildup, I was expecting a showdown that had some kind of closure to it—not a total defeat of evil, but a definite change of circumstances for the protagonists. Writing Excuses, a fantasy/science fiction writing podcast, talks about a seven-point story structure system that I find helpful and clarifying.

I write these criticisms to aid Harlan in his writing career, and I hope he will take them to heart, and learn the art of the writer. These criticisms may also aid any other first-time authors out there, whether you are published or not. Read some well-written fiction to learn from the greats, develop your personal style, and consult Stephan King’s On Writing and Strunk &White’s The Elements of Style. You might also want to consult How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card, if that is your genre, and Writer’s Digest Write Great Fiction Series, especially Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress. The only danger is one of my own ongoing struggles: you might read more about writing fiction than you actually write, so keep practicing and practicing!

Note: While it is a slight departure for The Vinciolo Journal to review a self-published author’s work, I hope the review above justifies my choice. I generally do not accept self-published works, but will handle queries, should they arise, on a case-by-case basis.

A map of the post-Apocalyptic setting of Antioch
A map of the post-Apocalyptic setting of Antioch.