Super Sad True Love Story and the future of publishing

I don’t like the idea of ereaders and tablets. There, I said it. Even though, as a child, I coveted Penny’s blinking electronic book in the Inspector Gadget cartoon—I was always quite sure that it was the sort of thing for crime solving, not curling up with a cup of tea and a good book in your favourite chair. The amount of time I spend in my life staring at a screen—I don’t care how “easy on the eyes” they say Kindles are—it’s not going to be the same as looking at a page, it just isn’t. Not to mention that I am a really messy reader. I eat on my books, I get smudges on my books, you can open anything on my shelf and you will probably find a myriad of stains and dog-eared pages. You’ll probably see a few crumbs fall out if you give it a good shake from its spine. I don’t want to worry about ruining yet another electronic gadget—I ruin so many as it is.

Owning books is a social thing. I like having them on display, I like that when my friends come over they usually spend some time seeing what’s new or what they have yet to borrow. Maybe it’s more childhood residue from playing “librarian” when I would attach borrowing slips into the back of all my books and then encourage my stuffed animals to peruse the selection. “Why yes, Monkey, I think this Anne of Green Gables would be absolutely perfect for you. Give Gilbert Blythe a chance, he grows on you.” But, a book collection, for bookworms can be a status symbol. You learn a lot from what people have on their shelves, if you care to look. I always look.

I guess that’s why in Super Sad True Love Story I totally get where the main character, Lenny Abramov is coming from. In a possible American future of civil unrest, Lenny works as an intake officer at Post-Human Services, a half scientific-half spiritual corporation that sells immortality to a percentage of the population. Lenny is obsessed with the idea that at thirty-nine, he is in a slow decline to death, he has two friends, an obsession with a much younger woman, and books… lots and lots of books. So many books that he has to spray them with Pinsol (because the smell of book is offensive) before his lady friend comes over. In this future people read only digitally, if they read at all, image-intake and data-streaming are really the norm, in fact wasting words is absolutely frowned upon so it’s better to talk in abbreviations—think a MSN messenger-Facebook-rate me-hybrid that has replaced human connection completely. They don’t even talk anymore, they “verbal”. So, Lenny is ridiculed and looked down on because he reads, “talks funny” (i.e. in complete sentences), and looks his age. It’s funny at first, then unsettling, and then downright scary.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Your E-Book is Reading You, there’s a lot of talk about the digital analytics that publishers can glean from ereaders. They can tell when you start a book, what page you stop on, how long it takes you to read it, if you start and stop or read it in one sitting, what sentences you underline, if you quit the book entirely, what book you download next on finishing it. In some cases, companies like Coliloquy have harnessed the feedback power to create choose-your-own-adventure style readings in which what you choose informs how the author writes.

Let me just pause and repeat that for a moment. What you choose informs how the author writes.

For example, they cite a chicklit love decision:

In Tawna Fenske’s romantic caper “Getting Dumped”—which centers on a young woman who finds work at a landfill after getting laid off from her high-profile job at the county’s public relations office—readers can choose which of three suitors they want the heroine to pursue. The most recent batch of statistics showed that 53.3% chose Collin, a Hugh Grant type; 16.8% chose Pete, the handsome but unavailable co-worker; and 29.7% of readers liked Daniel, the heroine’s emotionally distant boyfriend.

Ms. Fenske originally planned to get rid of Daniel by sending him to prison and writing him out of the series. Then she saw the statistics. She decided 29.7 % was too big a chunk of her audience to ignore.

The audience made an authorial decision.

Now, I know this is sort of a low-brow example but at its heart it symbolizes everything that scares me about the future of publishing. To me, literature and reading in general has always been a private experience. Even if you consider book clubs and English classes, while the discussion helps break down themes and interpretations, the actual reading is done on your own and what you immediately take away from the book may be different than what someone else does. Basically, when you read, you are in a private and unique conversation with the text, not even the author, necessarily, because what they intend might not translate to your experience. But you and that text, man that’s intimate, and I don’t know about all of you but I don’t want a text to shape itself to my desires—I want it to challenge me, open me up, get deep—I want a sort of dirty, sensual reading that would be inappropriate to air in public but really gets to the core of me. And that’s how it’s supposed to be.

What if readers gave up on Mr. Darcy before Elizabeth Bennett could fall in love with him? What if the unlikable Frodo had been sacrificed early and Merry and Pippin took the ring to Mount Doom? What if Harry and Hermoine got together at the beginning of the series? What if countless heroines escaped their tragic fate? If readers had a say, would Lolita have ever been abused? Would Romeo and Juliet narrowly escape their fate? Would endings ever be unhappy?

I know I’m going to extremes here, but I could list examples all day.

With books like Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey already shaping a future of readers, arts-funding cut at every turn—in Canada, our small press industry really got the shaft—and the rise of a digital culture based completely on consumption, it’s no longer quite a stretch to think that our future might be a series of abbreviated flashing sentences that conform immediately to your own expectations and desires.

Gary Shteyngart was writing several years ago, at what might be considered the cusp of our digital transformation, so while Super Sad True Love Story‘s dystopian future full of illiterate, sheer pants wearing, immortality chasers might have seemed semi-plausible to him, it’s beginning to look a lot less funny to me.


5 thoughts on “Super Sad True Love Story and the future of publishing”

  1. Agreed with Mandy.

    In the end though, I will say what I always say when it comes to traditional books “versus” e-books: Why can’t there be room for both?

  2. I’m a dead tree o phile too, but Kristan is right- why not both? As long as someone’s reading.

    And as long as you’re writing, I will be.

  3. Loved this. Part of me is excited that people might be more likely to read if it were from a screen, but I agree with you…books are the key. I, too, display them prominently in my living room. My wife discussed taking them down for shelf space, but I’m fighting her on that one. It’s important to me that my favorite books are there. Great post.

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