Books

Re: Digital: Thomas Pynchon (and Others) Succumb to E-Readers

Man reading an ebook in a park. Photo from Shutterstock.com

Stories are composed on Twitter, fan fiction can become literature, libraries are accessible around the world, and reader’s can explore classics on their Ipad. As literary holdouts come to accept digital reality, it's important to remember that the audiobook did not kill the paperback, and that new mediums don’t always replace the old ones.

Penguin Press has recently announced that the works of celebrated novelist Thomas Pynchon are now available for download for the first time as e-books. For years the author, whose works, like Gravity’s Rainbow and Against the Day, have long been daunting yet satisfying reads for fans of literary fiction, has been an opponent of the digital revolution in publishing. The New York Times’ Julie Bosman, reported that the move “…is another step toward the ubiquity of the e-book, even for authors who stubbornly resisted,” in a 12 June 2012 article that speculated that the change of heart could have been prompted by the simple desire to get more readers.

As many media outlets have noted following Penguin’s announcement, Pynchon is not the only high profile author to resist the move towards digital content. Famed children’s book author Judy Bloom held out for many years before finally deciding to allow some of her classics like Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret and Freckle Juice to be available in a digital format. The late Ray Bradbury, another opponent of the rise of the e-book who once famously stated that e-books “smell like burnt fuel”, decided shortly before his death to allow his dystopian masterpiece, Fahrenheit 451, to be digitized.

Perhaps one of the most interesting stories of a paper lover who has come to embrace the possibilities of a digital world is Harry Potter author, J.K. Rowling. For years, Rowling opposed allowing her books to be made available in e-format, citing concerns over piracy and an enduring affection for paper and print. Then in 2011, the author who famously wrote all seven of the Harry Potter books freehand, not only relented but seemed to embrace the digital world.

She created the website Pottermore, which allows muggles from all over the world to download their beloved Harry Potter books – most notably in the open source EPUB format – and to explore other avenues of Rowling’s world through expanded content and interactive features. Not only did this represent a shift in the writer’s tastes concerning e-books, but it also represented a potential new business model for a creator to generate continued excitement and engagement with a popular product in a more direct fashion.

Rowling, while clearly the most successful, was not the first author to explore the possibilities for creativity presented by new media. Many creators have realized that new technologies are not just new avenues to sell books, but also allow for new means of expression now that their ideas have are no longer bound to the printed page. The noted comic book creator and scholar Scott McCloud, whose book Understanding Comics is still a must-read for fans of the medium, has been creating digital comics for years, as have other famous comic book people such as Warren Ellis and Mark Waid, to name but a few. Darcey Streike, author of such brooding and melancholic books as Suicide Blonde and Jesus Saves, dabbled in mixed media and digital fiction through her online project, blindspot.

Yet, perhaps the most popular author to have enthusiastically embraced new media is the Master of Horror himself, Stephen King. King has long been a defender of digital publishing and has never been against releasing his work in a variety of different formats. His short story, “UR”, about a man with an e-reader that has access to works from alternate Earths, was originally released for the Kindle only. His has written for television and comics, and has allowed his previous works to be adapted for both mediums. Additionally, King has been a fan audiobooks and has even read several of his titles for readers who prefer listening his hefty tomes instead of lugging them around.

For the past few years, King taken this dynamism to new levels with his online project, Discordia, which is described as “an online interactive experience based on the Dark Tower series.” Fans of King’s masterwork can explore in greater detail a peripheral, yet important, aspect of the Dark Tower mythology and the battle between the forces of good and of the evil Crimson King. The story – whose second chapter is due out sometime in late 2012 – is told through a mixture of text, music, and flash animation to create and unique and multifaceted user experience.

Other creators have realized that the online world is not just a way to merge media and generate content in different and original forms, but it'ss also a way of altering the entire creative process and the way ideas are generated. In 2010, Science Fiction all-stars Greg Bear and Neil Stephenson – along with a few other writers – created The Mongoliad. The project, which was hailed as a potential business model for social reading, was a serialized story taking place in 1241 as the Mongols ravaged Europe. As each chapter was released, fans were able to comment, contribute, and add their own voices to the story and the user-generated wiki that was created, which was accessible through the website and various applications.

This not only represented a new way of generating content through a collaborative-process involving both writers and fans, but also was a potential new revenue stream for creators who no longer communicated with their readers through a printed intermediary but instead sought a more direct access. The website was a tiered subscription based service where users had to pay to access all the content and contribute their own thoughts. The Mongoliad has since been collected and made available in print, digital, and audio formats but the authors point out that these editions are not the definitive versions of the story and the creative elaboration amongst fans still continues.

All of these experiments and innovations are emblematic of the possibilities for creativity provided in the digital era. While some of these phenomena, like Pottermore, are more supplements to traditional books, others like Discordia or The Mongoliad represent newer forms of synthetic media in execution, creation, and distribution. While some may balk at certain creators' forgoing their beloved codex for some strange mixed-media database, others will applaud the new ways to explore and expand the arts.

We now live in a time where stories are composed on Twitter, fan fiction can become literature, libraries are accessible from across the world, and reader’s can explore T. S. Elliot’s The Wasteland as an app on their Ipad. And as more holdouts like Pynchon and Bloom slowly come around to the new digital reality, it's important to remember that the audiobook did not kill the paperback and that new mediums don’t always replace the old ones. As Stephen King himself wrote in a column for Entertainment Weekly following the release of the Kindle, “I've argued all my life that the story means more than the delivery systems involved…”

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