The LA Times looks (but not deeply) into the future of reading
Part 1 of the Los Angeles Times’ series on “The Future of Reading” starts with the kind of color feature editors are crazy for: A bright, precocious 12-year-old who’s been awakened to the wonders of science via new technology. If only the writers, Alex Pham and David Sarno, had been as inquisitive as little Emma Teitgen. Because once past the opening the story devolves into a credulous thumbsucker about how e-books “establish an entirely new kind of relationship with readers.”
That much is undeniably true. But it’s also as deep an insight as Pham and Sarno make an effort to mine. They seem to have zero interest in pondering what this sort of shift means, at least when it comes to fiction. They talk to young adult author Scott Westerfeld…
“There’s an ongoing feedback loop with my readers,” said Westerfeld, 47, who splits his time between New York and Australia. He figures he’s logged more than 30,000 e-mails from readers over the years. “They educate me a lot about the way they are reading. I’m a lot smarter about it now than when I was locked up in a room writing on my own.” He learned, for example, that writing about conflict can unsettle his younger readers. ”When two characters in my book have an argument, I get a lot of e-mail,” Westerfeld said. “Adults see it as churn. But kids are far more affected by it, so I use it only when there is a real need in the story for conflict.”
…without ever suggesting that an author who tames his narrative because it may be upsetting to readers, even younger ones, is a hack. I mean, does this guy really need a focus group to tell him that he should only use conflict, or anything else, when there’s a need for it? Pham and Sarno are similarly too easy on Shannon Reinbold-Gee, pen name Shannon Delany (I guess “Reinbold-Gee” was too unsettling for her younger readers), who
frequently asked readers to help her make decisions about plot and character twists in “13 to Life.” At the end of Chapter 6, she asked which beau her main character, Jessica, ought to go to the prom with. Fans voted for Jessica to go stag — and that’s how Reinbold-Gee wrote it.
Interactivity is one of the Grails of e-books, and it’s true that a book that helps readers — especially young ones — connect to outside source materials or even other readers is a better book. It’s shame, though, that Pham and Sarno didn’t tamp down some of their enthusiasm for the gee-whizziness of e-books and apply a little skepticism, especially as it relates to creative works. Authors can and will crowdsource the creative process. That genie is out of the bottle, and it’s not all bad. But to not even acknowledge the solitary author making the lonely aesthetic choices that best serve the story — that doesn’t serve writers or readers any better here in the future than it did in the past.