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Public Reading and the Rights of Characters

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A radio interview about eBooks left me with a lot to say. Mercifully, despite the host saying something as stupid as "it's possible it's just a fad" the discussion did not, in fact, revolve around the whole "digital vs. print" debate which I simply could not listen to one more time. However, I ended up rapidly jotting notes about points that I wished to comment on and it ended up looking more like an essay.

I forcefully disagreed with a number of points raised by the author and publisher guests.

1) The breakthrough for eBooks was not centered on hardware but on content distribution –- and its greater legacy will center on the freedom of content and type of format that is being enabled.

2) The idea that digital books were not demand-oriented is only true if one is talking about the mass population, many of whom continue to be both media and information illiterate. But the discussion needs to be broadened from the relatively narrow confines of fiction as seen in novel length stories.

3) Amazon's Kindle was indeed a key turning point, but it worked not due to hardware but its existing base as a major content distribution hub for reading content. It was also critical that many people have a mobile lifestyle, routine online use, and restricted living space. Both the population and content were more important than the hardware, otherwise no one would ever use first generation hardware of anything. The fact that Apple has just come out with its own Instapaper initiative is testament to the fact that people want to be reading digitally and have been reading digitally for some time –- otherwise magazines and newspapers would have no reason to be screaming about how no one wants to pay for print. The Kindle did not create digital reading!

4) The idea that people are buying stuff digitally because they find the reading disposable is only partly true. People have always kept clippings from newspapers and magazines despite the fact that both are definitely designed as disposable reading. People do keep genre books as part of their libraries -– does he really believe people routinely chuck them in the garbage after they're done? Even if they never read that book again and have no wish to keep it, if they liked it they are quite likely to pass it on to someone else, or even sell it. I happen to be someone who deletes 99% of what I read and I have only a small bookshelf of physical books, but I do not believe that my behavior is typical of every reader or book buyer out there.

5) As a caller mentioned, it's amazing you didn't bring up Project Gutenberg, but what's more since you're talking about for-profit online publishing, what about Baen?

6) Please don't get on a soapbox about piracy because this is a much more complicated issue than you're suggesting and most people who might download your books are likely to never have paid anything for them.

I did not end up commenting on any of this since, other than in the first 3 minutes which I missed, they never gave out their call-in number, and their lines were all full the whole hour anyway.

Despite a lot of fail going on in the conversation, the discussion concluded with two interesting points that could have used an hour's conversation on their own.

1) Digital book buying means an end to privacy in book sales. One can download free content anonymously but digital content requires registration of some kind. This led to a related point…

2) Reading is moving away from being an isolated, private activity and towards being more public and collective.

I really dislike the idea of spreading my information everywhere when I buy stuff in general, and I have had to register in three different places in order to buy eBooks so far (I had already long ago registered at Amazon for print ones). In terms of a breadcrumb trail it's no different than whipping out a credit card to buy something at a bricks and mortar store, but there is no question that if you wanted to purchase something privately, a shift to digital as a default format will change that.

Also, lest people think that books aren't really different from other purchases (many of which will always have to be available physically in some way), at least six years ago a professor shared an experience of having been contacted by his credit card company to confirm the purchase of several books from Amazon because they suspected fraud. The reason? The content of the books did not match previous purchases.

As to the growing social aspects of reading –- I think the guests were confusing reading itself with the growing transparency of public discourse. Unless we are reverting to the days when people read aloud to others in their family as a routine form of entertainment (I always though it was great how it was common in cigar factories to have hired readers entertain workers on the job) I don't think reading itself is becoming less individual and private. If anything, the public discourse surrounding texts makes it really apparent how very individual people's perceptions of texts are.

On that front, one could hardly have a better showcase of public writing and reading than fanfic forums. However, what I've noticed is that while the sites host a lot of examples of people getting together to write collaboratively, either on a single piece of writing, or in a collection of stories, there tends to be much more limited collaborative discussion of reading. You get it in isolated spots, such as individual recs, rec communities, from beta reader(s) to writer, and in random posts about a particular story or class of stories (or style of writing). But even when there are voluminous comments from readers to authors, there tends to be limited discussion in comments among readers. And various communities that have attempted to do "book club" type discussions haven't really gone anywhere.

Granted I think that this is more stifled in fandom than in other places due to the proximity between readers and writers. However LJ (and maybe DW) hosts a number of author blogs and it's certainly easy enough for many authors to encounter reader discussions online. Indeed current marketing efforts lean heavily to online book chats and the like, encouraging authors who might not otherwise have spent much time online to become more Internet savvy. What's more, when one considers the general tone of online discourse, "self-censorship" is not an aspect that usually springs to mind.

In addition, if I consider even helpful review sites like Amazon's, it's apparent that many reviews tend to be badly written. The writers don't often seem to consider what the review's readers will be able to gain from their opinion and they give very limited sort of feedback. And that's only discussion of the content. Discussion of people's reading processes are even scarcer.

So the whole "reading: public or private"?" is an interesting question but there's a lot of things that need to go into defining that discussion first.

However speaking of finding out what readers think, I get that many people may be very fond of Jane Austen stories (or whatever series of texts) just as they are. But the fact that other people want to play with the characters, or may even have different sexual ideas than they do, seems to lead to comments bordering on the hysterical. (Or, given the things some authors have said, I think "bordering on" is being tactful). It's even more ridiculous when the person commenting is not, in fact, said author and thus hasn't a clue what the author is thinking, much less given that the author is long dead and from another period and place entirely.

So I give you this statement: "If there's no sex in her books, that's because she wanted us to understand that love is about something more than two bodies slamming together, and also because she respected her characters too much to violate their privacy."

Er, yes, the author didn't want to violate her fictional characters' privacy. That is indeed the most likely reason why a female author writing in her time period might not include graphic sex in her stories.

I think perhaps we should poll fictional characters as to their thoughts on what they'd like included in a Bill of Rights that will empower them to protest their treatment at the hands of, well, everyone, but particularly their creators. For example, I would be willing to bet they'd prefer not to be tortured extensively, killed off for mindless reasons, be forced to wear embarrassing outfits, constantly lose their love interests or be denied long-term happiness, and say or do things that completely contradict everything they professed to believe in up to that point.

And I suspect being denied the chance to have some fun in the sack is not something they'd want either. In fact, I'm pretty sure quite a lot of them wouldn't mind who was watching as long as they finally got to get some, especially those characters that their creators don't seem to think anybody wants to watch because they aren't the right age, color, sexual orientation, or body type. So I'll just throw this out there -- what do you think would be in a Fictional Characters' Bill of Rights if they got to draw one up?