POWER TO THE READER
or The author in a world of digital media
Or ”Good-bye, press!”
Confessions of a cyberjunkie
by Morten Jørgensen
Authors have for the last hundred years, and particularly the novelist, often been, not only a scribe of entertainment, but also a catalyst, an inspirator, an instigator, an investigator. Not all authors, of course, and some authors not at all, but books tend to interact with society. Whether it be Vladimir Mayakovsky or Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Mikhail Bulgakov or Anaïs Nin, authors as a collective have usually not been confined to just writing books, we have been an active element in society, discussing language and politics, sexuality, war and drugs, and in return we have been honored or buried in roses as ”the world’s consciousness”, or labelled as outrageous, for political, moral, religious or other reasons, even jailed or executed.
In Norway, the country’s writers – novelists and poets alike – have always been an integral part of the social discourse. Henrik Ibsen and Knut Hamsun, Jens Bjørneboe and Georg Johannesen, Johan Borgen and Amalie Skram are influential authors that have taken part in the formation of Norwegian society or influenced it from the sideline. In the 70ies the whole thing even took completely off as authors became politicians; the Norwegian Writer’s Guild taken over and for several years controlled by the Norwegian Mao-communists: All writers ”should”, as an imperative, be a ”socially conscious” or ”political” writer. (The result was, btw, library dust collectors a.k.a. crappy books.)
The author has been visible in the papers, later on TV and even on rostrums, on gallas, fund raisings and rallies and seminars. She or he is supposedly a master of language, and many authors have some kind of special field of interest that makes them excellent lecturers and participants in public debates. Besides, we usually simply know a lot of stuff, right?
To many of us, it has been a part of our job, and to some of us it will always be a part of our job, especially among the intellectuals within our ranks, like myself, a university (examless) philosopher, as an intellectual’s calling is to critisize The Power or status quo or whatever you prefer to call it, whether it is the Political Power or the Power of Sports. I tend to prefer alternative 3 on Wiki when defining intellectual: ”An individual of notable expertise in culture and the arts, expertise which allows them some cultural authority, which they then use to speak in public on other matters.”
But now this is all changing. Or rather, we have to move. Leave our old office and resettle. In the virtual world.
1. THE FALL OF THE AUTHOR MONOPOLY
The first novelists, like Victor Hugo of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), Les Misérables (1862) and The Man Who Laughs (1869) fame, were a central part of the collective information grid of their society. A contemporary reader of Moby-Dick (1851) by Herman Melville may find the original extremely detailed, compared to a novel of today. Hugo and Melville would inform their readers fully on almost any topic mentioned in their books. Hugo will tell us what comprachicos are, and Melville will enlighten you on every aspect of seamanship.
Today, why bother, when we all have Wikipedia?
The author has often been the voice of alternative, non-conformist thoughts, and being the masters of language, he or she has spoken with authority in the press, often ”on behalf of” others, whether it be the analphabets of Africa or the working class of Europe, Václav Havel became the first president of a Soviet-free Czechoslovakia.
But now people speak for themselves, through millions of blogs, through forums and postings. Out here in Cyberia, out in the digital world, in the virtual space.
Thus, the author, if he or she still wants to remain the intellectual, the philosopher, the court jester, whatever, will have to enter the virtual world and establish his or her own platform out here. Say something interesting, you know. The author has been an icon in the press. Out here in the virtual world, the author’s voice is just one of many. Because the competition from ”amateurs” is growing, and the author’s voice may easily drown in the growing chorus of voices. In Cyberia we are all authors.
2. THE FALL OF THE PRESS
Up until now, in countries with no or little government censorship, the press and the literary critics have been the sole censors of literature. Not necessarily _censorers_ who officially bans or warns the public against a certain book pertained as subversive or challenging or unacceptable to society in some sense. The reviews may just as well sanctify a novel that somehow fits nicely and smoothly into the social fabric, often reinforcing the prevailing self-image or self-imagery of that society.
The press in general and the literary critics in particular are a filter between the writer and the reader, often being the first to interprete a novel or a poetry collection, thus starting some kind of jungle telegraph or buzz, or even ”killing” the book.
Let me give you two examples from my own experience. In 1990 the album ”Psykedelisk utviklingshemmet” (Retard Psychedelic) by my band at the time, the power punk band Morten Jørgensen og Spekkhoggerne som fulgte etter danskebåten uten å røre spyet som rant fra ripa (Morten Jørgensen and the Orcas that followed the Copenhagen ferry without touching the vomit that poured from the rail), was released. A German magazine called it in a favorable review something like ”the most boycotted album in Norwegian record history”, and although I’m not sure that the magazine’s claim is true, it is at least true that the most controversial song on the album figures as one of the 13 formerly banned songs on the compilation ”Sensurert” (Censored) (1996), which covers 30 years of banned Norwegian music: The entire Norwegian press trashed it totally at the time of its release. Today, some of the same media have started to call the album ”a classic”. Well, fuck that. I lost 30 000 NOK on it at the time, as radios stopped playing it and record shops refused to sell it; almost only a handful of alternative records shops had it on sale by the end of 1990.
I’m not saying this to justify the album. You could call it shit, for all I care. Judge for yourself, there are Spekkhogger songs in my Boxes on Facebook. But it is a fact that back in the good old Kazaa-days, more than 10 years after the album had been released, I had up to 50 downloads a week on songs from the album, it also appears more and more frequently on lists of ”great” or ”good” or ”favorite” albums by people who were toddlers or not even born when the album was originally released, but they do not usually appear in the old school press, they pop up on the net.
The examples of misguided or libertophobic reviews that I have been exposed to in the Norwegian press are many, but the second example is from 1998, when my second novel, ”Kongen av København” (King of Copenhagen) was published, and thus reviewed in Norway’s largest morning paper Aftenposten. In the novel we are given several indicators that imply that King, the front man of the band Sennepslegionen, is somewhat of a titty man. Yes, boys and girls, he likes’em big! But in addition to the usual outcry of ”attention-seeking” and ”speculativeness”, the woolhead ”critic” of Aftenposten slams the novel and me (!) for being ”fixated on big tits”! Shit happens. It is a sequel, and I still meet people who have read with enthusiasm the first volume, ”Sennepslegionen”, that do not know of the second volume’s existence.
This is serious business, folks. We can laugh at the stupid reviews today, but I try to make a living out of this, and I write books that I want people to read, and you want to read them too. When ”Brent” is published in 2010, was it will be 12 years since the publication of my previous novel ”Bank” (German edition: ”Rache auf Raten”, 2003). I can assure you all that the ”exile” has been most involuntarily, and debt and money has been, if not the most important reason, at least a major contributing factor to my writing pause.
Today the author can communicate directly with her or his audience. The author does not need the press anymore. These days, all kids under 20 years of age in Norway are on Facebook, as well as most of the 20-30 years olds, in fact 25 % of the entire population is. In ten, twenty, thirty years time, all Norwegians that are less than 90 years old, will have gone digital.
In the past, the reader had to rely on the papers when deciding what books to buy. When ”Brent” is released , I will have several Friends on places like Facebook and Bebo. I can Message them directly, I can have a publicly streamed release party Event, a net meet - not a press conferance, but a reception for you all, where journalists have to que up like the rest of you. And I can – and shall – establish a blog for your reviews.
So I don’t want professional literary critics, right? Sure I do. But the critic, just like the writer, will have to establish himself or herself by the power of his or her skills, not because of the fact that the critic is employed in a ”major” or ”respected” newspaper. There will of course be a link option on my ”review blog” for literary magazines and newspaper critics, but their monopoly will be broken.
3. THE FALL OF THE PUBLISHER?
The eBok has so far not taken off, but it won’t be long. Screens are getting better, weight is going down, a growing number of employees in the publishing business have started using it, and they seem to like it, and they live in and for books, so they don’t work with crap gadgets.
You will soon get your own personalized ”book”, a screen board the size of a normal book, clad in leather if you like, comfortble to hold and easy to read, even in the dark on a boring trainride, maybe a hip designer has made it, it can play music, with or without earphones, it may contain an alarm, like your car keys, you can get a picture of your favorite writer on the cover if you like, it will tell you which of your Facebook friends that are reading it or have read it as well, you can get your reviews or write a stinging ridicule of a review in a forum; you can check a fact in the book that you doubt on Wikipedia, or you can find out what the hell wolfbanging is by going on urban.com. You can check the etymology of the main characters name, and the best of all, you can stash your entire library in your eBook, or you will have all your books online, all available to you all over the world through a bookshelf server, your personal portable library that you pay a monthly fee for, just like you do for World of Warcraft and other games, and you will never have to go to the post office to fetch your monthly club book, it will be downloaded automathically to your eBook without you even asking, being paid for by automatically connecting to your bank as well. Click OK.
Will the printed book of paper dissapear? I don’t know. You tell me, will vinyl records disappear entirely? What about motorcycles running on petrol? Coca-Cola?
I sincerely doubt that the generation who are teenagers now will give up their .pdf files for paper, so personally I think the printed book will most likely die, or maybe survive in niches, like vinyl do today and maybe vintage cars running on petrol. But, frankly folks, there are not being sold many newspapers to the teenagers of today, you teenagers get your news on the net, whether it be on YouTube or on The New York Times. When these kids start working, they will not read the paper in their lunch break, they will read their laptop or whatever we shall call that device.
Could I simply skip the publisher? Yes, I could! I could print ”Brent” in Hong Kong, sell it on Amazon.com when it is due for release in 2010 and hope that the buzz I make will make it sell. Maybe even the eBook has had its breakthrough, so I can sell it in JørgensenShop as a .pdf file with extras and take-outs? I could publish ”Brent” as an audio book (read: file) that I have recorded in my very own living room as well, couldn’t I? In 50 years time, what will a bookstore be? Will bookstores even exist?
The digitalization of the book, as well as print on demand, makes the author independent of the publisher. So the publisher must change too. If not, the industry will be facing a ”Coldplay crisis”. Coldplay simply skipped their record company and sold their album directly to you, their audience. Obama won through Flickr, Twitter, YouTube, Bebo and MySpace.
Will the publisher survive? It will all depend on whether the publisher manages to adapt to the new forms of publishing, distribution and marketing, and whether the publisher will still have something to offer that makes the authors happy (editing, proofs, marketing). If not, the publishing empires of today may crumble in 50 years time.
To sum up:
Some of you joke with me and say: ”You’re just on Facebook and YouTube, you are not writing! You’ve got writer’s block? Are you giving up on ’Brent’? Hey, you wrote on your wall that you were out having a beer last night, not writing!” Well, you could not be more wrong.
These are my new offices. I don’t go to libraries as often as I did before, I go online instead, I have in fact not been to a single library yet for ”Brent”. I don’t have to travel to the minor places in my books anymore, I go Google Earth instead. I read scientific papers, I go Wikipedia, I read .pdfs, I watch vids. I answer mails from people who like my books and/or my music, like I always have done, but I don’t have to buy stamps and envelopes anymore and I don’t have to go to the post office. I talk to my publisher via chat or mail (they are a bit old-fashioned), and two of my main scientific advisory experts are on Facebook, and my editor is on underskog.no as well. See?
So let me end this little proclamation by stating that the reader is the sovereign ruler of her or his interpretation of all books, including mine, also when it comes to ”Brent”.
I hereby transfer the initial evaluation power of my books
from the media to my readers.
Hope to see you on YouTube, in the ”Brent” Group on Facebook (coming soon), here on my blog, on Twitter, Flickr, Bebo, ReverbNation, Delicious, MySpace and other places, as well as in the coming Folkets Poet-thread on underskog.no. (Only in Norwegian.) And who knows, maybe I, and maybe you, my dear, beloved readers, shall expand even further into cyber space together, singing ”Power to the reader”.
Oslo, Friday January 9th, 2009.
Edited for Blogger February, 24th, 2009.