Why the Future is Played Out
Born in 1966 on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, WA, Sherman Alexie is a novelist, short story writer, poet, and winner of the 2007 National Book Award in Young People's Literature for "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian." His other works include "The Business of Fancydancing," "I Would Steal Horses," and "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven," a story from which was adapted into the motion picture "Smoke Signals." His novel "War Dances," the story of an author who must care for his dying alcoholic father, was released in October 2009 by Grove/Atlantic Press.
Question: Does the print book have a future?
Sherman Alexie: You know, the book is not played out. The idea of what a book can be is not played out in its form as it is, with paper and covers. And there are things that can be that digital will never touch, and that’s one of the things I wanted to do with this, and comparing it to a cassette tape, the old-fashioned way of making a mix tape, which, you know, I love burning CD’s, too, but there is something far more passionate and hands-on and hard work about making a mix tape on a cassette. It’s too easy to revise with a CD. And today’s technology makes it too easy to change immediately. You can cover your mistakes quicker. I think it allows you to have the sheen of perfection around yourself and with an old-fashioned book or an old-fashioned cassette tape, you can actually see all the flaws and imperfections and the bad choices. And I think there’s something we lose with technology when you talk about bad choices.
Question: Why do you consider e-books elitist?
Sherman Alexie: Well, they cost $300, number one. I don’t think anything that costs $300 can be called egalitarian. You know, how much of the world can afford a $300 reading device? 1 percent of 1 percent of 1 percent, it automatically qualifies for, you know, economically elite status.
But what’s really going on here, the reading public doesn’t really know about, and all they’re concerned about and all they’re defending is their reading convenience, which I completely understand. Whether it’s because of physical disabilities or because of personal preference, or just the newness of it, why they love a digital book. But they don’t understand the economic, corporate pressures going on in the publishing world. And what’s going to happen, and this is going to happen on the Internet, too. We like to pretend that the Internet is free, you know, we like to pretend it’s an open source culture, but as culture changes, as old corporate models of distributing information are changing, you know, I don’t know why people assume that corporations aren’t going to take over this medium as well, because they can.
And so what’s happening in the book world, the digital books, is that these e-book companies, you know, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, others that are rising, they just don’t seek to publish books, they’re going to end up seeking the books to be chosen to be published. So this economic model, the way it’s set up now, is going to favor a certain kind of book and publishers and being economically motivated companies are only going to be publishing those kinds of books. And the divide between pop culture, pop writing, and literary writing is just going to increase and increase and increase and it’s going to make it harder and harder and harder for first-time writers to get published in any form whatsoever where they’ll get attention.
Question: Does the Web help or hurt the connection between artist and audience?
Sherman Alexie: Who can find you? Who’s going to find anybody? Nobody’s really risen out of the Internet to become a major voice. They always end up getting a book published and then the book makes them a major voice, but nobody has. I mean, I’m trying to think, you know, I’m not Internet averse at all, I’m doing this. I mean, I love the Internet. But the fact is, is that it’s a giant, giant, unfiltered library which has its strengths and beauty, but it’s impossible to find people.
And, you know, what we end up doing anyway is I go to about five sites. You know, and I think most people probably do the same thing, you create this little small town inside the Internet and we end up in all these little, tiny separate communities. Joan Jett, an interview with Joan Jett, she said about the music industry, she said the thing that’s missing now is anticipation. She said that nobody gets in a big line outside of Tower Records any more waiting for that new Stones album to drop. And nobody stands in line outside a record store waiting to buy the tickets for The Who concert. There’s a real lack of community, you know, in the Internet experience when it comes to art. And you can’t tell me and it’s not true, that communicating strictly through the Internet forms community in the way that being together does. You’re missing all but one sense. You don’t smell people, you don’t really hear them, you don’t see them, and we’re animals, we’re creatures of senses, and the Internet deprives you of many of those.
And so I know there’s new art coming based on this technology and some if it’s happening and it’s exciting and interesting, but there’s nothing wrong with the old art. And I always worry and you see it with certain Internet folks, the way in which they’re completely willing to jettison their past in the pursuit of something new, and that’s what I’m worried about.
Sherman Alexie weighs the joys and frustrations of different publishing formats.
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