E-Readers And The Threat Of Constant Editing

There are some good defenses of Jonathan Franzen, particularly from an archival perspective, in our thread in his comments on E-Readers (I’m glad no one’s defending the idea that the president is too busy to read fiction, though). I absolutely agree with everyone who says we need to think carefully about and allocate appropriate resources to digital archiving. But I think Simon Pits raises the most convincing argument in defense of Franzen’s worries about e-readers making literature impermanent. He says:

Franzen’s point is that with a e-books, an author never need “finish” writing a book. The ability to constantly revise, improve or worsen and censor remains. While authors, publishers and distributors today aren’t taking full advantage of this, certainly it cannot be far. Think of the controversies surrounding the teaching of Huck Finn. In an e-book world, Nigger Jim gets renamed to Jim or Black Jim or Slave Jim or something that may offend fewer, but tells us less about the culture and society in which the book was written.

A couple of thoughts. First, I think even though it’s theoretically possible to keep editing a digital manuscript in a way it’s not possible to change a print copy, there are still some structural factors mitigating against it being a major problem. Most writers I know tend to feel that they have to walk away from a project at some point, if only for their own sanity. I know writing a novel is different from blogging, of course, but even then, folks feel like they have to be done sometime. And even if they don’t, I think there’s probably a limit to the extent to which digitial publishers are going to be willing to push fixes, something that requires a lot of file maintenance, checking to make sure changes haven’t introduced new errors, and then either updating or getting readers to update their texts, something that might seem particularly annoying for new tweaks rather than minor functionality.

And second, there’s been real resistance to authors going back and fiddling with what are considered foundational texts, whether George Lucas is making Greedo shoot first or an edition of Huckleberry Finn that replaces the word “nigger” with “slave.” These alterations tend to be treated as a kind of cowardice, whether it’s Lucas lacking the courage to make Han Solo kind of a jerk or the political correctness that avoids exposing people to uncomfortable ideas and words even if those things might move their thinking forward. I don’t normally trust the market with a lot of things. But I’m actually reasonably confident that outcries against endless tinkering, customer demands for the portability of content from device to device and from format to format, and the desire to retain customers will make it easier to preserve digital content in its original form. That doesn’t mean we don’t need to back up those forces with an independent dedication to digital archiving. But unless things change, I think this might be a case where customers’ demands and the imperative to preserve texts are relatively closely aligned.