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Editor’s note: In the September 1, 2009, issue of Booklist, Adult Books Associate Editor Donna Seaman got the Story behind the Story on John Freeman’s The Tyranny of E-mail. The first book by the world-class book critic, Tyranny examines society’s e-mail habit within the context of a history of written communication. But the Seaman-Freeman exchange contained much of interest that didn’t fit on the page. Read on as they talk at length about the need for newspapers, the explosion of opinion, and why the Internet is the antithesis of poetry.
BKL: What prompted you to literally take to the streets in Atlanta in 2007 with the Campaign for the Book Review effort?
FREEMAN: I felt that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s decision to fire the paper’s book-review editor was a bellwether for what could happen at other newspaper chains, and it was. I was hoping that by staging a protest we might discourage other newspapers from taking away a part of the paper that lots of people read and enjoy, but they did it anyway. That’s the problem with having newspapers owned by corporations whose primary objective is to satisfy their shareholders and not their readers. I’m sure if you asked people, you would find that book sections were popular, but it’s much easier to talk about the costs of paper and freelancers without even beginning to get into the cultural costs.
BKL: And there is a cost culturally, isn’t there?
FREEMAN: I think newspapers have been the sinew of American cultural life for so long because it’s the one part of print life that really affects almost everybody. Large sections of what is available on the Internet emerge out of newspapers and would not exist if newspapers weren’t providing and distributing it. Without these enormous distribution arms, the pool of people who are reading about books, and stumbling upon books in an accidental Saturday- or Sunday-morning way, is much smaller. I believe that when newspaper book coverage is pulled away, it will affect book sales, just the way people worried it would. Brand-name authors sell, while new writers without name recognition are having a much, much harder time attracting readers. I spoke to one agent who has a first-time novelist whose book received two reviews. This is a novel published by Alfred A. Knopf, one of the best publishers in the country. Normally, given the high quality of the book, it would have been a mild success; instead, it vanished. The hard thing about that is knowing how much time and energy and thought goes into writing a novel or a biography or a collection of essays, then seeing it just kind of wink out. It’s heartbreaking, and I don’t think those things can be replaced by other forms of media.
Look what happened to the music industry. Yet at least musicians have music videos, and they tour where lots of people can be convinced to come hear them. Books are not necessarily meant to be broadcast that way. They’re not meant to be onstage, so the result of a lack of reviewing might be enormous.
BKL: Some people say that lit blogs are filling the gap. Do lit blogs satisfactorily replace book reviews?
FREEMAN: No. There is a very high tier of lit blogs that are operating almost like book reviews, and they are exceptional. But the vast majority of lit blogs are simply duplicating word-of-mouth and turning it into textual conversation. And not everybody has access to that conversation. The thing about a newspaper that is wonderful is that it costs 50 cents. You don’t have to have a computer or a machine or access to the Internet. You simply go to a metal box and pull this thing out, and everything in it is presented as important news. That’s very different from something corralled in an area that is entirely about books. Something you have to search out, rather than come across.
BKL: As book-review editors and book reviewers, we have devoted ourselves to reading seriously and critically and fairly and then reporting on our reading with a strong sense of responsibility, professionalism, and ethics. Yet we’re being maligned as elitists and gatekeepers in a negative way. How do you respond to that?
FREEMAN: Culture needs authority. Sure, there is an enormous conversation occurring, but the purpose of book reviews is to present readers with the collision of sense and sensibility. The sense coming from an expert, someone who has devoted his or her entire life to reading and mastering this literary form, and the sensibility of a writer. This can be duplicated on lit blogs and in online reviews, but it can’t be replaced by democracy. That’s the tricky thing about culture. It’s not a democratic enterprise, and it’s antithetical to talk about that because democracy has infiltrated into American consciousness and into our emotional life. So it’s easy to confuse culture and democracy, but they’re not the same. Just as democracy is also often confused with capitalism.
Somehow, by virtue of the conversation that happens among lots and lots of people, the best will rise to the top, but you do need lightning rods. And you need lightning rods that people will pay attention to. It’s not a good situation if there are only a few of those, and they’re coming from New York and Los Angeles and Chicago. You need more than that. You need critics in the Pacific Northwest, in the South. Because of the way the Internet works, and the algorithms involved in getting people to sites, it’s a completely different epistemological equation when something is presented to you and everyone is participating, like in a newspaper, and when you are presented with a blank slate, and it’s required of the reader to care in the first place, which is what happens when you google something. So that is as big a problem as the cutback in book reviews, because it presumes an interest in books in order for the book conversation to keep going.
I feel that people are biologically interested in telling stories and listening to other stories, but, as we found with banks and so many other aspects of American life, we can’t rely on the marketplace to register our concerns or to rank them accordingly. The Internet began as a communal exercise, but it quickly morphed into something that much more closely resembles the texture and behavior of market capitalism. We’re coming out of an age of rampant capitalism, and we ought to step back and raise our concerns because newspapers are going to keep doing what they need to do in order to make a profit, and they’re in dire straits because not only has the marketplace for readers and print changed, the business model for papers has also changed. A large part of income that used to come from classified ads has been shuttled online, to Craigslist and AutoTrader. So newspapers are now expected to somehow produce, create, research, investigate, and defend the news, and then distribute it, without one of their primary revenue sources.
Newspapers did have a lot of resources in order to sustain these things, and you can’t rely on volunteer effort for consistency and quality in journalism. A book has the same capacity for changing your mind as brain surgery, and you don’t want to hand that over to just anyone. Which isn’t to say that people’s opinions about books aren’t valid, it’s that a book review is much more than opinion.
BKL: So much of online writing, as you observe, is opinion, or rehashing of news produced by journalists.
FREEMAN: There’s been such an explosion of opinion in America. Look at our political life. TV talk shows, radio call-in shows, ballooning op-ed pages, tons of opinion Web sites. Tocqueville wrote about how Americans, more than any other people he’d ever met, were happy to discuss being American and to share their opinions about it. I think that’s in our national character, if we have one: the fact that everybody has an opinion. But that doesn’t mean that cultural life should be regulated that way.
There’s a big difference between a written argument and an oral argument. I think the Web, especially blogs, are a hybrid, or mash-up of the two. I feel like textual culture, wherever it is, always swings between oral and written, and there are distinct styles to each. We’re no longer in a life, as it was in the nineteenth century, when Emerson and Thoreau and Longfellow traveled the country and lectured to huge crowds about serious subjects. Our attention span is much more fragmented. The newspaper book review has always been a backdoor into a culture, and a chance to have, in a print form everyone had access to, and which is dedicated to breaking news and what’s going on in your community, something of a an intellectual and aesthetic focus. I think that’s a loss, if that’s abandoned.
BKL: When you think about a book that a writer has spent years on, poured her or his heart and soul into, and then it receives one mainstream review, which is negative for perhaps unfair or inaccurate reasons, well, that’s a disservice to everyone.
FREEMAN: That’s true. The other thing about the culture of constant opinion-making is that books aren’t like movies or even songs today, which have multiple songwriters and producers, and many of which are produced by committee, and distributed by multibillion-dollar corporations. With books, 99 percent of the work is done by the authors, in solitude, often without promise of financial benefit. Some books have elements of pop culture, and so ought to be treated with rigorous skepticism. All reviews should be skeptical. But to treat a literary novel with the same flip attitude applied to a blockbuster movie, which is primarily produced for financial benefit, is really harmful to writers. Not that I’m saying we need to protect writers. But they do do something more courageous, I feel, than corporate productions of entertainment products. Even if their publishers are corporate, it’s still a different sort of work.
BKL: I find it interesting how we ignore the constant advertising and marketing we’re subjected to online, the tracking of our every click. We rave about the accessibility and democracy of the Web, the infinity of information, but we do pay for it directly and indirectly. It’s such a relief to read a book. It’s off the grid, so there’s no cyber spying, and it’s free of ads and commercials. I wonder about e-books. Won’t they open literature to the same invasion of advertising and reconnaissance that plagues every other digital medium? And what about censorship?
FREEMAN: It’s quite possible that you will end up with previews or trailers before you can start reading your book. But my concern with e-books is simply the access. Do you really have to buy a gadget for $200 or $300 so you can read a book? A book you can get free at your library or for $5 if it’s a mass-market paperback? There are great conveniences to e-readers. I’ve considered getting one for work so that I can read manuscripts on it. But it’s not the most pleasurable way to read, and I also think there’s a certain solitude and peacefulness that are lost when you’re reading a machine that’s buzzing and shining a light into your eyes. It’s a different way of reading than there has been in several thousand years. The pied-piper call of technology is that it’s always more convenient and easier and cooler. It’s surprising how often people who resist technology are labeled Luddites. There’s this idea that somehow technological progress always automatically equals positive change. I feel that with e-books, we have to step back and ask if we really need this.
BKL: We are so drawn to machines and gadgets. Whatever we’re acclimated to, we accept. The devices we use everyday seem natural, even inevitable.
FREEMAN: We’ve mastered the planet. We’ve made the planet our energy source. We’ve found ways to do things with nature that nature never would have tried to do on its own, like factory farming or airplane travel. We’re doing things that are irrevocably changing the environment. If there is anything that distinguishes human life from other forms of life, it’s our ability to make moral choices. And we have to continually stop and have serious discussions about technology and how it’s impacting our life. Otherwise, we’re not actually being human.
BKL: You write about The Borg (cybernetically enhanced humanoids linked in a collective with no free will) in The Tyranny of E-mail. That’s the scary vision of the symbiosis between humans and their machines. There are Borg-like surges on the Internet when things go viral. The hive mind is at work.
FREEMAN: Right. And you’re always being watched. You’re constantly tied to a machine that you’re obligated to check and monitor. It extends your workday. The whole point of the early efforts in the Industrial Age to regulate the workday was the realization that human beings couldn’t keep up with the machines that they had created to make their lives more productive. Now the people running the machines are tied to them.
BKL: I think of Modern Times, the Charlie Chaplin film, every day.
FREEMAN: Yes, exactly. To me it’s astonishing that there hasn’t been more of a siren call about that. Computers are little machines, but they’re hugely tyrannizing.
BKL: The telegraph has been called the Victorian Internet, and people were leery of it, protesting the way it sped up communication and lessened distance, but no one had one in their home.
FREEMAN: And no one had a handheld telegraph either, which is basically what we have now with our PDAs. We know what happened to telegraph operators: they became seriously burned out. We’re starting to approach that stage.
BKL: Everyone wants to be seen and heard. They want their presence felt. Millions of people have blogs. It’s the Tower of Babel.
FREEMAN: I briefly considered calling this book that, and having a computer tower on the cover. It’s an understandable and natural human instinct to want to talk, but when it gets in the way of listening, it becomes something else much more dangerous because it starts to condition the way you listen and participate in culture. The telegram created the newspaper industry, which is now devolving. The great thing about the Internet is that it does make international news instantly available. But it’s an enormous empathic challenge to respond to all this instant information. It requires some self-constraint. Otherwise you’re simply drowning in communication, and the more that you communicate, the more you devalue your actual communication.
BKL: Which is the exact opposite of literature.
FREEMAN: Literature is the quintessence of solitude.
BKL: And slow thinking.
FREEMAN: Isn’t the decline in reading statistics in some way connected to the way our attention spans are changing? The last thing you’re inclined to do after playing e-mail ping-pong is to go home and slow down. You’re so charged up and drained, it’s almost like you need a sedative to shift into a reading frame of mind.
One of the great promises of the Web was to somehow make poetry more democratic. More available. And there are loads and loads of poetry on the Internet. Lots of sites are dedicated to poetry. But the essence of poetry is mindfulness. The intense focus on a single moment, or a single turn of phrase, or on the way language works. So it’s not surprising that the Internet hasn’t carried forth this great new wave of tremendous poetry. The way the Internet works is the antithesis of poetry.
BKL: The atmosphere of the digital realm doesn’t seem to foster contemplation.
FREEMAN: Look at reading studies. They show that we prefer shorter paragraphs, we scan more, and we look for bullet heads. We write e-mails with more breaks in them. It does change the structure and texture of our writing. It remains to be seen what will happen for generations going forward. But lots of writers I know have unplugged themselves because they can’t work with the Internet at their fingertips.
BKL: We’ve experienced both. I do remember life before personal computers, so I can tell what’s changed. But younger people are born into this; it’s normal to them. You have to ask: What are we gaining and what are we losing?
FREEMAN: What’s so fascinating about the computer world is that it did develop out of an intense, almost manic idealism. The dream of extending human nature, of giving us a sort of prosthetic device with which we could possibly know more and do things faster than we can possibly do them. But if the computer world is going to stay true to that, and not simply crank out a new product every six months to raise revenue, it has to start asking better questions, because otherwise people are just going to say, “No. I’ve had enough. I don’t want to live this way.”
But I see good signs. There are new young publishers who are publishing chapbooks and finely crafted books. Look at McSweeney’s. It’s the perfect answer to the Internet. They have a stripped-down Web site for people who want to read it that way, but they don’t put their issue on there, and they make these beautiful books. I think one of the most appealing things about it as a literary journal is that it’s a crafted thing. It is made; it is labored over. It does feel like there’s been a hand on it.
BKL: What about Granta? It’s a handsome print magazine.
FREEMAN: Well, we have to do both. There is a significant audience that wants to read Granta online. We come out four times a year, so there is a need to stay in touch with the reader in between issues. But the primary interest is the magazine you hold. So the photographs are printed as finely as possible. It’s well designed as an object, and you interact with it as an equal. I think when you read on the screen, the thing that you’re reading isn’t truly elsewhere. It’s somehow in your head already because the computer is an extension of your head. So you react to what you read on it as if it were your own thought. To me it’s why you have these flare-ups on the Internet. People would never say those vicious things in person. They would never write them on postcards and mail them to someone.
I think the definition of beauty, to some degree, is singularity. And you don’t see that on the Internet as much. It’s a cycle of images.
Technology changes us as much as we change technology. That’s why I wrote the book. I don’t have any answers. I’m just trying to think about it, and to raise enough interesting points to put it in a different context. So often the Internet is described as having emerged from thin air. If you think of human history as long and containing many thousands of years of behavior, the rate of change right now in terms of how we acquire and ingest knowledge is profound, and e-mail is a major symptom of that.
BKL: There have never been so many people on the planet.
FREEMAN: Or so much access to each other.
BKL: Surely that will change our consciousness, as a species.
FREEMAN: That’s why I look to nature. The ecology we inherited by evolving from apes is not something we created. It was given to us. We have created the ecology of the Internet, and we have the power to change it, and to modify it, and to make it to our own liking. That’s why I’m trying to have an intervention, because, unlike climate change, where, according to scientists, we will get to a point where we won’t be able to change it back, we can take charge of the cyber world. I think the thing that afflicts both climate change and the creep of technology, and how it insinuates itself into our lives and erodes our privacy and our attention span, is that they both are incremental. Just one more step, well, that’s not so bad, so take just one more step. But then you do get to a point where you’re overwhelmed. The environment is overwhelmed, your consciousness is overwhelmed, and then it’s very difficult to pull it back.
The great thing about the Internet is that it decentralizes. If you want a book, and you can’t get it at your local bookstore, you can order it online. But the more you rely on those systems, first of all, the systems erode the environment, because all objects have to travel by some means. This peels things away from your community that people there might provide.
The human face was evolved for a reason. There are emotional valences you can communicate with your body. Your physical aura, not to get too metaphysical about it. You just can’t do that over e-mail. And the phone is a poor substitute for it. The media environment that we’ve created also makes it possible never to have solitude or to be alone with one’s thoughts.
BKL: Yes, we’ve always wanted to avoid that. Look at how many people talk on their cell phones or text while they’re out on the street.
FREEMAN: We are so blended now with our digital selves that we can never quite leave them behind. To me, that seems like a dangerous sign. It means that it will be very hard to uncouple from it. But what I found when I lost my cell phone a year ago was that suddenly all this time was given back to me. I’d be walking down the street in New York, feeling a breeze, looking down the street, while my thoughts wandered off in different directions.
BKL: It often seems as though everything we do and experience goes through a machine. I watched a double-decker bus full of tourists on Michigan Avenue in Chicago as it passed the old Water Tower and everyone lifted their cell phones in sync like a flock of birds and took a picture.
FREEMAN: The critical thinkers of the 1960s, especially Susan Sontag and Marshall McLuhan, saw where things were going. They were a bit ahead of their time. Sontag very astutely put her finger on what was so strange about a leisure enterprise like tourism, namely that it became a manic image-collecting effort. You couldn’t actually have been someplace without bringing back pictures to prove you’d seen it. Seeing isn’t enough.
BKL: Do you feel that books are reaching the depths they have in the past?
FREEMAN: Yes, I think they are. I think writers are special creatures, and the really good ones seem to know when something is getting in the way of their ability to do what a novel does, which is to provide access to an interior life.
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