In addition to attacking the traditional publishing model and starting fierce arguments over whether the rise in eBooks is (paradoxically) causing a decline in literacy, eReaders like the Amazon Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook are collecting data on how fast readers read an eBook, the parts they skip, and more according to NPR this week.
Leaving aside the question of whether this is another privacy invasion on the part of Big Data, the article focuses on the question of whether this data can help authors or hurt them.
Scott Turow takes the position that Big Data helps writers by letting them know where, if not why, they lose readers during a story. The novelist Jonathan Evison wonders what would have happened to Moby Dick if Melville had Big Data from readers and listened to it.
All of this reminded me of what I think of as the “continuum of the writer-reader collaboration”.
The act of reading is a collaboration between the writer and reader, an act which the writer begins and the reader finishes. The terms of this collaboration are initially set by the writer. The reader then accepts these terms, or not, but once she does – look out – because the experience and meanings of the book become hers.
Sometimes, the writer sets terms which are friendly to that great and aggregate abstraction known as “the reader”.
In fiction, these terms tend to include a plot featuring a conflict or conflicts, rising action, and a satisfying conclusion; central characters with whom we can identify or empathize; and writing that is clear and straightforward if not elegant, harmonious, or beautiful.
The “reality” of the book roughly conforms to the world reported in newspapers or portrayed in mass media or experienced by another great abstraction, the “average person”.
If the book’s reality doesn’t conform to this world, then it exists in a souped-up one, in which everyone is attractive, rich, witty, and powerful, and has more and better sex than generally experienced.
If the characters have problems in this world, they are exciting and important problems — like saving the world from a rogue nuke or loving a sparkly vampire — instead of boring ones like scraping up money to pay your bills or hemorrhoids.
Books with reader-unfriendly terms tend to be the opposite of all these things or, let us agree for the sake of brevity, Finnegans Wake.
Now there is no necessary causal relationship between reader-friendly terms, reader- unfriendly terms, entertainment, and art. In fact, all these elements, in all proportions, can be found in literature. Shakespeare’s invincible position at the pinnacle of literature in English is based on precisely the fact that he delivers enormous quantities of all four in roughly equal measures.
However, it also seems to me profoundly true that all real innovation in literature is founded on being reader-unfriendly, which is another way of saying “new and confusing”.
I’m not worried about Big Data stifling innovation. Big artists have big egos, and typically think everyone else in the world is an idiot who needs to catch up. They’ve been ignoring expert opinion for centuries. They can ignore Big Data just as easily.
If the next generation Kindle has a camera, however, I am going to stop reading naked.