VacuousMinx

Blog in Progress

Category: reading

The way we read now

My Twitter feed is full of the latest attack on the books people (mostly women) read as opposed to the books they should read. A big movie is coming out this weekend and everyone wants to jump on the juggernaut bandwagon. Clickbait achievement was clearly unlocked in this case, since my media, feminism, romance, and literature twitter accounts were all talking about it.

I already said my piece on clickbait and how to respond, so I’ll talk about something else: how the way we read online may be affecting the way we read all kinds of content.  The hot new format in digital journalism is data-driven and factoid-relating. The most obvious are the new FiveThirtyEight site and Vox, which are different yet oddly similar in that they both want to explain the news rather than report it and let us find our own ways to understand it. Oh, and stupid Buzzfeed quizzes, but those are basically the internet’s version of Cosmo’s old How Good Is Your Relationship quizzes.

In our quest to have things explained to us (and people’s quest to make money explaining things to us), are we losing the ability to comprehend information on our own, by looking at the words, numbers, and pictures ourselves? Can we comprehend the raw material? Because if we can’t that’s a big loss.

Among the ways we read now, we’re much more likely to be reading on screens rather than on pages we hold in our hands, pages which used to be contained in collated formats (from pamphlets to newspapers to magazines to books), formats for which we have we have a particular spatial understanding. It seems pretty clear that our spatial understanding of digital material is different. Not necessarily worse, but definitely different. For example, you turn a page, but you scroll down a website.

Before I go on, I need to register a caveat: Not everyone can hold printed material. Not everyone can read print in the fonts it usually comes in. So this is not about saying print is better. This is about understanding the differences, some of which are not about the digital form per se (not necessary to the form, that is) but about how information in digital form is presented and consumed. The latter and the former are mutually reinforcing (causality goes both ways).

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The VM Reader Manifesto

Pen & ink sketch of open book

Since everyone is going around producing manifestos and statements and whatnot about themselves and their passions and their publishing ambitions, I thought I would write mine down too. It seems like a popular bandwagon, so why not hop on!

  1. I am your reader, not your fan.
  2. I will buy your book when it is finished. Please don’t try to sell it to me before then.
  3. I will not “assist the production.”
  4. I am not your editor, your proofreader, your designer, your digital formatter, or your publicist. I expect you to find people to do those jobs, pay them properly, and then put your book into the marketplace. At that point I will pay you money for your book.
  5. I will talk about the book if I like it and probably also if I don’t. If I don’t like it, I won’t seek you out to tell you that.
  6. If I find the book to be a worthwhile read, I’ll buy another book of yours.
  7. If we become friends (real ones, not the Twitter or Facebook versions), then that will be in addition to being a reader of your books. Reader and friend are separate, distinct, roles in my world. If they’re not in yours, then I can be the former but probably not the latter.
  8. I don’t care how your book is published as long as it’s good. [ETA from Liz in the comments.]
  9. If I feel duped [e.g. a bait and switch on the content] or find formatting errors and bad grammar, I have the right to return it and get my money back. [ETA from Keishon in the comments.]

That’s it. Thanks for writing your books, authors.

[Crossposted from the VM Tumblr.]

Length and form in genre storytelling: The Kraken King and other experiments

The first installment in Meljean Brook’s new serialized novel, The Kraken King, was released this week. Brie has an excellent review of it at Dear Author (i.e., I’m sure it’s excellent, but I have to admit that I skimmed it while peeking through my fingers because I want to approach Vol. 1 with as little prior information as possible). I’d heard chatter about the story on Twitter because some of the installments have appeared on Netgalley, and a couple of the commenters agreed with Brie’s positive take on the first four installments.

But the vast majority of comments on the review were negative about the book, the format, the idea of serials more generally, and even toward Meljean. That took me aback, especially the author-directed criticisms, since if anyone has earned the right to experiment with story forms because of past performance, it’s this author. She’s written very high-quality books that respect genre boundaries while exploring them to the fullest, and she takes all kinds of worthwhile risks in her writing. For me, following her to the serial format is a no-brainer even if I weren’t predisposed toward the form.

I asked on Twitter why serial stories got such a strong and often visceral negative reaction and the conversation took off right away. The most common complaint was about price, specifically the fact that buying all the serial installments usually came to more than the price of a book of the same length. There were also a fair number of people who said they don’t like reading in installments, whether these feature cliffhanger endings or not, because they want to read the whole story all at once. And the third criticism was that serials aren’t really serials but are most often a book that’s been chopped up to allow for a cash grab by the author and/or publisher; this is related to the too-expensive argument but not identical.

All of these criticisms are fair, and we certainly see examples of serials that aren’t really serials in romance, erotica, and probably other genres as well. But at the same time, these are criticisms about execution, not the format per se, and they make the instantaneous rejection of The Kraken King (by people who haven’t read it) hard for me to take.

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Status Update

Sorry for the radio silence, folks. It’s been a busy couple of weeks. Janet NorCal and Jo Beverley gave us a fantastic conversation about the Rogues (and Mallorens) last week, but even they can’t be expected to prop up the VM forever. I’ve been busy and yet I’m behind on everything.

I spent half of last week in Chicago at one of the two big professional meetings I attend every year. I presented a research paper I co-wrote with one of my graduate students, discussed several other papers on a couple of panels, and caught up with old friends and my editor. I’ve also been participating in several campus events, as is the case in the spring, and then there is the usual slate of classes, meetings, and campus visitors.

But never mind about that. I must report my abject failure in the Big Fat Book readalong. I am still stuck 25 percent of the way into I Promessi Sposi. I plan to finish it, but I have three (four?) books for review to finish first and reviews to write. I managed to read Donna Thorland’s March release, The Rebel Pirate, which I’m reviewing for DA, and I’m in the middle of City of Palaces, Michael Nava’s long-awaited (by me at least) historical novel of Mexico and California. Both are well worth picking up. I’m really enjoying going back to historical fiction with romantic subplots; these are providing an excellent substitute for genre historical romance, which I am having a lot of trouble reading these days.

There are a few HistRom authors that still work for me, but the number is dwindling steadily and I’m reluctant even to pick up a book in case it puts me off reading more generally. That sounds kind of dumb written down, but I don’t know any other way to explain it. There are half a dozen romance novels coming out over the next few months that I’m looking forward to, but by and large I’m not reading much core genre right now. I made it about a third of the way through a highly praised recent release and found myself constantly nitpicking word, concept, and character choices. It may be because I’m reading actual history right now, I’m not sure.

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Big Fat Book Readalong, Week 2

falling behind bagAlternate Title: In which I confess my Week of No BFB reading. 

Sadly, despite ostensibly being on spring break, I managed to read not one word of The Betrothed. I had planned to, but I anticipated having reading time in the second half of the week and so did other things in the first part. Hah. My four-day trip turned out to be much more energy- and time-intensive than I expected, and as a result I didn’t even crack open the book. It sat on the table next to my bed, waiting patiently for me, but I never showed up.

That’s the thing about Big Fat Books, and why we often don’t finish them or even start them. They require a commitment of time and energy, and sometimes you find that you have one but not the other (and sometimes you have neither).

I’m not giving up, though, and that’s why I allotted the entire month to read rather than assuming I could polish it off in a week or two. I have a packed schedule for the next two weeks, but unlike the last few days I should be getting normal sleep at night, and interesting reading should provide the right kind of complement to the research paper I have to finish. Compared to quantitative analysis of violent conflicts, the 17thC travails of Lorenzo and Lucia sound eminently readable, if not downright giddy.

I know that Ros also had a mostly non-BFB week, so I feel less alone. If you had a good week, let us know in the comments, and if you didn’t, join Ros and me on the catch-up bench!

[Bag available at Zazzle.]

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