Dan Visel (of The Institute for the Future of the Book, and I can’t help but wonder how Visel is pronounced: VYE-z’l? vi-ZELL?) has put online a long, fascinating, infuriating interview with that amazing writer Helen DeWitt, who should by rights have had a dozen or two books published by now but who instead has seen The Last Samurai on actual bookstore shelves and has sold a few pdf copies of Your Name Here (and gotten a review by Jenny Turner in the LRB). The whole thing is worth reading (and I don’t say that just because she has nice things to say about me), but what I thought I’d excerpt here is a section full of thought-provoking ideas about books and what they might be:
When Ilya and I were working on YNH, one thing that interested me was the way that a text is the result of all sorts of discussions and constraints that normally aren’t visible. Every single published book is governed by a contract, a text readers don’t see, and it is generally the result of an enormous amount of scurrying around behind the scenes. So I thought: how can we possibly assess the texts we see when we don’t know the contractual restraints on the author? when we don’t know whether the publisher was willing to respect the contract? when we don’t know whether the author had a powerful agent or a weak one, whether the published book was substantially what the author wanted or the result of a lot of arm-twisting off-stage? Editorial comments are never made public; why not?
So I thought, not that all this material should be included in a book, but that it would be interesting if all the background correspondence and the contracts and so on where available on a CD. For that matter, why not include earlier versions of the book, or at least significant earlier versions?
I like books, actual printed books, a lot. It seems to me, though, that the culture which produces the ones we see has some misplaced anxieties. We live in a culture where standards of ‘correctness’ and consistency are applied to the printed word, so that ‘properly’ published books are expected to eliminate the traces of composition. A text is not supposed to bear the marks of the circumstances of its writing. That seems to me to be an unnecessary concern – but you don’t really need the Internet to stop fretting about it.
There are some things you can do more easily if you can draw on the resources of Hypertext. You can write a text in several languages unselfconsciously, or maybe I mean, without obtrusive consciousness of the reader. You can just have a couple of characters speaking Spanish, or Arabic, or Japanese, and readers who can read the languages can read the text, but those who can’t can click through to a translation. So you can make use of the textures of those different languages without giving the primary text a lot of extra baggage – and still make it comprehensible to readers who need more in the way of explanation. This isn’t especially relevant to YNH, but it’s the sort of thing I think could more easily be done online or in an e-book than in print-on-paper. I came across a wonderful website a while back with graphics which enabled you to drill down on results of Grand Prix racers, if one did this in a work of fiction online one could have something very stylish whereas if one tried to do it in a book it would feel not just long but cumbersome and messy.
Why not package books the way Criterion does DVDs, with alternate takes and translations and commentary from the author and informed readers and… well, who knows what all? Why is a book expected to stand on its own (unless it’s a Classic, in which case it gets a solemn Classic Edition with obtrusive footnotes), while a movie is thought to benefit from as much auxiliary information as possible?
I won’t even get into what she has to say about the hell that is commercial publishing, with its ignorant editors and unkept promises, and the terrible financial pressure that makes writers stifle current work they’re excited about to try and sell long-finished work they’re bored or nauseated by, because it gets me too upset. Why do zillionaires give zillions to museums and operas and never think of, as she says, sponsoring an admired writer’s travel expenses or offering them six months’ writing time at a vacation home? If I were a zillionaire, that’s the kind of thing I’d want to do… but of course to become a zillionaire I’d have to care about money and the making of same in large quantities, and then I’d be a different person and probably never think about the problems of writers. It’s a conundrum.