On Kindle Singles

My days in the humanities are far behind me, and however much I like to think that I live in the world of the arts, most of my days are today spent in the social sciences.  But although I do love researching the odd piece on information theory or learning styles, or drilling down through StatCan datasets (The #longform is dead; long live the #longform), there’s a big part of me that still is interested in the way arts and culture affect our lives.

So it’s always nice when something like Amazon’s Kindle Single comes along, which can not only shake up both camps, but also bring them together.  Face it, the Single is a marketing tactic that will encourage the production and consumption of a different (I don’t want to call it “new”) literary form.   Perhaps our society’s collective ADHD, brought on by the very devices that gives us books in a digital format, will be a captive and willing audience for the Single, and perhaps the Single is just what we need – literary value found in something somewhat longer than a short story but nowhere near as long as a novel.  It’s a novella, but not quite – it’s a Single.  It’s short, it’s catchy, and it’s just what you need to finish your day while sipping a sugar-laden coffee-style drink in your favourite third place somewhere between work, home, and daycare.

But I digress, wildly.  I’ve read and listened to some complaints about the Amazon Single as a potential driver for new literary production, i.e., that a marketing tool might affect literary production or objects of literary value.  I’ve got to take issue with these complaints, which I think are so often borne of the idea that every book is a sacred text.  I love literature and I love writing (e.g., beside the Austen and Conrad on my bookshelf is a mechanic’s guide to engine repair from the 1950s) but I’m well aware that the literature we read is not a stream of eloquent prose that comes to us straight from the author’s mind.  The writer may have a muse, that’s for certain, but the writer also has a literary agent, an editor, and a publisher.  And the publisher has a designer for the book’s cover, a PR team to handle merchandising, marketing, and general promotions, and a budget to push the text far and wide so that we, the loving reader, might be hooked.   And I also know that the physical form of the book has not been static.  The book – the physical object that contains the text – is dynamic, and the container has certainly affected the contents in the past.  Penguin Books developed the affordable paperback in the 1930s, which facilitated the production, promotion, and popularization of the longer text, and ostensibly turned the novel into the grand literary form we count on it to be today; Gutenberg increased accessibility to the written word, but so much of the texts from the early modern period are pamphlets; the great epic poems that we read in our Great Books and Classics courses often had no container at all and therefore were developed  around mnemonic aids which helped the poet and speaker memorize the content.  Texts of high(er) literary value will continue to exist, regardless of the form of their containers.

I’m not a scholar in the history of the book and I don’t pretend to be.  Many of the claims I just made are bold assertions that have been painted with broad strokes and may not stand up in a real argument.  But one thing I will contend is that literary value will still be found in texts we produce for digital readers, whether their length has been determined by the writer’s inspiration or if the writer’s inspiration has been affected by the constraints of the container or of the publisher’s promotional aims.  Is literature “improved” by the written word in longhand?  A case can be made, certainly, but at the same time I refuse to believe that digital readers, e-books, or Kindle Singles pose a complete threat to literature, writing, and reading.