Short thoughts about long words
Here I am, complaining about reviewers not paying attention to what we do because we don’t fit into the little boxes that they are used to.
Then I find out about Miracle Jones. He doesn’t seem to give a hoot about reviews, and is doing some of the most interesting experiments with digital literature I’ve seen.
Everyone’s A Critic (As Long As You Print It)
Photo: shutterhacks / Flickr
I’m as anxious about criticism as anyone. The only thing I know of that is worse than being criticized, however, is not being criticized. Welcome to the wonderful world of ebooks. Although the landscape is changing, it’s sometimes a struggle to convince people with established columns in established publications to review an ebook that exists “only” as an ebook. We always succeed in getting at least a few reviews for the stories we publish at The Atavist, but much of the time the reviews focus on the words, with little mention of multimedia other than the fact that it exists. Don’t get me wrong, we spend a lot of time on the words and for most of our stories they perhaps deserve the primary focus of analysis. But when the multimedia nature of our stories is ignored it makes me sad because my entire job is to produce multimedia.
A few years ago, Carl Zimmer, a prolific writer and pioneering electronic publishing experimentalist himself, recognized that ebooks were underserved when it came to reviews of them. He took action by creating Download the Universe, a website dedicated to reviewing downloadable books. It’s the one community that embraces the unconventional technology that we use. I was thrilled to read the review last year of Island of Secrets, which is the very first time I saw any mention of how the multimedia elements of The Atavist stories work (or don’t) in a narrative context. It wasn’t all positive:
“Some may find these audio-visual elements distracting or unnecessary (notably the looped chirping crickets that function as a soundtrack), more often than not they work in concert to create one of the richest media experiences available on an iPad or iPhone. “
But it was exciting to get this type of feedback. What we do is so different from what everyone else does that it sometimes feels like we are working in a vacuum. What other books open with the chirping of crickets, or with Winston Churchill’s booming voice, or with the sound of a rocket launch countdown?
Many of our readers still only experience the text-only versions of our stories, and in the cases where there is no text-only version, such as with Stowaway or The Last Clinic, they miss out on the story entirely. Early on, a lot of our sales occurred through the Kindle Singles store, and this initial success was exciting even if our goal was to move beyond text. What’s special about what we do is that we allow our storytellers—be they writers or filmmakers or animators or photographers—complete freedom in the way they tell their stories, especially if they want to transition between forms or collaborate with other types of creators. It’s a challenge to both honor the medium that brings a story to life in the best way, and reach as diverse an audience as possible. With so many communities to please, it complicates the production process slightly since we have more versions to manage. The biggest challenge is editorial—deciding how (and also whether) to translate a multimedia version into a text-only version. It’s analogous to having a movie version and book version of a story. Each is a unique aesthetic experience, and people will disagree about which is their favorite.
There are too few reviewers of mixed media works. As a multimedia producer, I seek criticism, in any form. Stories I produce at The Atavist are fusions of film, writing, illustration, photography and video game. It is the opposite of “platform agnostic” because we care deeply about the form stories take, and put thought into the different versions that we create.
My hope is that people enjoy the media experiments we conduct at The Atavist, and that more communities of creators committed to digital longform, like Download the Universe, take interest in the new experiences that digital storytelling makes possible.
The 50th Anniversary of the New York Review of Books
Tonight I saw Michael Chabon speak—all hair, beard, glasses and charm—and he recalled how he came to write his first novel. He wasn’t quite sure what it meant to write a novel, but he hoped it might just be a very long short story, because he kind of knew how to write one of those.
We never know what to call what we do at the , because it defies definition. Our stories average 10,000 to 15,000 words, but they include things besides words. Those things might be interactive tidbits—like graphs that respond to the touch—soundtracks, or words that reveal new layers of meaning when you point at them. Sometimes the stories are The main thing that matters is that they are good.
Tonight I attended the , and it was soul-crushingly superb. Afterwards I argued with my friend (the one who invited me to the event) about what made it so. He insisted that time was the key element. It takes time to painstakingly research and hone content, which I allow is not something many journalists have. But I also feel there is something special about NYRB, a publication that defines itself by a fearless pursuit of capital-t Truth. Not everyone is interested enough or brave enough to either consume or produce the deep, deep thinking that goes into your average NYRB piece. The contributors are scholars, people whose job it is to think.
It was an evening that left me breathless. I cried the entire time, and it started with Joan Didion.* I practically started bawling when I first saw her, not because I am a superfan and have read all of her work, but because I have read very little of her work, and I know I should read a lot more of it, and I knew something really important was about to happen. She was graceful and frail, and a couple of beefy roadies frantically appeared to escort her to an elegant desk. She took a seat wordlessly and started to read.
She read from her 1991 article “,” about the hopelessly flawed investigation of a woman’s rape. At 17,000 words, it was one of the longest articles NYRB ever published, NYRB editor Robert Silvers explained when he introduced her, and her prescient observations go largely unacknowledged even now. Twenty years before , the recent Ken Burns documentary about the case, Didion spoke the painful truths about gender and race in America. She spoke the painful truths as she saw them, as they were happening. She spoke the painful truths that we all need to hear but rarely do.
My crying subsided when Mark Danner showed up. He stood at the podium, thrusting papers in front of his face as he read. Cheeks drying, I laughed hysterically when he read from “” a story that started as an email he wrote during the 2008 election. My smile flattened when he jumped to 2012, reminding me and the rest of the audience of Guantanamo, and other disappointments from Obama’s presidency.
Mary Beard was cheerful and lovely and reminded me that I still need to read Gibbon’s (and pretty much all of the classics). I was happy to learn she is on Twitter (@marybeard ), so I have a guide.
When Darryl Pinckney began to speak I closed my eyes, because his words were beautiful. He made the audience gasp when he described the moment, as a young writer, when he drunkenly confronted his idol, James Baldwin.
Daniel Mendelsohn shook me to my core when he remembered his 2006 essay “” in light of Zero Dark Thirty, exposing Hollywood’s empty (and arguably insincere) attempts to represent reality. He thinks that the advent of spy-themed entertainment has made us more accepting of torture, and I know that he is right and that I am part of the problem. He kept saying “our entertainments,” and this delighted me.
And that’s how, shepherded through the evening by the deft hand of Robert Silvers, we came to Michael Chabon. He was light and self-deprecating and vulnerable. He said he once loved someone so much that the thought of sleeping with him didn’t even occur to him, and that will stay with me for a very long time.
The audience cheered, and all of the speakers shuffled in and sat in the stuffed leather chairs that had been haunting the stage all night. Silvers peered out at the audience and asked if there were any questions, and everyone in the audience looked at everyone else in the audience incredulously, and Silvers nodded knowingly and said, “You’re satiated. I certainly can empathize with that.” So we clapped, and a few of us stood, and the speakers, the writers, the intellectual powerhouses, the scholars, these beacons of truth in my media-overwhelmed life wandered off the stage. . I was dying of thirst, had a headache, and had never been happier.
Time to renew my .
*Although not technically crying yet, I did start tearing up when Robert Silvers described founding the New York Review of Books with Barbara Epstein, and how he misses her now.