Monday, December 21, 2009

Theatre is to Film as Book is to E-book?

We offer a range of exciting posts here at SotB, from quickie news alerts to lists of great books in a genre to mid-range commentaries on news buzzing around the publishing industry. But in the last week or so, an idea has been bumping around my head, though I keep getting distracted by things like chocolate truffles (we made them ourselves!) and christmas movie viewing parties (hosted by SotB's own Christopher!).

Ya see, my partner and I recently re-watched All About Eve, the classic 1950 Bette Davis movie about the young starlet, Eve Harrington, played by Anne Baxter. We own this dvd - quite frankly, every gay man should just be issued a copy upon coming out - and we brought it to some friends' house recently for a viewing. We all had to prepare to see the wonderful on-stage take off of the movie, the Gold Dust Orphan's All About Christmas Eve. This local (in Boston) production is only playing once more, this Saturday, but anything the Orphan's do is worth seeing. They are camp in the best sense, sure to offend and amuse and shock and impress and disgust. I can't say enough good things about this theatre troupe. I had to use the graphic from the play because it sums up a lot about the production
. Buy Tix  Now

But back to Eve, the movie. Now stay with me, because if I play this right, it will work on two levels. This would be quite a writing feat for us here at SotB.

As the story of the film begins, Eve, a nobody, manages to get herself backstage to meet the star of the show, Margo Channing, played by a sour, cross, inflated Bette Davis. She's middle-aged and knows it, but keeps starring in this one playwright's plays, even as the main characters stay the same age. Channing's boyfriend is the director, and he's on his way out to California in this, his first scene. Eve says no one comes back once they go out to LA, but he swears he will. It seems Margo never made the move to movies.

What strikes me as so curious is how much the movie plays off the theatre world - you have the playwright and his wife, the emotional director and dramatic star, the treacherous film critic, Addison DeWitt. There is talk of packed houses, papering the theatre, and names in lights. But this movie came out in 1950. Surely it followed a conversation in which people questioned how long theatre would last as movies became the go-to evening entertainment.

To make matters more intriguing, in 2008, the Gold Dust Orphans traipse along and turn the whole thing into a play, and pull in crowds to see it each night, finding such success that they brought it back this year. And it's exciting to see live, as the actors pull out subtle and not-so-subtle moments in the movie and exaggerate to satiric and hilarious extremes. (My favorite is turning the playwright into a closeted Paul Lynde character - it's inspired.) This reminds me of the success Jill and Faith Soloway found when they created The Real Live Brady Bunch in 1990, reinvigorating a tv show into a live performance.

So what does this mean for books?

It just occurs to me that readers can switch between different mediums in their urge to read. I know this isn't shocking, but I was resistant to this point. (I suspect Christopher still is, to some extent.) Last weekend, as my partner and I wandered through B&N (though we didn't buy anything!), I found myself picking up some books and thinking, "this should have just been digital." Do we need writers reflecting on their favorite beaches as a printed book? I picked up the new hardcover I Slept with Joey Ramone: A Family Memoir, by Mickey Leigh. Did that need to be in hardcover, for $26? Wouldn't that make more sense in paperback and digital editions?

This is all quite simplistic. So many things have to change, and they are changing. While they do, I still maintain we have to watch out. People who get all whipped into a frenzy saying it's time to tear down those walls and get books people want into people's hands are too often the people who can afford to produce their own books, which doesn't help up and coming writers.

Again, I find myself looking to indie publishers and university presses - the line between the two is ever blurring, when you look at the new South End Press, the Dalkey Archive, and the new deal for Curbstone Press. That's one exciting barrier to come down! Universities should support exciting publishing that's not going to generate huge revenue necessarily. We need to pump money into this places and let editors organize lists and generate new projects and new writers with an open mind, but also a sense of collective spirit.

The point is, we can open things up, and we should. Let's explore digital platforms. But screw Amazon and its controls - the Kindle is useless. Sadly, I test-drove the Nook on my way out of B&N and it was a massive fail, with slow, blinking page turns and general clunkiness. But as we all know, people are reading on all kinds of devices.

It's clear that people are going to read books about novelists writing on typewriters on their electronic devices, and perhaps then someone can write a book about the experience of reading that novel on that device and turn it into a memoir that gets published as a $26 hardcover and then turned into a movie, which can then become a hit stage musical. Maybe it's the holiday spirit racing through me, but finally I'm curious to see what all this could mean. Suddenly I want to see the digital succeed for appropriate genres and titles - which is not every title and every genre. But I want it to work in a way that will make indie publishers money, and new writers money. I don't want this to be a gimmick for fat cats, but something innovative and useful and real, something readers actually want rather than something an ad agency tells us we want.

In closing, and only tangentially related, my crush Makenna Goodman from indie great Chelsea Green has a new article up at HuffPost, and you know I already read it. I haven't read the book she mentions, How the Rich are Destroying the Earth by Herve Kempf, but no one should be surprised by my heightened level of interest.

Oh, and one last thing: give money to a charity (including but not limited to a library, literacy organization, or cultural center) this week. It's just the right thing to do!


Christopher said...

Since I was referenced in this piece, I feel it is my duty to respond here a little bit, no? Brian packs a lot into this post but I am not sure I am necessarily buying what he is selling. It is true that I am resistant to electronic books. Aside from all the arguments I've made before, I just haven't been able to figure out just who was asking for this technology? The eReaders out there seem to me to be exactly like the beer industry's upgrade to cans by creating a wide-mouth opening. Who was having trouble drinking out of a can with the old opening? That isn't innovation; it is cynicism masquerading as innovation. It gives the beer company another way to sell their product. I feel like the same applies to eReaders. Nobody, but nobody, has ever had a problem with a book as an artifact and information delivery device. It is only with the advent of the iPod that publishers thought that there might be some correlative device they could manufacture that would capture some of the electronic gadget and/or reading market. The eReaders aren’t innovation; they are cynicism masquerading as innovation. 1 book at a time per person is more than adequate…it always has been but now we somehow need to be able to carry 100 books in our pocket? Why? How many do you read at one time? Me? Still the old fashioned “one.” Until someone can refute this simple equation, then no more time should be spent on this issue.

However, that’s not what I came here to write about. I came here to address one problem I see with Brian’s suggestion that both books and e-books can co-exist in some way (if I am reading him correctly). It is true that some books don’t need to be $26 hardcovers. A paperback original about having sex with the Ramones is quite enough, thank you. But, more than that I think the issue is that theater and film don’t co-exist. Theater was the dominant entertainment for all for centuries but once the pictures started moving and you didn’t have to stand in the cold for 3 hours as a time, theater never had a chance. I am sorry that people have to read what I am about to write but theater is dead. It has been for years. Yes, there are people (Brian and myself included) who still attend plays but in this culture, in this nation, theater is dead. There are still some people who buy jazz compact discs but when was the last time you bought a jazz CD? (And, no, Kind of Blue doesn’t count.) What killed it? Cinema killed drama. There isn’t room for both because one became the moneymaker and that, in the final analysis, is all we care about in our culture. Sorry. Bleak, I know, but we can’t escape the one incontrovertible American fact that if it makes money, it lives, if it doesn’t, it dies. If eReaders somehow figure out how to expand and control the market it will be the end of books. Period. Publishers will use cost effectiveness arguments to slowly but surely eliminate the published book. Just think of how much money publishing could save if all their products could be delivered electronically? Don’t believe me? Go to your local video store and ask them for a documentary about the history of the Internet age. Oops, that’s right you can’t. Due to recent developments in the electronic delivery system of video now there are no video stores anymore.


Christopher said...


Brian writes:

“Suddenly I want to see the digital succeed for appropriate genres and titles - which is not every title and every genre.”

This is a fool’s errand and I am surprised that Brian would think this could actually work. Without speaking with him, I suspect he doesn’t really think it could work but is being optimistic and forward thinking. In this I think the recording industry could be instructive. In the very late 80’s (actually, 1987), I got my first CD player. It was a used Sony single dish player I bought from the record store I was working for in Amherst. At the time there were only a handful of CD available for sale. (They came in those long paper boxes to utilize the record bins most stores still had in use at the time.) By the time I finished college a mere 4 years later records were dead and gone. One could still buy used LPs but new records were no longer being released. Everything came out on CD only. 45s? They died even faster than the long player did. The same thing happened with VHS and DVD. The point being that once publishers can make real money with e-books, books proper will begin their inevitable decline. I mean, no on ever said “Oh, I can’t wait until I can by Right Said Fred on CD.” Or “Awesome! I never thought Dumb and Dumber would come out on DVD!” But once we went that way there was no turning back…if one thing was going to be released on CD then everything was going to come out on CD. (Admittedly, vinyl is making a comeback but that is a story for another day and the majors still really aren’t releasing their stuff on vinyl it is primarily only the indies because its cheaper now then it ever was.)

Brian and I do agree that independent presses are the future of publishing. Since all publishing is essentially about finding the correct ecological publishing niche for each and every book, the more independent voices putting books out into the culture the better. I think that the independents could benefit disproportionally from the falling costs of book production due to digital technology. For example, let’s say you are an independent press with a new novel you need a jacket for. Being able to hire an independent graphic designer living in New Mexico, let’s say, to design the jacket can happen in a matter of minutes without any postage, shipping, hard copy previews, etc…everything can be done electronically. A real savings in both time and money. Again, Brian:

"I want it to work in a way that will make indie publishers money, and new writers money. I don't want this to be a gimmick for fat cats, but something innovative and useful and real, something readers actually want rather than something an ad agency tells us we want."

That is my hope too but I fear that in a culture as obsessed with money as ours; as given over to notions of greed and selfishness; as founded on the idea of profits over people that the instant e-books become the dominant, economically viable, medium in books all other formats-including newspapers, magazines, and journals-will fall away leaving only the electronic book ascendant and triumphant.

Perhaps I am wrong but I haven’t ever seen any example that what Brian hopes for most-moderation and consideration-has ever had a place in our culture industries. Just ask a successful theater actor.

Brian said...

For those who don't know, Christopher is a bit of an absolutist. It's all or nothing, black or white with him. Theatre is dead? That's just not true. That's like saying trains are dead - no one travels by rail! They do not like they once did because something more convenient came along, but now we're seeing the value in trains and starting to invest in them again, and rail is on a comeback. As for theatre, a lot of people are talking about Fela! on Broadway, the new musical about Nigerian singer Fela Anikulapo-Kuti (, and the Boston Globe just had an article about the sales for the Boston Ballet's Nutcracker outpacing last year by 10,000 tickets, despite competition from a number of other plays ( The American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge has recently extended both of its current shows due to demand ( Theatre simply is not dead.

I agree with Christopher that things that make money survive in this cold, cold world we live in, but that's not the end of the story. This is where non-profits come in, and private/public partnerships. I do not see any good in throwing up our hands in one direction to this cruel capitalist world and then celebrating printed books in the otehr direction, hoping the twain shall never meet. We have to be creative; we have to find ways of preserving printed books because they matter, and they are a thougtfully created, incredibly useful, inspiring product. But they cannot be preserved by stomping our feet everytime someone uses the word "digital."

The fact is that we need to use digital means for preserving books - as we are doing on this very blog, something that would not be possible if innovative folks smarter than me came up with the platform. Did we need blogs? No. But now the ability is here and we're using it.

Whether Christopher likes it or not, some people do prefer digital. Not me, not him, but some people. And then a whole bunch more think they'll like it b/c Jeff Bezos keeps telling them they do and is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy - yes, I agree that that is happening, and it's frustrating. But the digital world is now available and we are all using it in a million different ways, so let's figure out how to use it in a way that gets strong progressive politics out front, that reminds people of their values, and that keeps creative, independent writers and thinkers - and editors! - in business.

There are lessons to be learned outside of the usual record/cd story. Farmers markets, for example, have come back because there was a demand, but they also came back with a lot of work by people changing policies, forming private/public partnerships, and raising money as non-profits. People were pro-active, and that's what we need to be to make any change. The reality is that change is happening, and standing off to the side means we will doubtless lose. Not cool.

Brian said...

And as if to prove my point, new non-profit publisher Concord Free Press here in MA just sent an email today about how supporters have donated over $120,000! Here's to being optimistic in 2010...

Christopher said...

I guess we just see thing differently. When the tide does turn, however, don't say you didn't see the wave coming.