Friday, June 08, 2012

John Green is Mostly Wrong


At BEA Children's Book and Author Breakfast:

"There's a lot of talk about enhanced e-books," Green said. "What we do best does not need or benefit from what we call enhancement. We are good at giving people rich and immersive experiences. I believe story trumps everything." After a round of applause, he continued, "To be fair, it's like being in a room full of elephants, talking to elephants about how great elephants are." -via Shelf Awareness

And that's what happens when you speak in a vacuum. You say things that have a pesky tendency to be impossible absolutes. Story does trump everything. It trumps mediocre writing, and it's why Stephanie Meyer and Rick Riordan are wealthy. But words are not the only way to tell a story.

I have to confess here that I have a somewhat vested interest in this topic. Not financial or anything, but I'm going to be speaking at YALSA's 2012 YA Literature Symposium about transmedia,* an element of which lately, is often manifesting as "enhanced e-books." I've been thinking about them for a long time. Green might exist in a world full of really good, eager readers, who don't desire anything more than the world they create in their mind. However, to say that story can not benefit from additional media shortchanges the potential of an art form. You might not care for watercolor, but it doesn't make it intrinsically of less value artistically than oil paint. Nor does it make that painting as a whole of less value, or the story that it tells less rich. It's just a different media. Stories don't need a printing press.

John Green may not feel that his novels will benefit from any "enhancements." I feel that Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt and the Leviathan series by Westerfeld benefited from illustrations. I feel that the audio version of The Invention of Hugo Cabret benefited from sound effects. I feel that Chopsticks by Jessica Anthony and Rodrigo Corral benefited from the embedded youtube clips in the e-book version, rather than just the link text in the print format. I believe that John Green should spend some time with Patrick Carmen.

Imagine reading an ebook where the author triggers specifically chosen or created music based on the page you're on. Imagine if Don Calame's Call the Shots (out in Sept) included video clips of the horror movie the characters are making. What if Erebos let you join in on one of the MMORP quests? If Ready Player One showed clips of the movie references, or played the songs, or let you play one of the video games? Is it needed? Nah. But I won't claim that it wouldn't benefit.

Nor would I claim that the integration of such enhancements doesn't appeal to those who look at a page full of text and walk away. Based on his books, I doubt that Green has much contact with truly reluctant readers, so maybe he doesn't see how transmedia (telling a story across formats) might appeal to those readers. It can break up text. It can help bridge comprehension barriers. It can provide an online forum full of resources for additional engagement (something Green knows a bit about).

Green's "what we do best" refers to writing, and writing alone. Enhanced ebooks won't succeed if the story isn't good enough. But neither will theater. Or art. Or music. Or video games. Or anything else that creates a "rich and immersive experience." Saying, believing, otherwise just tells me you aren't as creative as you maybe think you are.

But then, writing the same characters in four unrelated books maybe already told me that.**

What many authors do best certainly is writing, and that's why illustrators are hired. That's why collaboration exists - to create outside of a vacuum. Enhanced e-books and transmedia simply mean that collaboration can now include more people committed to that story. What authors are really good at is having a vision; making up a world where possibilities are endless. Why, John Green, limit yourself merely to words?

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*When a Book is More Than Paper: Transmedia Trends in YA Literature
**Ok, that was mean. Pot shots are cheap. But, outside of the personal aspersion, a completely valid critique of his work. I suspect that JG can handle it.

5 comments:

Kelly J. said...

While *I* don't like enhanced books and don't necessarily find the additional content of books like Chopsticks of any value, I know so many kids who do. These things allow, as you said, the story to be explored on so many different levels and it can reach those readers who like interacting with their stories across platforms. For some, it's much more than a story. It's an entire world worth diving into and exploring and even exploiting a bit.

I'm really looking forward to your presentation on this.

Colleen said...

I see enhanced books as just another step past illustrated books and I am a HUGE fan of illustrated books (Reif Larsen TS SPIVET is a prime example of how illustrations make the story even better). I wasn't impressed with Chopsticks but in that case I saw a failure of story but HUGO - YES!!!

I'm surprised and disappointed by John Green. He is suggesting here that you add to story only if your story is not strong enough. We need to get him and Scott Westerfeld on the same panel and see how that plays out.

tanita davis said...

See this?

Jackie Parker said...

T, I haven't seen that! It is interesting, although unsurprising given what we've seen with the studies about Baby Einstein and the like. Digital storytelling for small children is proven over and over to be ineffective. I don't know why it's different to be read the same story will sitting in a lap, but it is, and all evidence seems to point that way.

Luckily, for my point, and as a teen librarian, I'm more concerned with how this format works with teens, and I haven't seen any studies for that demographic that trigger alarms. Since we know so much about different learning styles, I'd like to think that integrating different media can improve reading comprehension and enjoyment. We know that struggling teen and tween readers can benefit from having audiobooks accompany print, and I've seen engagement from reluctant teen/tween readers of things like 39 Clues and Patrick Carmen. Making reading fun - more importantly, making storytelling fun - can lead to developing the type of readers who only need their imagination.

Ultimately, I think we're just discovering and developing where this can go. It's unlikely that all books will go this direction. But any statement eliminating the possibilities, I believe, is shortsighted.

Ms. Meyrick said...

I have seen several Shakespeare plays that.....were not what Shakespeare would ever have envisioned. He certainly could never have conceived of a "movie." So I have no problem with enhanced digital storytelling. Why not? Considering *I* make special effects when I do read alouds with young children, I can't turn my nose up at this.