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?
*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.