“There’s a Horse In Here Somewhere!” :
Comparative Textual Media and the Interpretation of Crap Fiction
20 May 2016
On the way to #cwcon I finally got around to spending some time with Matthew Kirschenbaum’s new book, Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing. The whole book is really good (at least the part I’ve finished, so far), but I was particularly interested in one episode from the book, where Kirschenbaum discusses the bestseller writer James Patterson and his method. In this reading (which is a minor detail in a much larger work), I think, Kirschenbaum documents an important approach: namely what to do, critically, with crap fiction.
James Patterson, as Kirschenbaum defines, writes the kind of fiction not normally even mentioned in English departments:
Patterson is prolific. He writes series books. With established characters. Set formulas. Short chapters. And short sentences. The books are purely consumptive—page-turners, read once and then discarded, a new one (for there is always a new one) rotated into place on the nightstand or the tablet. (42)
These books are the kind we read (if we read them at all) on vacation and never tell our colleagues about. They are the kind of things not unlike the fantasy books I keep in a locked drawer in my desk, too “non-academic” even for my bookshelves littered with SF, fantasy, and comic books.
But, as Kirschenbaum also notes, these books are extremely successful, more successful than even the more famous airport-lit authors who sometimes claw their way into the academy:
A typical year might see a dozen new Patterson titles published, some fourteen to fifteen million individual units shipped in all. He’s reportedly sold upward of 300 million copies of his books. Total entries on the best-seller list: fifty, give or take. Total books published: north of 100. His reported annual earnings in one recent year: $94 million. Total earnings: $700 million. How does this compare to authors like Stephen King, John Grisham, and Dan Brown? Patterson outsells them all—not individually, but collectively. Perhaps the most astonishing statistic of all: one in seventeen hardcover novels sold in the United States in one recent year was a Patterson book (42)
All of this is to say that Patterson, whose work is almost opposite of the kind of literary texts valued in English, is widely read. And yet we never, and probably would never, discuss his work in our work or classes.
Partly, this is a problem of analysis. Hermeneutics probably would not work on Patterson,1 given that the works are so formulaic and probably do not respond to close reading or other interpretive frameworks that treat individual texts. Could we shift up though? There are two major frameworks for thinking this shift upward. On the one hand, Fredric Jameson in “Symptoms of Theory or Symptoms for Theory?” argues that “today, in postmodernity, our objects of study consist less in individual texts than in the structure and dynamics of a specific cultural mode as such” (408). Thus, for Jameson, we trace a kind of cultural feeling or, as puts it later in the essay, “the social”2 through individual texts, concatenating readings until we have a picture of how meaning circulates. Alternately, we could use Franco Moretti’s concept of distant reading—reading 1000s of texts with machines to extrapolate patterns from the evolution of literary forms. However, what would this teach us about Patterson? His output suggests having figured out certain formulae for writing and the continued iteration on that theme. Can we learn much from statistical analysis in this fashion? In both these models of reading texts at more a distance, we still do not find a way to analyze fiction found lacking “quality” by academic critics.
In a post on Medium responding to a certain article about DH I won’t link to, Kirschenbaum writes about his professional identity:
Am I a digital humanist? The question feels less and less relevant, to be honest. There are other names I think of as more descriptive of what I actually do, including digital studies (the moniker under which I was hired), book history, and media archaeology. My favorite formulation is one from Jessica Pressman and Kate Hayles: comparative textual media. (emph. added)
In the book of the same name3, Hayles and Pressman define CTM as “rather than assuming that these print-based practices are transhistorical and universal, … the CTM approach emphasizes their historical and technological specificity” (Hayles and Pressman, pg. xiii). By arguing that “the novel” or even “print” is actually a collection of linked historical and technical moments that evolve through a variety of factors, they argue that texts become neither transhistorical vectors for truth nor data points in a larger argument but media: “media as objects of study and as methods of study, focusing on the specificities of the technologies as well as the cultural ecologies they support, enable, and illuminate” (Hayles and Pressman, pg. x). For Hayles and Pressman, literary texts become witnesses to the specific cultural and medial history of the technologies and economies that produced them. We can read texts for neither truth or as symptoms but instead in tracing how “novels” or “poems” work at a given moment.
Treating text as a medial witness is what Kirschenbaum does with Patterson, which I think is huge as a critical move. Both close and distant modes of reading center “quality” in their analysis, by either using it as a criteria for selection or by deliberately and avowedly ignoring it. Kirschenbaum, instead, gets us out of either dramatically rejecting or enforcing notions of quality to highlight a kind of medium reading: “what can this text tell me about reading today?” Writing about Patterson, Kirschenbaum explains his interest:
Most audaciously of all, [Patterson] openly works with coauthors, typically crafting extended outlines (dozens of pages) that he then hands off to one of a half-dozen or so regular collaborators for fleshing out in a first draft—which Patterson then edits and revises, the process iterating until the book is done. (42)
As Kirschenbaum points out, this process has led to Patterson’s nickname of “The Word Processor” (42). From this anecdote, Kirschenbaum is able to connect Patterson to the larger tale he is telling about the emergence of word processing as a literary artifact and to changes in the publishing industry in the 1980s and 1990s that dovetailed with word processing, in which publishes placed more emphasis on the front list, driving the need for more and more regular, repeatable, saleable content for the reading public. Later in Track Changes, Kirschenbaum will point out that similar mutations in publishing and writing technology helped shape the emergence of the Victorian novel and, especially, Charles Dickens, pointing out that this kind of medium reading also works on literature widely acknowledged as good.
There’s a lot of other cool stuff I could say about Track Changes. It’s an academic book that is imminently readable (I devoured the first 150 pages yesterday). But I wanted to highlight Kirschenbaum’s discussion of James Patterson because, in many ways, it’s not a major point in his overall argument, but I think it’s an interesting example of a style of textual analysis that gets out using quality as a key term for criticism. By focusing on a CTM mode of reading, we get out of the problem of reading narrowly and of cultivating a pose of not reading. Moreover, as the use of James Patterson shows, it allows us to analyze how reading happens today, regardless of notions of quality or taste. In short, I think Kirschenbaum points the way to imagining practices of medium reading, something we as a field can hopefully explore more fully in the future.