Monthly Archives: March 2008

The Long Tail of Digital Shelves

Far from having been threatened, not to mention killed by web culture and new media, literature played an essential part in the developing of groundbreaking commercial web based services as Amazon, originally established so as to sell books online. Moreover, literature found plenty of room in second generation web-based services such as social-networking sites, wikis, blogs, and folksonomies, aiming to facilitate interaction, creativity, sharing and collaboration. In some cases, literature even represents the main interest very crowded web based communities share through social network services, as aNobii, polarizing readers from Far East and South-Western Europe, and LibraryThing, mostly attracting readers from America, UK and India, smaller communities of english readers being even shared by Goodreads and Shelfari .

Such literary Social Network Systems make it possible for readers to upload on digital platforms the books they own, to provide personal comments and remarks and to interact with other readers according to their literary interests. That’s why a compared assessment of public data provided by such systems makes it possible to investigate the extent of literary canons from the vantage point of people self-identifying themselves as enthusiastic readers. Of course, being communities very plastic and unstable in terms of geographical distribution and linguistic identity, not to mention literary tastes of their members, the present assessment is very likely subject to dramatic changes in time. Still, some very general remarks may enlighten meaningful aspects of literary social network services that would eventually outlast plasticity and mobility of massive data provided by an equally plastic and mobile community of book-readers.

First off, interesting remarks emerge in respect of a crucial issue as the one concerning ‘nationality of books’. Indeed, literary canons established by enthusiastic readers uploading their books on digital shelves seem to stretch linguistic borders traditionally defining what national literature a novel, a poem, an essay, a literary work in general belongs to. Basically, ‘national identity’ seems to be lost in translation, being books indexed, discussed and ranked on the basis of the language they have been read in. Cultural identity of novels and other literary works is basically defined in reader-based terms, reshaping the very concept of ‘nationality of books’ so as to fit the global system of world literature. Local language-based systems «think globally and act locally», that is they glocalize themseves incorporating foreign books by means of translation.

Basically, social network services supporting bibliographical catalogues of books directly uploaded by readers credit translation as a major factor determining uneven globalization of literary canons. South-Western European and Far Eastern systems seem to be extremely permeable to literary works originally written in foreign languages. Incorporation of foreign items mostly apply to English franchised series as Harry Potter’s saga and The Lord of the Ring, or Dan Brown’s super-pop page-turners. Some more books may be accommodated into local systems, since they are perceived as universal masterpieces or because they eventually fill occasional voids. Rather, English hegemony in world literary systems seems to reflect in substantial autonomy, not to say factual isolation of English language-speaking global community and regional ramifications. Indeed, it just seems flexible enough to be incorporating a few unavoidable masterpieces from literary systems based on different languages. Such evidence seems to confirm remarks formulated by Roberto Antonelli (2000: 334-335) about strengths and weaknesses of ‘imperial’ anglo-american canon, a very powerful and effective one when it comes to pervasively invade other systems, but basically unable to self-globalize itself by acquiring foreign references.

Discussing the novel as a genre in search of his own identity, Thomas Pavel (2002, then 2006) observed that the list of nobel prize awarded authors in the last fifty years mostly include novelists from everywhere in the world, restating both the global extent of the genre and his crucial position in literary global system. Accordingly, and predictably, the vast majority of popular books owned and uploaded on digital shelves by socially networked readers are novels. Predictably, Harry Potter’s series by J. K. Rowling and The Lord of the Ring trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkien are amazingly popular on a global scenario, being featured among top 50 books in all far easter, european and american charts. This is of course due to franchise strategies based on popularity of blockbuster movies and reproduction of contents on all disposable platforms, exerting new convergence culture, as defined by Hanry Jenkins.

Dan Brown’s best sellers achieved the status of very global literary reference just on the basis of certified literary effectiveness, as other as in the case of literary sensations like Tuesdays with Morrie and The five people you meet in heaven by Mitch Albom, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini or La Sombra del Viento by Carlos Ruíz Zafón. Indeed, as it happens for franchised series, such books basically top every possible chart emerging from digital shelves featuring books uploaded by enthusiastic readers from Europe, America and Far East. Moreover, super-classic novels as O Alquimista by Paulo Coelho, Cien Años de Soledad by Gabriel García Márquez, Das Parfüm by Patrick Süskind, Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí by Milan Kundera are equally top ranked in every pop list. They basically emerge as masterpieces, that is typical specimina of the genre, and, accordingly, they play a crucial role in the global scenario.

Some other literary classics from the 20th century play a global role to a minor extent, being just very popular in some of the major communities, as in the case of 1984 by George Orwell, The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon (English, Spanish, Italian) or L’étranger by Albert Camus and Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (French, Italian, Spanish). Some novels play a crucial role in limited regional systems, as the ones by Daniel Pennac, mostly uploaded on Italian and french shelves or Isable Allende, very popular on Spanish and Italian. Popularity of many others is just limited to their original birthplace, as in the case of masterpieces by Italo Calvino and very popular ones by Stefano Benni in Italy. Likewise, novels by Yu Hua are on top of pop lists emerging from Chinese shelves, but keep been basically absent from international rankings, besides the amazing success of internationally acclaimed movies by Zhang Yimou they actually inspired.

So, the novel prevail as a genre and some novels prevail as paradigmatic specimina of the genre, the extent of their popularity being absolutely global. Still, popular novels are always included into library systems entailing plenty of unpopular other ones and of course, plenty of books that doesn’t seem to be very popular and are not novels at all. That is, single digital shelves typically feature popular novels side by side with unlucky ones and, of course, essays, scientific books, comics, gardening manuals or other references. Digital shelves basically reflect a dynamic, interactive idea of private libraries, conceived as networks of books interacting with each other to a variable extent. Since, literary canons are interactive systems based on mutual interaction of objects they include, they shouldn’t anymore be addressed as series of independent entries, that is lists of books to be read or included into syllabi, as the one proposed by Harold Bloom (1994). Indeed, they actually work like plastic networks to be surfed, their emergent meaning being defined by permanently mobile paths connecting single items, which identity and shape is not given once and for all.

Assumption of books as milestones of a static literary system has to be addressed as faulty and misleading, as far as the identity of novels, poems, literary works of any kind is defined by their interaction with readers and other books they read. Connective patterns subject to permanent plastic reshaping, questioning status, position, presence of single literary works. For instance, Raimbaud’s Une saison en enfer plays a different role into reader-specific literary systems entailing Petrarca’s Rerum Vulgarium Fragmenta and Elliot’s Waste Land rather than, say, Wedding Season by Katie Fforde or To Hell in High Heels by Helena Frith Powell. Since the same point apply to every single literary work uploaded into a digital library, every shelf can be basically addressed as an interactive system, defining the meaning of any item it features in terms of actual or potential connections with any other listed one and they all together.

Novels are sunk into systems which borders are designed so as to include essays, memories, philosophical investigation as comics or cookbooks. Moreover, pop books are integrated into digital shelves in which readers uploaded very peculiar, individual readings that are not very popular at all. In this sense, literary canons entailed by digitally shelves have to be addressed as long-tailed systems, in the terms described by Chris Anderson in his very popular works about The Long Tail, his book being even featured as #17 in the aNobii Semplified Chinese top list and #89 in the English one! The concept has been originally coined in a ground-breaking Wired article aiming to describe niche market strategy introduced by business companies as book-based one Amazon, realizing significant profit out of selling small volumes of hard-to-find items to many customers, instead of only selling large volumes of a reduced number of popular items.

Literary canons emerging from digital shelves may be addressed as long-tailed systems both in terms of being based on shelves featuring a few very pop books and plenty of peculiar, not-very-common other ones and in respect to the bottom-up process they arise from. Indeed, according to Anderson, the group of persons that buy the hard-to-find or ‘non-hit’ items is the customer demographic called the Long Tail. Likewise, ‘non hit’ Italian housewives as Australian free-climbers or Chinese accountants, or anybody else who may like to upload his library on a digital shelf, are basically contributing in defining plastic contemporary canons of World Literature with their own likings and personal options. If literary social network services will keep growing, future canons would hardly just depend on cultural strategies planned by critics, intellectual, academicians belonging to prestigious institutions, neither on marketing-based ones established by publishers, agents, editors, authors or journalists.

Needless to say, being the game still up and running, these very general remarks just aim to provide a first assessment of slowly emerging and self-defining system of World Literature from current point of view of digitally competent book readers. Present appraisal may be compared in the future with updated ones, so as to measure and assess variation in the literary system through time. Further investigations may even very interestingly focus on locative-sensible data, eventually describing very small local systems in respect of the general one. Moreover, emphasis on long-tailed systems may help in re-defining current literary systems as by identifying peculiar patterns of co-recurrency of clustered books on digital shelves, even taking into account locative and linguistic pertinence.

Still, even a very general assessment allows to conclude that literary social networks seem to be providing some interesting answers to the ‘problem’ of World Literature, as Franco Moretti (2000) properly defined it. In particular, collaborative nature of web 2.0 services and communities makes it possible to quickly embrace relevant segments of ‘the great unread’, as Margaret Cohen (1999: 23) defined the huge amount of literary leftovers stockpiled into analogical libraries. New paths for literary criticism emerge, while communities of readers keep sharing individual readings, so as to make it possible for everybody to surf through millions of books instead of sticking with the few hundreds listed in syllabi, histories of literatures, anthologies, typical canon in general. Indeed, huge amounts of typically unread books become part of global literary system and regional ramifications as far as occasional readers upload them on digital long-tailed shelves.

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Aknowledgments

The full version of the paper, complete with accurate data, will be published on the International Literary Journal «Critica del Testo» 10/1 (2007). I am largely in debt with Alessandro Lanni, who introduced me to Convergence Culture and the Long Tail, Sergio Brunori for all the help with Chinese books, Christa Zacchei, who introduced me to aNobii, Nicoletta Costantini for plenty of suggestion helping a better understanding of literary social networks.

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Bibliography

Anderson, C. 2006
The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More, New York, Hyperion.

Antonelli, R. 2000
Il canone Nobel, in «Critica del Testo» 3 (2000), pp. 321-336.

Bloom, H. 1994
The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, New York, Harcourt Brace & Company.

Cohen, M. 1999
The Sentimental Education of the Novel, Princeton (NJ), Princeton University Press.

Jenkins, H. 2006
Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, New York, New York University Press.

Moretti, F. 2000
Conjectures on World Literature, in «New Left Review» n.s. 1 (Jan.-Feb. 2000), pp. 54-68.

Pavel, T. 2002 then 2006
Il romanzo alla ricerca di se stesso, in Il romanzo. II. Le forme, a c. di F. Moretti, Torino, Einaudi, 2002, pp. 35-63, then reprinted as T. Pavel, The Novel in Search of Itself: A Historical Morphology, in The Novel. Volume 2: Forms and Themes, ed. by F. Moretti, Princeton (NJ), Princeton University Press, 2006, pp. 3-32.

Peripheral Vision, Traces and Immersive Landscapes

Previous entries about Mark Jenkins’ and Xing Danwen’s artworks showed that an investigation on how immersive environments are described in novels and how narrative references interfere with sensory experience of landscapes may take advantage from comparative remarks coming from sculpture and manipulation of digital imaging. More advantageous remarks may come from the field of photography, namely from suggestive artistic shots by Timothy Atherton, a former police evidence photographer who definitely developed an ecological artistic approach to landscapes.

Being resonance a key-concept in Gibson’s Theory of affordances, Atherton conceptualization of photography makes plenty of sense in ecological terms since he maintains that «the idea of a photographer as being a person who follows traces is one that resonates strongly for me». Moreover, Atherton conceives the transference happening when the photographer make a picture as part of an exchange taking place between photographer and scene. Basically, in his view «the photographer simply uses the camera to make a trace of what he sees before him or her». Atherton’s approach to photography doesn’t seem based on traditional mimetic approaches, given that he describes his photography as an «ongoing attempt» to understand what he sees, by following clues so to establish «temporary conclusions that then lead to other questions and other clues». In these terms, by quoting Joyce («Bethicket me for a stump of a beech»), Atherton summarizes his work as aimed to «interpreting traces».

Introducing his series of “Peripheral Vision” (2003) Atherton states that «extended suburban condition does not easily show up on maps, it is in many ways more of a suburban state of mind than a topographic location». While photographing suburban landscapes, Atherton found himself «looking at things that are somewhat off centre, off to the side – a peripheral vision. Things that are often unnoticed and just below our level of perception». Indeed, «things seen that are in plain sight yet so familiar or obvious they are usually ignored, unseen, and their existence barely registered – attention no longer paid to them».

Peripheral Vision

Describing his series of “Immersive Landscapes” (2006), Atherton offers that «to try and impose order on this messy and unordered view seems a mistake. Instead, recognizing the disorder, letting the fine detail spread over the whole image and allowing the eye to wander over the whole field without finding a clear point of rest draws the viewer into the apparent fractal detail and chaos of the image». Indeed, he describes the results of his work as portraits of «“immersive” landscapes where the whole wide visual field is potentially full of interesting subplots over and against the overall story that the picture is telling».

Immersive Landscapes

Introducing his new work, Traces (2007), Aherton interestingly quotes Italo Calvino:

The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the street, the gratings of the windows, the bannisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning-rods, the poles of the flags. Every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls

Actually, Atherton’s collection of Traces seems pretty much inspired by Calvino’s remarks from the Invisible City (Le città Invisibili, Torino, Einaudi, 1972), that may even count as a very interesting meditation on hybrid ecologies based on the merge of literary references and sensory experience of landscapes. Namely, the bare concept of Le città invisibili entails open reference to cities that are there even tho they are not perceivable by sight. Actually, Atherton’s Traces exert potential of landscapes referring to previous or potential actions. The camera can help guessing or foreshadowing past or future events on the basis of clues, leftovers, affordances ready to be triggered by somebody who’s actually out of the picture.

Traces

Introducing his work, the photographer describes his photo art in very general terms as «an essential way of seeing, of exploring and understanding something or somewhere». Art is conceived as an explorative behavior leading to the discovery of traces. The artist finds and collects evidences and tries to make sense of them, interpreting them in some way, so to reach «provisional conclusions which are then either discarded or built on». Still, art doesn’t imitate some sort of physical reality located ‘out there’. Rather, it establishes temptative approaches to the environment based on «traces people leave, the evidence or signs that the camera can discover, often seeming to find them in unnoticed or disregarded terrain».

Actually, Atherton adopts a very ecological approach to photo art based on «the principle of exchange», maintaining that «every contact leaves a trace – that with contact between two things there will be an exchange». As an artist, he sees exchange as an interaction not just taking place between «inhabitant and place, but also between photographer and place». That is, he regards the trace of light on film as an exchange». Interestingly, Atherton portrays traces in order to make the viewer wondering about actions that eventually took place or are about to happen. In this sense, a former police evidence photographer, he exerts action potential triggered by visual hints in the very same way detectives try to re-enact events leading to crimes on the basis of clues they find on crime scenes.

With all evidence, the very same process is exerted into crime stories, namely the ones defined as “woodonit”, so as to establish a deep involvement of the reader into the story being told. Indeed, the reader is involved into reverse engineering since the very beginning of the novel, when the corpse of the victim is typically discovered. The same process is exerted to a variable extent in basically every novel, thriller as romantic, mainstream as experimental ones, since potential reference always outstrips textual borders, bringing into play speculations about other events that are not necessarily encoded into textual description.