preparatory notes for Shenzhen | the author, not the book

lent transfert mental vers problématiques en anglais

 pas de meilleur moyen d’archivage que le site, donc je mets en ligne et actualiserai à mesure, jusqu’à la conf de samedi ;

 c’est bien sûr totalement irréel dans ma tête que je serai samedi en Chine pour dire ça, mais quand même – j’ai repris ici pour base mon intervention à Futur-en-Seine en juin 2011 (un vrai désastre : on m’avait demandé de la faire en anglais, mais tout le monde dans la salle parlait français et donc personne ne me comprenait), en la récrivant et remaniant en profondeur, selon les points qui me semblent aujourd’hui plus importants ;

 j’écris de l’anglais de cuisine – pour une conf dans ce contexte, c’est mieux de s’en tenir à des formes élémentaires, mais suis preneur de toute correction ou suggestion sur le texte ci-dessous, un petit mail merci !

 j’y serai (entre autres) avec Aïda Diab, de l’Asfored, voir sa page pour liens vers le colloque et sa propre intervention des sujets de réflexion pour le livre et le numérique.


Image ci-dessus : symbole de mutation technologique, quand le projecteur de cinéma devient objet muséal.


preparatory notes for the Shenzhen talk

All the following to concern a single word, the adjective unpredictable. And obviously related to the west european context only. I take as a wonderful chance this invitation, as an opportunity to learn from a reverse point of view.

My title will be « The author, not the book » – in ten brief points (or hope so).



We are living directly through a considerable mutation in writing : not only limited to reading, digital technology affects the entirety of our use of language, in its relationship to others, in its relationship to the world, in the relationship that we maintain within ourselves, oneself to oneself, with writing and reading. Digital technology also likely affects a part of language itself, by adding on its codes – the code as language.

First axiom : to consider as a chance to experience this mutation in the present, we always have to remind its most immediate future as unpredictable. And first axiom too : it’s not the mutation of the reading tools that affects the reading uses, but the uses of reading themselves in a global context that changes every mode of our relation to the world. This has already been going on for at least 10 years, but is always in an accelarating, and not stabilizing, process.

Every attempt at predicting the immediate future (the CD-Rom abandoned when the ADSL came up, the uses of the connected phone far wider than the electronic ink, the importance taken by multitasking on our single screens) has been disavowed by the arrival of each new medium – and it keeps going.

Second axiom : we are charged with ensuring the continuity and transmission of civilization’s values, for which the book was primarily responsible, and in a context that has become brutal and erratic ; structured on economic struggles at a global scale, and no more based on cultural or civilizational values.

Is there nothing we can possibly plan for ? At our disposal, an acute awareness of the present, and the examination of materials, customary use ? The first task is to step backward. In each long period of stability – even a constantly evolving one – as the one the book symbolizes, this look toward the past has been relegated to the background. For what we name « the future of the book », we don’t have more visibility than each of the previous ages on their own mutation : as for them, the way we continously build the narrative of our own representation only matters.



A double movement establishes us as a community through language.

First axiom : one does not even need writing nor books for it. Written languages constitute, at best, a third of all languages. Very complex constructions in mythology, legends, social and cultural relationships, were formed and transmitted without using writing. Let us not be afraid today of what puts language, the story, in movement – the flow, the burst, the ephemeral.

Second axiom : in the long history of writing, what surprises is the extremely limited number of these transformations, if one were to compare to the history of social, urban and esthetic transformations.

Firstly, the three-dimensional object – six faces, eight corners, but this also has been a progressive conquest – whose long history spans from 3200 BC to 300 AD : the clay tablet. A complex object that hosts non reproductible sacred writings as well as private correspondences, war reports, and accounting documents ; that divides its methods for archiving (there are uncooked tablets that one can reuse), that includes means for verifying authenticity (a thin envelop covers the principal text with the same text recopied), and whose evolution (the invention of the page itself, when in the beginning lines were written in circles around the hand made clay bowl) in turn influences the evolution of the language itself, what he tells and how. The transformation of the tablet to the papyrus roll made them coinciding over several centuries. Have we thought enough to this precise history : for example, how the increase of the writing speed by using alternatively stroke and triangle has induced the change, in the whole western area, from iconic to syllabic writing ? The history of writing has always been a technological story, the story of its tools.

Next, the transformation of the roll to codex, faster, but nevertheless lasting roughly a century and a half. Next the transformation – and not that of Gutenberg’s – which produced a reduced number of bibles (about 160) : a heavy, fixed object definitively linked to the cathedral which harbors it. The modern printer is invented in Venice, at Aldo Manuzio’s, with a technique that attaches type settings to rods from Korea. In Venice, where manuscript copying is a mass industry, Manuzio strives to ensure printed books be distinguishable from hand-copied books. Remember that one of our most modern print type settings, the Garamond, was copied from the manuscript handwriting of Ange Vernèce, the calligrapher for King François 1st. The revolution initiated by Manuzio : a very precise and thiner italic font that reduces the weight and size of the book : you can take it in your pocket. But ask any people in France who has invented moden printing, the answer is always Gutenberg, and not Manuzio.

Finally, an ultimate, major transformation right near us : the irruption of the press and the serialized story, the industrialization of the printer.

Third axiom : in each case, what characterizes these transformations, is that they are all global, or encompassing – all-out transformations. In every case, they arise and then englobe at once the private uses of writing, and redefine or establish dominant literary forms that don’t pre-exist this appearance. Forms that seem to us to have always been there ; Herodotus’ “The Inquiries,” Homer’s Odyssey, were born from the appearance of their new recording medium. Rabelais invents the farces of “Pantagruel” right at the printer where he and his friends edit scholarly books (for Rabelais, annotated translations of the Greek doctors, Hippocrates and Galen). In the XIXth century, Stendhal’s “The Red and the Black” entitled, “morals”, and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary “provincial morals,” not novel. Our responsability is to transmit the history of the literary forms, not to maintain their changeable pregnance in each era of time.

In 1845, in a magnificent text, “The Painter of Modern Life,” Baudelaire marvels that drawings by Constatin Guys created on the battle fields of Crimée, captured from life, very quickly, reaches London in less than 9 days, and appears just as quickly in the newspapers. A historic, far away event – says Baudelaire – is made known to us as it simultaneously takes place. And, by transmitting itself with an image, history is able to do away with a story told in words. We have since changed the cursors of simultaneity and the number of images : but today’s mutation is a direct extension of this last transformation in writing, by the press and the serialized story.

Last axiom : each of these transformations has revealed itself as complex and conflicting, but irreversible. Of course, we still raise horses, but we rarely use them, over the last 150 years, to travel from town to town : the important thing is not to know “how we will read tomorrow,” it’s to know that the current path, though timid, embryonic, does not have the responsibility of bringing with it existing publishing and distributing structures. Our responsibility does not concern the structures, but the values of civilization, and of transmission, which we place in written content.

There was no need to study history of the book, when the book was the lonely material form for literature. And, today, because of the impossibility to know how goes the present itself, a urge to study not only this history, but the history of each of his transitional phases, which has been only partially written.



That the book is an ecosytem is a lesson we have everyday still to learn.

For those in my generation, the imaginary, the sense of language, the perception of the world (we knew how to read before the arrival of television), was formed by the book. We were constructed by the book.

But the idea of a sense of stability for the book is distorted today by the interior re-composition of its industry.

« A great publisher lives on ten to fifteen books », said one of ours french great publishers, a few weeks ago. Fewer than five hundred titles cover two thirds of all sales. The average lifetime of a work in a bookstore is five weeks. And I would say, that for a long time – if it ever was the case – printed works only compensate the financial cost of creation for a few hundred widely-selling authors. This system is worn out.

The French system of author rights was born in the XIX century, in a context where theatre and the serial novel gave a popular dimension to literature. It is fully linked to the transfer of a material object, and property, the book. Two examples : France is the only country where the publishing contract based on the duration of intellectual property, makes an exception for commercial rights, which limits its duration to ten years : in addition, France is the only country where an author’s compensation, according to intellectual property laws, is based on the sale price of the book, and not on the variable earnings of the publisher. This system is worn out.

How will we read tomorrow : but do we understand well enough, that today, the books that we read are already printed websites ? Ten years ago, even fifteen years ago, publishing became digitized. A modern printer uses an ensemble of text files, metadata, and CSS frameworks.

How will we read tomorrow ? The printed book was an object with a long distribution period. Its limitation was made in the press and magazines, and created a specialized function for this recommendation, literary criticism. Now that the book, and the recommendation pass through the same medium (our screens), the separation between writer and critic has no meaning. But the word, “writer,” itself – écrivain in french – has a history : it was born in the XVIIth century, which is very recent (it didn’t exist for Rabelais nor for Montaigne), and gained its symbolic value (the “great” writer) with the expansion of the printer in the XIXth century. Look at the epistolary writing of the XVIIIth century : the direct continuity of a major literary form (“Dangerous Liaisons” by Laclos, “The New Heloise” by Rousseau) and of a private use of writing (not yet available to the masses, the people do not yet have access to literature). Another unusual case : the letters of Madame de Sévigné, because one can say in a letter to one’s daughter what we would not dare say in a book – so these letters were recopied, and then each copy recopied, even before being sent to their destination.

One example strikes me in particular, because it proves – though we could demonstrate it at every époque – the link between literary forms to personal uses of writing. When everyone, on their computer, their tablet, their telephone, publishes on social networks, these personal, new uses of writing also recondition the more erudite or artistic uses of writing. One need not ask : how will we read tomorrow, the writings of today ? One must merely ask themselves : are we attentive enough to forms of writing being born today, which don’t call upon the book ?



It’s not reading that has changed, its our customary use .

Forty years ago, I was proud of my first long-playing vinyl records, it was the arrival of rock. Almost 25 years ago, at the beginning of the 1980’s, I bought my old records again, in CD form. For the last 5 or 6 years, I haven’t bought a single CD, but I listen to music from my computer. For 1 year, I don’t download music on my iTunes, but I listen directly to music on line with a Spotify membership.

That means, that even over a long period – I was curious about music my whole life – I listen differently. I pass from one music to another by analogies, extensions, arborescence. I listen as much as I want, and I sometimes listen to what I don’t like, I discover rare things I wouldn’t have had access to otherwise. In return, I require the supplier of the subscription to loyally pay back the creators with a part of their earnings, even if it concerns extremely rare musicians. The annual sum of this subscription equals 8 CD’s – a lot more than I would buy.

Why this detail ? It shows that at least two years ago – at least in music – we accepted the idea that we would not be owners of what we listen to. How can we predict today, what will result from this idea, when it is just beginning to be applied to texts ?



We have in France an old rural expression : « look for a needle in a hay stack ».

If we look for a needle in a haystack, search engines – whatever they may be – will find it in a fraction of a second.

Now, the question is what we are looking for. Or more precisely : how to educate curiosity ?

When a customer at a library, or library user, expresses a request, even a vague one, the intuition of the bookseller or librarian will be to decipher the request in a way adapted to the person who is asking. That is what Amazon does with your searches and in its engines, using your previous purchases.

Nobody needs literature, texts and poems that present a risk. And even less so, when they no longer have the symbolic approval that scholarly reviews bestowed upon them, the interior partitioning of bookstores, even the organization of society itself.

New axiom : the computer concentrates a mass of comfort use, utilitarian use, and we will need to build a call for content through the same framework, which ruffles feathers, that demands a dense reading, an separate interval for thought, without providing compensation in exchange.

Our tool : serendipity – or : how to find what we’re not looking for. Digital books contain metadata that allows for the possibility of associating it with a request which has not been formulated. But the international system of classifying books, BISAC (books international standards), used by Apple and others, is only in English : a book of poetry will only be classified as “Continental European.” Nothing more. More categories for religion than for fiction. More categories for domestic animals than for philosophy. How will we read tomorrow : it’s about organizing resistance to the tools of today.



Internet is destined to disappear.

Digital technology is disappearing, as such, because it inserts itself in the finest, complete sense, in our relationship to the world, including our most private, or intimate customary practices.

In the past, everyone read their favorite newspaper. One generally easily recognized a reader of Le Figaro from that of a reader of l’Humanité. Intellectuals bought the Le Monde book supplement as soon as it was in kiosks Thursday afternoon. Today every individual creates his or her own information filters, by organizing our his or her personal kind of “watch” containing flows (flux) that will associate very general sources to very specialized others.

Not a week goes by without bringing up another scornful phrase for the blogs. “Internet is just rubbish.”

But literature always had its lungs : small periodicals, literary gatherings (and even the “salons” of the XVIIIth century until Mallarmé). It must constantly have what it needs to be its own rough draft. In the 1950’s, until the end of the 70’s, literary periodicals had that role. It has now entirely passed onto the web. The text as « noise » in the men’s story disappears with each historical period : with Internet, we hear firstly the noise of our own period – is this really new ?

Are we “weaker” readers, or more fragile on the screen ? We read several windows simultaneously, and what of it ? The universe of creative blogs is astonishingly complex. When we read literature as an instant creation on the web, is this a specifical nature, compared to previous times ? When we read digital new practices by contemporary writers, with videos, sound, pitures, social interaction, is this a secondary way of concentrating and reading that the last novel on the market ? Sometimes it’s a better use to reformulate the question itself, instead of answering it.

Literature, according to Maurice Blanchot, is “language reflected upon” (« le langage comme réflexion »). In this multiple and diffused location, which is the screen, literature is what questions these languages – codes, stories, representation – as such. We don’t need to transport the forms and objects that materialized this questioning to literature, before the time of the screen.



Do we need the digital book ? Our students say no. The charts of best-selling eBooks are mostly crap.

Is the digital book condemned to only be a short-lived projection of the printed universe on the digital trade system ?

More interesting is this frontier between the fluidity of the web, which is our home, and the place where we invent. And the resistant magic of what symbolizes for me, the book : small stiff packet, susceptible to make its way on its own, and to awaken in a relationship that excludes me, and only concerns it and its far away reader, unknown and anonymous.

Have a look on your own students : the computer opened and connected between you and them, and their phone no more on their knees under the table, but on the computer itself for the private texting. Look at them in the cafeteria : three at the same table, and computers or phones between them, sending material as they speak. What does it show, what does it change for thought and for literature ?

It seems to me that therein lies the magic that still justifies what one calls the “digital book” : how a small bit of my web site, which is my artist’s studio, can separate – from the site, and from me – to go awaken itself amid an intimate relationship of another, with their reading ? Same for the film, with the « webdoc », non-linearity, transmedia stuff.

We accept the present : no longer need a postman to bring the mail, no longer need a newspaper or magazine bought at the train station kiosk, no longer need to go by foot to the city library (or yes we do : to work with several others, with our own computers). And yet, we have never been so passionate about texts, images, stories and fables, peculiarities – of voices too, since the radio programs them for us, recorded via the web. So never, in this profusion, has attention been subject to such pressure, and such a consensual push, normalized culture, the dominant “majors.”

Here is the main danger : nothing more subjective and fragile that our writing and composition, but the whole environment of it under control of american firms, with rare earthes and workers sweat form China – and american firms don’t bother much about literature : their only word is « market », perhaps with sometimes a second one : « marketplace ».



How to explore, invent, advance, but not conclude or predict ? Is Internet a chance or a threat ?

Too much of protection talk (author’s rights, copyright, pirating), but a new economy in profusion and sharing : first try, and then see in what space and for which forms, a future state of stability might rebuild – but we are far from that, because the support mediums themselves don’t contain this stability. “We are inventing the dinosaurs of the future,” this axiom also remains pertinent.

For the first time in human history, the library is a general library, films, music, texts, one must admit the shift is irreversible : we have, from everywhere, access to everywhere – how can this axiom also not have significance, reversibly, for the creation of content itself, and the definition of the artist or the writer ? The main question for me, as an author, resumes as : how to write, how to tell the today’s story ?

For the authors, it’s up to us to enter resolutely into a new pact – the fabric of literary activity is in itself a living, constant redefinition – our presence on the web is not a window anchored on the old world, but our wirting experience in itself – it has no economical value ? don’t give a damn.

Enough of the catastrophe talks, forever the web as a “threat”, or the book that must “defend itself” from digital technology : industrial mass culture is a recent invention, less than forty years for music, even less for the book that we must reward our art amid a relationship to the world that is not associated to a culture-based industry, would only be, from the point of view of the history of literature and arts, a return to the norm.

Let us rejoice, on the contrary, that web tools, live-stream, networks of writing workshops, collective works, offer us new mediums for consideration : the figure of the “professional” writer was never a dominant figure, nor important in the history of literature – let us accept letting go of it.

Our chance : the general redistribution of tasks, and the social forms of these tasks :

– starting from the text, thinking only of the text – but of the marvelous text born of our personal web use : when we write on our computer, we write with our entire computer, it’s image possibilities, sound, documentation, received mail, network messaging – there is no “enhanced book” : the traditional book was a projection in a technical universe of reduced dimensions resulting from it own industrial constraints.

– we cannot know “how we will read tomorrow”, but we can, with confidence, take risks in “how we write today”, and the hell with the rest.


10 and last : the author, not the book

The author’s notebook doesn’t change : there are always sketches, cut papers, documentation. What changes is that we can integrate them anywhere, as distinct levels, in the object we separate ourselves from, so that it belongs to its reader.

The author’s library doesn’t change. Faulkner venerated Tolstoy and hated Dostoyevsky because of his disorder, but while having a much worse one, Proust was bored by Tolstoy and venerated Dostoyevsky, but wrote “salons” on the same formal principal as Tolstoy, our task of teaching doesn’t change, even if the American authors rise to the highest level in contemporary literature without meditating on the ages of books, as we in Europe are obliged to do, of we want to survive in a world that doesn’t require us any more.

But we know that, in all times, the dense rapport with the texts has surged from the same place, and with the same writing medium, that there where private use is established—from reading aloud for a few listeners to Rabelais’ time, and that is the dramaturge’s key in his recitals, from the epistolary novel whose golden hour in XVIIe century (Mme de Sévigné) was that of a unified and quick postal service, partially freed from censorship, on a countrywide level.

Our students’ use, to keep themselves informed, read, write, listen, in the same movement : smartphone, laptop.

So yes, with literature, and what it brings of subversion and transgression, like the beat poets emerged vocally on campuses because the musical space had created a place for them that the printed world had refused, work for the laptop.

Look at word processing : what difference is there between your first Word software (for me, 1993, almost twenty years ago) and today’s version ? Your mail management software makes up its own database. And the new generation fort text softwares are based on a database, without even using text files any more. Yes, some changes are going on.

What we call a book, on our computer, is no longer a single file, but a vast dossier made up of separated research, different versions of work, and certainly an area of archiving organized links and messengers.

Another characteristic : we only write by way of the comfort of a screen, which you manage to your liking, the function of exporting the text is specific to the way in which the text is going to circulate, and how it will be reproduced and accessible for reading : on a website, via an electronic book, via a PDF, or a separated text file.

And one of our tasks, certainly, is to read again the pas history of literature, and build it again as digital objects. When we think of the work of Baudelaire, or Franz Kafka, we don’t think of the sum of their books, but first of this set of archives that entered the public space, in a partial or total way, immediately or progressively, long after the author’s disappearance. Perhaps, in a much more humble and dynamic understanding of the word oeuvre, we could find a stable foundation for what is starting off, that books do not allow us. This task is – to my own sens – a considerable one. And notably from the educational viewpoint.

And another continent in the word author itself : Internet is a collective intelligence. How digital writing would be anything else but a collective author ? The new continent of literary form is already the continent of their collective forms, and collective invention of forms.

That’s where I am. In 25 years of the computer, and 30 years in the world of professional publishing, passed from a stable world to an unstable one. The question of technology is completely secondary to that of the culture.

The unpredictability of our moment in transition is chaotic, dangerous, because it eliminates the established positions, to begin with the status of the « écrivain ». But this present itself is also, inextricably, a story, which we can and must treat as such, under the condition of reaching it by way of the stories of the preceding transitions.

Which of us would not have liked to write at the time of the invention of the printing press, like Rabelais, which of us would not have liked to write at the time of the appearance of serials and newspapers, like Dickens or Dumas, or the appearance of locomotives, like Flaubert and Zola, or electricity and the telephone, like Proust ?

Please take it as extreme and real luck to be seized ourselves by the changes now and blindly happening, and that our writing, captured by new forms of reading and distribution, obliges us to jump : « au fond de l’inconnu, pour trouver du nouveau », has written Baudelaire.

responsable publication François Bon © Tiers Livre Éditeur, cf mentions légales
diffusion sous licence Creative Commons CC-BY-SA
1ère mise en ligne et dernière modification le 24 novembre 2014
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