Keller Eastering, Sam Jacob, and Justin McGuirk

19.06.2012, 16:23
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Two authors of Strelka Press’s inaugural crop of titles, Sam Jacob and Keller Easterling, spoke with director Justin McGuirk in Moscow about ebooks and what it’s like writing for new formats. The following are a few highlights from the conversation.


It began with a discussion of how Keller saw the Strelka project as an opportunity that she doesn’t get with her academic writing. Her essay (The Action Is the Form. Victor Hugo’s TED Talk) parodies TED talks and New Yorker articles and the devices they use to hook an audience – and there’s a tension between her wanting to lampoon those and wanting to emulate them.

Keller: I’m jealous of the broader audience that you both already have with journalism. But it’s not just to have a broader audience, but to see if I’m speaking; to see if anybody is out there. Writing my piece became a point of concentration, a chance to enthrall the reader by making a sustained argument. The thrill was to try and carefully change somebody’s mind. It is part of a larger book project, and this idea of releasing a single from the LP was really appealing. However, the editorial position is as important as the format. You’d think there would be more scrutiny in academic writing but it turns out there’s less. I can think of three journals I write for where there’s truly an editor.

She wouldn’t say which journals they were, though.

Justin: People wax all nostalgic about the death of the book, but book culture isn’t dying, what is dying is the culture of the editor. It’s a challenge to sustain the level of editing we want. And I know popular journalists who also complain about a lack of feedback. Though comments at the bottom of an article are a sign of life, they are not always a rewarding response.This seems to suggest a currently underdeveloped side of ebooks: the potential to easily interact with the author. Are there products out there that encourage this?

The ambiguous status of the Strelka Press pieces came up a few times.

Justin: At first we struggled with what to call these publications. Are they books? Essays? Pamphlets? In the end we opted for an easy equivalence – they’re all books. But thinking of them in different ways triggers certain associations – pamphleteering suggests political dissent. I’d say they lie somewhere between an internet self-publishing model and the trying-to-topple-governments model of pamphlets. To me, the fact that they’re difficult to categorise makes them valuable.

Sam: In a more journalistic context, you are so used to a word limit, a cut-off point, but what if there is none? If you aren’t writing to a specific format, what is this piece of writing? It’s not a book. It’s up to the piece itself to decide what it is. It doesn’t feel like a thing, an object. You don’t have this experience like “Here I am reading the New Yorker. I am the kind of person who reads the New Yorker.” It can’t self-consciously be something; it relies on the writing itself.

Does this suggest a new opportunity for writing in this format, and a kind of risk or demand for the author? Do e-book texts have to be stronger than printed ones, or is this compensated somehow by their cheapness and the ease with which they can be discarded?

Justin: I asked one author for a 5,000-word essay and he gave me a 35,000-word book. He understood intuitively that in the digital world these limits do not exist. And all the writers engaged that problem differently… Do you just keep going until you’re done?

Keller: On the other hand, some technical considerations seem to dissolve… I’m re-working something I did as a laserdisc in 1991.

Sam: That reminds me of your piece, you talk about the radio as the voice out of the speaker and as radio in itself. What about here?

Keller: Well, there is still the page, so it doesn’t feel that different except that you can’t take this book near water.

Justin: We wanted a reading experience sheltered from the very distracting space of the internet browser. The ideal reading experience is to be immersed in the text, not flitting between that and your emails.

Sam: Isn’t it strange that digital books simulate a format that exists, with covers?

This brought to mind the end of the bookshelf, or the coffee-table assortment that acts like a signpost of household interests at a party.

Keller: Finally it’s not the format that decides whether it’s a contemplative moment or trivial static. I read your essay in one gulp.

Sam: When Justin commissioned me, I initially proposed some very 90s things, constantly re-writing the piece and so on. Now I wonder what does it do that doesn’t happen with a normal book? My e-reader gives me points for finishing a chapter…

Couldn’t it give points based on how quickly he finishes it? Or quiz him at the end to see if he was paying attention?