All Hail the Kindle Single, Says Top Literary Critic

By Rebecca J. Rosen

E-readers aren't merely making reading more convenient, they're making new kinds of writing available.

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E-readers have been praised for their convenience, portability, and, even, the purity of the reading experience they provide. But e-readers are more than a new way to read the same material you would find in printed books, argues New York Times literary critic Dwight Garner, they are also cracking open a market for a new form of writing: the longer longform -- not quite book-length but way too long for most magazines. Garner writes:

They're works of long-form journalism that seek out that sweet spot between magazine articles and hardcover books. Amazon calls them "compelling ideas expressed at their natural length." If I didn't loathe the word "compelling," I'd think that wasn't a half-bad slogan.

Garner's review focuses on Amazon's line of these mini-books, Kindle Singles. "Most are blah; a few are so subliterate they made my temples ache. But several ... are so good they awaken you to the promise of what feels almost like a new genre: long enough for genuine complexity, short enough to avoid adding journalistic starches and fillers."

Garner elaborates that there are particular subjects that make for good mini-books: "biographies, accounts of disasters, and illness memoirs." Book-length writing on such stories tends be feel "bloated," as though the writers are stretching out their substance to fill pages between covers.

The emergence of the mini-book genre is a good example of how a device's structure (whether a book or an e-reader) can dictate content. But it's more than just technology -- it's markets too. The technology of a paper binding can surely hold an essay of 20,000 words. But the costs of doing so were too great, and the resulting profits too low. Perhaps e-readers have liberated these mini-books from the purgatory of the writers' brains where they lay unformed, but the liberation comes not from the page, but from the economics of the publishing house.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/03/all-hail-the-kindle-single-says-top-literary-critic/254088/