Not Real Books

Yesterday this snippet of news appeared on Dear Author:

Red Riding Hood is a movie that is set to be released on March 11, 2011. In anticipation of the release, a novelization of the movie was published. The kicker is that the novel doesn’t contain an ending in order to avoid spoiling the movie. After the movie is released, the ending will be posted on the internet on March 14, 2011, after the movie weekend is over. Needless to say, readers aren’t happy about this.

Essentially, the marketers have sabotaged the book on behalf of the movie, a stupid strategy if ever there was one. It means this marketing team privileges the movie more than the book. The movie's ending has meaning, and the book's ending belongs to the movie and not to the book. It means they decided the book is not a real book.

When Psycho premiered in theaters, Hitchcock went around buying up copies of the book it was based on, so people wouldn't have the ending spoiled for them. I'm not sure which is worse: pulling a bait-and-switch on your customers, or limiting an innocent author's work from finding a readership because of your derivative work of art.

Years ago, I read the novelization of The Saint. The Val Kilmer movie, not the Roger Moore series (so sue me). And there was a great fight scene in an embassy at the end, with a chandelier and a spiral staircase and people falling from the one down the other. I always wished that was in the movie, too—and as a result I could never quite dismiss even movie novelizations as emptier stories. [Ed. note: I just looked up to see if we knew anything about the guy who wrote this novelization—and holy crap, do we ever.]

But this is far from the majority opinion. Novelizations are never real books—and even when the process is reversed and a movie is based on a book, the inevitable reissue of that book with the movie cover (Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Everything is Illuminated) earns a slight curl of the lip for somehow being less authentic than a copy with an original cover.

There are actually quite a lot of books out there that are not real books, according to someone. It usually happens when the subject turns to the idea of some books being more worthwhile, or deserving, or significant than other books.

Making this distinction is a very hipster thing to do. I say that knowing full well that I've done it myself.

To add another wrinkle, I saw at the library recently a copy of Naked Heat by Rick Castle—who, you almost certainly know, is a fictional character played on TV by Nathan Fillion. Sterling Cooper, a character from Mad Men, wrote an autobiography on the show—and this autobiography is available on bookstore shelves in the modern non-smoking, non-drinking, not-as-racist bookstore near you. Somehow, we let the idea that these are books from another story-world labeled with a fictional name prevent us from considering them alongside James Patterson's mysteries or Warren Buffett's autobiography. Even though both Naked Heat and Along Came a Spider are large collections of words about solving a mystery, and both Sterling's Gold and The Snowball are large collections of words eulogizing one man's particular way of making money.

And even though some person from our world had to put all those words into sentences on the page.

A children's book open to reveal a flask where the text block should be. Text reads: Stories to remember.

Snooki wrote a book recently called A Shore Thing. This has been widely discussed as a sign of the increasing commercialization of the book industry to the detriment of Art, Literature, Culture, and Intelligence. This despite the fact that it apparently provided a great deal of really top-notch entertainment, though admittedly perhaps not in the way Snooki hoped. (Then again, with Snooki, who knows?) Paris Hilton has a book, and Nicole Richie has a novel. And these are not real books either, because we assume they are bad books. But the question of a book being successful is not quite the same as a book being a book.

Part of the reason I am so touchy about this is because I have always been a fan of romance—and romance is always the first genre people dismiss as being weightless and flighty and not real. You see this even in comments on a website devoted to the love of romance novels, it's that pervasive. And I'm a romance author as well as a reader, so double bonus points for having a personal stake in this argument.

With ebooks, the question gets more complicated yet. Ebooks are not tangible things like paper books, and this has a host of complications that nobody has fully solved yet. They may be a different class of book with different expectations—the way that a movie is something not quite like a photograph, though they have many things in common—but the digital landscape is far from mapped. Which makes it really fun to be an ebook author as well. I've definitely had people express interest in my book, only to back away when they learn it's only coming out in digital form and they'll have to download it, or that I can't sign a copy for them. (Still, though, honor compels me to admit that having someone ask if I'll sign a book to them is just a huge ego boost.)

This whole post can be summarized as follows: I'm getting sick of this false dichotomy between supposedly real books and their lesser cousins. I think most of the time it's done out of love, and out of passion for the written word and literary culture (however literary culture may be defined). But when you start devaluing any books as less than real, then you leave the door open for all books to become less valuable.

It's much the same way with people: when you value one class of persons less than another, you make humanity as a whole less valuable. So can we stop talking about which books deserve to have been written already? As though we have an individual right to judge whether or not a book should exist at all. As though if only nobody had written Twilight, the next inch-thick volume from the latest literary light would have been next on the buy list for all those vampire-happy readers. As though we have any way of knowing what sentence from what book will spark a true sympathy in a reader's heart, or which story will bring light back into someone's life.