Introduction for ebook version of China Dreams
Writing a book means having your nose rubbed in your limitations – every day, every day. However, your struggle necessarily ends with publication. Or it used to.
‘A work of art is never finished, only abandoned.’ There’s some dispute over who penned this line, but it’s certain that – however much the author might have hesitated over ‘art’ versus ‘DIY’, or worried that he was sounding like a pompous ass – sooner or later the parchment was snatched from under his dithering goosefeather and passed into other hands. His airy speculations became a matter of matter, of paper and stitching, and the printer’s aching back, and an inky rag in the bookbinder’s pocket, and the bookseller’s apprentice snoring under the counter in a nest of off-cuts, blotches and misprints, his head on an unsellable collection of sermons by an unfrocked monk, much concerned with righteous chastisement. Finally, his words made their dismal progress from the reader’s lap, to his elbow and at last to a forgotten shelf.
And did that dusty book ever stir among the mouse-droppings? Did it utter an insistent ‘Ping’? Did an irritating light-emitting-diode show that an update was available? Of course not. But ebooks are as insubstantial as minds, and as easily changed.
Hence this edited version of China Dreams. The book is supposed to celebrate plot – the hardest bit of fiction writing, and the bit that most fiction therefore leaves out. How good, though, if you could think up a top plot like Dracula, or Jekyll and Hyde, or Little Red Riding Hood. China Dreams makes dozens of attempts. For its paper publication, though, I left a few radical bits out: the book already seemed too near the raggedy edge. But nobody’s complained, so this ebook version has added oddites – including more about Jack the Ripper.
The best attitude for writing a book is to feel that you’re capable of good work but you’re not sure if you’ve managed it yet. And surely ebooks are the best of all worlds for pursuing that ever-postponed perfection: the work is being sold, reviewed, read, yet can still be tinkered with.
But how to crack on with the next piece when you can still change the old one? Will authors spend a lifetime on the same work? Will it become an obsession with the ideal, in the same way that people get addicted to plastic surgery? Will our ebook publisher eventually refuse any more alterations? (Obviously they’ll never give us the passwords.)
The only advantage of paper books is portability, but that won’t last. Ebook readers will soon weigh nothing and cost nothing and be a camera, phone, music centre and (through their internet function) a gateway to all the world’s knowledge, and they’ll fold up and fit in your pocket and be forgotten until you need them.
As for the pious types who declare that nothing will replace ink on paper: well, millions of us stare at computer screens all day; millions of us read nothing that's not on screen. The argument that screens hurt the eyes is equally unconvincing: if, like mine, your eyes have been ruined by reading, you’re glad of words that are backlit and as big as you like. And if we’re daft enough to want the grey-on-beige of paper and not the crisp black-and-white of a computer display, then the technology will happily oblige. Besides, we’re living through the most important development in learning since Gutenberg – and the internet happens on screen.
Writing is depressing (see ‘nose’) and publication used to be a blessed release. You may be mauled by the critics – they are horribly accurate, always finding the bits that you also doubted – but you couldn’t do much about their comments. No longer.
We still can’t tinker indefinitely. In time we may run out of inclination or talent: in time we’ll certainly run out of time. But, thanks to ebooks, a work of art need never be abandoned.