The last thing on Jennifer Egan’s mind is the needs of e-readers

Jennifer Egan. (Dan Rosenblum)
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On the 15th floor of Columbia University’s International Affairs Building, about 200 people listened last night as Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Jennifer Egan speculated on the pros and cons of technology, the benefits of escapism, and why people are attracted to a digitized-version of Stalinist apartment blocks.

Her discussion with New Yorker fiction editor Willing Davidson was part of “Rewiring the Real,” a series looking at how technology redefines the physical world. Columbia religion professor and postmodernist scholar Mark Taylor introduced the two.

“I’ve found over the years that very often it’s not the tech writers or the critics, but writers of fiction who best help us understand what’s going on—or not going on—in the worlds in which we live,” Taylor said.

Much of that discovery centered on Egan’s award-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad, which pools its influence from Pulp Fiction, The Sopranos, and Marcel Proust, all filtered through a prism of punk rock and technological imagery. Egan had previously written several popular books including Look at Me and The Keep, but her 2010 novel catapulted her to bestseller lists, and won her a Pulitzer Prize, National Book Critics Circle Award and even a Rooster.

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Egan remained effusive over the 90 minutes. First, she laid out the reasons for her wariness of technology. She writes her novels in longhand on yellow memo pads. She said there was a contradiction between her interest in technology as a writer and her personal behavior.

“I didn’t want email on my phone, and I held out as long as I could,” Egan said. “But then I noticed that I was having to go home all the time, because I was having to check my email.”

But, she said, the “fetishization of connection itself” fascinated her.

“Who cares that we can connect?” she said. “What’s the big deal? I think Facebook is colossally dull. I think it’s like everyone coming to live in a huge Soviet apartment block, [in] which everyone’s cell looks exactly the same.”

The room laughed.

“And we tolerate these horrific aesthetic conditions in which people change, or work around and move our furniture when we’re not home. Because we want to be connected. I think it’s madness.”

Egan added that she has a Facebook account.

“Of course, how can I not?” she said, adding that she didn’t want to cut into other people’s excitement about social media.

Davidson asked Egan whether technology made reading less important, and Egan replied that nothing, except maybe television, could really imitate the novel. Still, there are limits.

“While a television can be really captivating, it’s not really the same experience as reading a book,” she said.

But Egan said she wasn’t afraid for the future of the novel because of the form’s genesis as a “crazy grab bag” had left it with the ability to assimilate many different forms.

“Really, almost everything that’s been done since was done in Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy. So I find that very heartening, too. Just remember this was invented as a flexible, strong and swaggering form that could do all kinds of things that other forms couldn’t do,” Egan said.

Music carries throughout Egan’s writing, especially in Goon Squad, which is divided into a Side A and a Side B. She likened the book to a concept album of short stories, but she told the crowd she didn’t realize it was such a music-centric book until months after its release.

Before that, she said, she didn’t have much experience writing about music. Though she’s written for The New York Times Magazine many times, one of her only attempts at music writing for them was for a special issue on debuts. She told the story of a failed attempt to write about identical twin rappers named Dyme. She described following them around and going to a Notorious B.I.G. release party, where her most embarrassing journalistic moment took place.

“I was just trying to find my way around," she said, "and just trying to blend in and learn the lay of the land, and so I went up to someone and I went, ‘Could you point out Biggie to me?’ And of course it was a posthumous release.”

The Dyme record never materialized and so neither did her story.

Egan explained that as she's been working on her latest project, she has yet to get truly involved in her research. She’s not as excited, partly, she said, because of technology.

“I now find my research to be sort of off-limits to me because I have to open this iPad and read it on there, and I don’t really like to,” she said.

During the question and answer period, someone asked her about an archaeology piece from an issue of The New Yorker from last summer, which Egan admitted she didn’t enjoy writing.

“I was ecstatic to be doing it, but it didn’t have that joyful feeling of escapism that I crave from writing,” she said.

She said some of the emotional inspiration for Goon Squad came from Pulp Fiction.

“The moment I’ll never forget is the moment when Vince, the John Travolta character, gets killed in this very offhand murder in a bathroom. He’s a major character and you kind of know the movie’s not over, so it’s a bit shocking to see him shot up. And then in the next scene, he’s alive again, and it’s so exciting and kind of a relief.”

She said the excitement of this pseudo-rebirth mixes with an ominous sense of frailty.

“All of these emotions come into play, just by mixing the timeline up,” she said.

A chapter written entirely in PowerPoint is often pointed out as one of Goon Squad's most daring sections, though one audience member asked about its reputation for being notoriously hard to read on e-readers. It was ironic that the most technologically innovative chapter was less accessible on Kindles or iPads.

Egan felt bad about the problem, but saw the irony.

“I’m sure in ten years, this will seem like a laughable anecdote,” she said. “I had many worries about the PowerPoint chapter, but whether it would be legible on the e-reader was actually not on the list.”

She said that e-readers were good as long as people used them to read, but noted that both piracy and business models that favored publishers over writers were threats.

“The minute you’re buying something digitally, you can also not buy it digitally,” she said.

An audience member was curious about HBO’s upcoming adaptation of Goon Squad. Would Egan, who doesn’t readily embrace technology or watch much television, watch it?

She said it felt right to have a book, influenced by a long-form asynchronous show like The Sopranos, be adapted back into a similar form.

“My involvement will be pretty minimal because my goal really is to move on and try to do something different and I don’t want to really live in Goon Squad-land forever. It’s thrilling to think of HBO doing something great that could be inspired by this and if they pull it off, I’ll definitely watch.”

At that, the conversation was over and people in the audience quickly lined up to have Egan sign well-worn copies of her books. The bookseller minding a merchandise table in the back said he sold 14 books that night.