And for His Next Trick ...

Fed up with the way his books were being handled by local publishers and bookstores, experimental novelist Alex Epstein chose to offer readers his latest volume of short-short stories on Facebook.

Epstein - Bachar - Feb 2012
Alex Epstein David Bachar

"'Look at the chrysanthemums,' the woman told the child holding her right hand, 'once the Knesset stood on this field'"

- "Jerusalem," a story from "For My Next Trick I'll Need Wings," by Alex Epstein

Epstein - Bachar - Feb 2012
David Bachar

Early this month, author Alex Epstein published his new book, "For My Next Trick I'll Need Wings," on Facebook. It's a free digital book with 88 short-short stories in Hebrew, edited by Tal Nitzan. This is a book with an address:

Epstein was born in Leningrad in 1971, immigrated to Israel in 1980 and grew up in Lod. He is not a mainstream writer, but he has brought out books with mainstream publishers and received favorable reviews. To date he has published 10 books. In 2010, Yedioth Books issued "Shortcuts Home"; two earlier titles, "Blue Has No South" and "The Last Dreams in the Garden of Eden" came out as part of Am Oved's Babel series. His books have also been translated into English, and two of them - "Blue Has No South" and "Lunar Savings Time" - were published in the United States, both by Clockroot Books.

Today, Epstein, who in 2003 received the Prime Minister's Prize for Literature, lives with his wife in Tel Aviv, teaches creative writing and works as a programmer in a high-tech firm.

Epstein says that his decision to publish his new book on Facebook, where it appears in a photo-album format, was a response to the situation of the publishing market in Israel: "I'm not saying anything new when I say that the vast majority of writers and poets in Israel are unable to make a decent living from their work."

The fact that Epstein cannot support himself from his books is not the heart of the matter; that's already self-evident. What bothers him is the short shelf life of books in the stores.

"In the case of a writer like me," he explains, "who isn't a mainstream and best-selling author, what happens is that the literature has a very hard time reaching the readers. The only way is via the 'book cemetery' that is sometimes called Tzomet Sfarim and sometimes Steimatzky's" - the country's two largest bookstore chains. "A book in those stores is sold not as a cultural item but as a consumer item of the shallowest possible kind. Not because it isn't good, but because that way it gets sold."

Epstein says this paradox confronts many writers and poets: "It's one thing that you don't make a profit, but in the present situation nobody can even read you, because the books don't really reach anyone. What I tried to examine is whether it's possible to reach a relatively broad audience without going through the usual intermediary, who is systematically interested in money rather than culture. I'm interested in the work and not its financial aspect."

As an example of the situation he's describing, Epstein points to the drama currently under way at Am Oved publishing, which recently appointed a retired senior police official, Yaakov Brei, as CEO.

"That's wonderful proof," he notes, "of what's happening to culture and literature. Nobody would dream of appointing a policeman or a lieutenant colonel or a senior firefighter to be the director of a museum or a theater. But in the book world, because of the economic aspect it's taken on over the past two decades, everything is permitted, and we have reached a nadir. This free digital format is also a response that says: You're going to sell literature at four books for NIS 100? Okay, I'll give away my book free of charge."

Why on Facebook, of all places?

"It's related to the attempt to expand the boundaries of literature in the digital media. Today there's almost no popular platform in Hebrew for digital literature, as opposed to what's happening in almost every other language in the world, where you can read almost any book on a digital reader.

"I wanted to publish a digital book, and I did it on Facebook because I wanted to see how it was possible to branch out and to play around a little with literature in the social media. Because the moment a book is posted on a social network, it actually functions not only as an object or a digital file, but also as a book that is open to the public. People can tear pages out of it and still leave it whole. They can react. They can see who else liked the same stories as they did. That's only one of the ways to try to see whether literature can be social."

Epstein believes that this sort of publishing format will change literature. "There's no question that when most books are digital, there's a chance that they won't look the way we're used to seeing them now, between covers."

Screen-friendly brevity

The format of Epstein's writing - he writes extremely short stories, some of them consisting of but a single line, and none of them longer than a page - also suits the digital format.

"My short-short stories are very easy to read on the screen because of their brevity. When the story is very short, what's important is what's said in the margins; not necessarily what's said but what surrounds the story. That's one of the reasons why I decided to post the book in the format of a photo album. Often in a format like that of digital readers something gets lost, because after all, a book has depth, it looks three-dimensional, and that gets lost on a digital reader. In the album format, there are quite chaotic events like [Facebook] Statuses, pictures and Likes.

"I'm quite sure that in another few years, there will be interesting experiments that will change literature," he adds. "It's impossible to divorce the invention of print from the fact that the most popular genre today is the novel. In a digital format, there will be other things, but that will take a long time. What I've done is not suitable for all types of work, but I'm sure that we can find other ways that are suitable."

This is not the first time that Epstein is employing new technologies in his literature. Already in 2001 he posted the "Imaginary Library" project on the Internet; it included 35 descriptions of fictive books whose plots were about readers and books.

"'The Imaginary Library' was written with the intention of being a digital project, in which the story was adapted to the medium, namely, a computer screen and a hypertext," says Epstein. "Those were relatively early days on the Internet, and it was possible to download the book to the computer. Nobody knew that there would be Kindle and iPads and smartphones, which are today the main spur for digital literature. It was, among other things, an experiment, through which I discovered that the right direction for my work is actually the more classic direction, in which the medium has to be adapted to the text, and not vice-versa. And that's what I did in 'For My Next Trick I'll Need Wings.'

"Not a single word in the stories was changed because of the Internet, but their very existence on a social medium will enable the book to develop and change and be taken apart and reassembled by the readers," emphasizes Epstein. "In 'The Imaginary Library,' I tried to connect everything - whereas here, in advance, I treat the book as a collection of stories. But the fact that 'The Imaginary Library' still exists, and you can reach it by pressing a button, just shows how digital literature - even the early version - extends the lifespan of books. Let's see you enter a Steimatzky's store in Afula and buy a decade-old book by [the late novelist] Dan Tsalka, for example, not to mention a book by Alex Epstein."

Twitter titles

"The bookworm began to fear death (having learned, from one of the books it consumed, about the possibility of turning into a digital bookworm ). In order to prepare it began to pierce prayer books."

- "Awareness," a story from "For My Next Trick I'll Need Wings."

The last piece in "For My Next Trick I'll Need Wings" is the title story. "The title comes from the world of Twitter," explains Epstein. "It's based on the phrase 'For my next trick I'll need,' which is usually said ironically about something unattainable. The story talks about this gap, about the loss of print, the extinction of print, and in general how books change."

Epstein, as opposed to other people in the world who count money or hits on websites, doesn't know how many people have actually read the book. Facebook does not make such information available.

"My goal wasn't to say how many have read the book," he says. "I can see Shares and Likes, and there are lots of them. Certainly for a book that isn't mainstream. For all the stories combined, there are 2,500 Likes and 250 Shares. I, as a writer who has started something, am quite surprised. Sometimes you can see that someone is reading the book one story at a time, and is giving a Like to each story, you can even see how long it took him to read each one. That's a little bit like coming to the public library, taking a poetry book and seeing that someone has left a comment in the margin of one of the poems ."

And still, a few months from now, this book too will be published by Carmel in conventional form, with pages and a binding.

"Books are still of importance, both in terms of the awareness of a writer and in public awareness. Maybe in 10 or 20 years, issuing a book in print will be less relevant, but at the moment it's still of significance in the world. For me personally it's less important. I'm not mourning a world where books won't be in the format that's familiar to us today. There will always be books. It's not important to me in what kind of first edition 'Don Quixote' was published; it's the story that's important, not the packaging."