Sunday, February 24, 2008

In Brief: Marketing Digital Books and the Flaws of “Marry Him!”

--“Random House will sell selected books by the chapter, while HarperCollins will offer selected titles for free,” reports Nate Anderson in an ArsTechnica blurb from earlier this month. Random House is experimenting with an iTunes-style format of selling books by the chapter, with the idea that one could purchase and download sections of a book à la carte without having to purchase the entire work. HarperCollins’ give-away approach is more restrictive in terms of user-friendliness—you can’t download, copy or transfer any of the available content—but it’s free, after all.

Anderson thinks that these are both “important experiments,” but is more jazzed about the potential of the HarperCollins model. His main argument against the viability of separable book downloads is that it isn’t a conducive approach for fiction, as well as for non-fiction books that contain “extended arguments.” This is true, and he’s also right to suggest that Random House will need to broaden their selection of books that are reasonable for downloading in chunks, such as essay collections and cookbooks. Yet I think this has potential in other areas as well. For example, one possibility (outside of Random House) is a system that would allow students and academics to download certain book chapters and essays for research purposes. College library catalogs are slowly increasing their selection of online full-text books, but it often remains limited; a broad-scale system that integrates downloading—even at cost to the user—would probably find an audience in academia.

Of course, I’m still somewhat of a Luddite on this issue

--There’s been a bit of a flap over Lori Gottlieb’s essay “Marry Him!” for The Atlantic’s March issue, thanks to this argument:

“My advice is this: Settle! That’s right. Don’t worry about passion or intense connection. Don’t nix a guy based on his annoying habit of yelling “Bravo!” in movie theaters. Overlook his halitosis or abysmal sense of aesthetics. Because if you want to have the infrastructure in place to have a family, settling is the way to go. Based on my observations, in fact, settling will probably make you happier in the long run, since many of those who marry with great expectations become more disillusioned with each passing year. (It’s hard to maintain that level of zing when the conversation morphs into discussions about who’s changing the diapers or balancing the checkbook.)”

Unsurprisingly, several feminists have written strongly-worded disagreements in response (Bella DePaulo providing one example), and I can’t blame them. A primary reason why Gottlieb’s argument and evidence is flawed is that she relies too much on inductive reasoning—in other words, projecting her own personal experiences into general truth-claims. The worst example is her statement about single “single 30-year-old women”:

“…if you say you’re not worried [about finding someone to marry], either you’re in denial or you’re lying. In fact, take a good look in the mirror and try to convince yourself that you’re not worried, because you’ll see how silly your face looks when you’re being disingenuous.”

This is a ridiculously sweeping statement because it assumes that all of these women: 1) are in need of a fulfilling romantic relationship; 2) want to start a romantic relationship with express intent to marry; and 3) “want a traditional family” (her words). Gottlieb is honest about how she has longed for “The One,” and that many of her women friends who are single have felt the same way. But what about women who, well, don’t actually want marriage? Who have already been through a marriage and divorce by thirty and aren’t ready to try again? Who are (gasp!) content being single? She doesn’t want to adequately account for women whose experiences are different than her own, so she resorts to calling them “disingenuous.” Hmm.

Another troubling example appears later in the article after Gottlieb briefly mentions the movie Broadcast News: “Unless you meet the man of your dreams (who, by the way, doesn’t exist, precisely because you dreamed him up), there’s going to be a downside to getting married, but a possibly more profound downside to holding out for someone better” (emphasis in original). This reduces marriage to a least bad decision, as opposed to a good decision, for women. Consequently, she is parroting a traditional (and sexist) line of reasoning—it’s better to be unhappy in marriage than a spinster—that continues to place significant social pressure upon American women. And since her evidence in the essay consists of anecdotal examples and not particularly insightful television and film analysis, she’s unable to even support that argument. In short, Gottlieb demonstrates how not to write about gender issues.

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