Sunday, January 20, 2013

Is the Internet the Death of the Novel?

I found this article by Toby Litt really provocative, addressing some of the worries I have about how the rapid advance of new technology could spell the end of our old medium. It's mostly a lament, but it did spark thoughts about what sort of form "story" can take in the future. It doesn't HAVE to be in the shape of a novel. After all, The Odyssey was an epic poem, the dominant form of storytelling for many centuries, and while the form isn't used much anymore, stories still get told.

Anyway, what do you think? How can stories take on the methods of the Internet, or would it be better for novels to go on and provide a respite from the insistence of email and Facebook and all that?

Is the death of the novel coming? Will with it die the more contemplative forms of story?



Wes said...

I quit reading the article, not because I couldn't understand it, but because it was unfocused, verbose, and whiny (sp?).

IMHO, one needs to distinguish between content, production, and distribution. (I headed consumer research for one of the largest content providers for cable TV. BFD.) My point is there will always be a demand for content (stories), and there will always be writers. That will not change. What is changing is manufacturing that produces a readable form of the story and distribution of the story, how it gets before the eyes of the reader. Why do we need to spend multiple dollars to print a book and more dollars to ship, inventory, and return it, when the marginal cost of an electronic copy is approaching zero? I don't see how eliminating these costs will diminish the value of a story.

Jenny said...

Yesterday, as I scanned the Kindle bestseller list, I was surprised by how many of the books at the top were novella length.

I also see a depressing number of GoodReads reviews where the reviewer writes that they liked the book because it was easy to get through fast. People complain now about books that take them 4 or 5 nights to finish, but those are books that have already been shortened to today's typical 80K word length.

So yes. People are so busy with their distraction devices that they have lost the ability to concentrate and immerse themselves. Novels require that ability to experience total immersion. The competing mediums allow distraction--think of people watching TV and movies while texting the whole time.

Another tell: I note that even on this blog you use movies to illustrate points about narrative rather than books, probably because you can no longer assume that most people, even those who aspire to be writers, are familiar with any literary canon.

A generation ago people read because they believed that being seen to be a reader would impress other people with their intelligence. That's gone now, too.

Leah said...

I don't think it's as dire as all that. Hollywood notoriously relies on books (novel, graphic novel, and comic book) rather than telling its own stories. So much of what's on the big screen is an adaptation. Original storytelling remains in literature (and, increasingly, the small screen--which bears a striking resemblance to literature in some ways: TV shows are often long-running, episodic serials, like the old serial novels of Dickens et al).

The novel is still a largely solitary creation, a whole universe coming out of one mind, and because of that tends to have a cohesion and clarity of vision that you don't find in most committee-produced film, games, music, etc. these days.

It's sad that most people would rather see the movie version of [insert novel] rather than read the book, but at least there IS a movie version--a testament that there's something in the novel that modern media keeps coming back to.

I'll start to worry when people stop making adaptations of books.

Leah said...

Also, as Jenny notes, books may be getting shorter, but movies are actually getting longer. The average runtime for a movie today is somewhere north of 2 hours and shows no signs of tailing off.

When I was a kid in the 80s/90s, 90 minutes was the norm. Anything longer and I'd start to squirm. But we were watching movies in theaters then, or on crappy VHS tapes.

Today, with home theaters and streaming HD video on demand, movies are longer and more leisurely paced, taking advantage of the fact that more and more people are watching them at home.

Technology definitely influences the structure of storytelling, but not always in a SHORTER FASTER HARDER! way.

Edittorrent said...

Jenny, I've gotten that way. I read 4-5 books at once, so that I don't ever really get immersed.

Yes, more people will have seen any one film than read any book. However, that might say something bad about the film industry, that there are so few films everyone knows of every one!
I keep thinking about the novel as the way we can be quiet and concentrated -- reading is a more contemplative experience, and maybe we'll need that forever.

I also keep thinking about something you said a few years ago (remember?)-- that those of us living in virtual worlds might crave the "authenticity" of other types of settings, like small towns or closed societies. We have to go beyond the notion that everyone will want more of the same, will want to read about online relationships or Facebook friendships. Who knows?

I think the future is linked but shorter. That's what I'm working on, a series of shorter books but with the same basic cast and purpose. We'll see. But I think that might be desirable. I hope!

Jenny said...

With what people are willing to pay for books on Amazon, linked shorts make more sense for the author. That's for sure. Why should any of us be writing 80-100K words to be sold for less than the cost of a cup of coffee?

OTOH, many people find that writing short is tougher than writing long. Everything has to work and there is no allowance at all for the momentum that keeps readers reading a longer work if it flags for a chapter or so in the middle.

Anonymous said...

My plan? To actually take advantage of the short attention span.

The WIP has 64 chapters. They typically run 6-7 scenes per. The chapters run around 6-7k words, with some a bit shorter, others up to around 10k. Yeah - lots of words.

The plan is to put them up on my blog as they get edited into submission. Then, any one chunk is a nice size for that week's reading - and the hope is that readers will come back for more. A la Dickens.

The whole is done, but I won't start posting pieces until I'm SURE I can keep up a reasonable pace - I follow several novels online that have NOT been able to keep up, and it is annoying.

I'm sure the BEST method is to serialize only something that is completely finished - but 1) what's the fun in that? and 2) what do you do with good reader comments - the main reason for putting up work in progress.

Jenny said...

Can't wait to read this!

Edittorrent said...

ABE, do you disable access to earlier chapters at some point, so if they want to read the whole thing, they have to buy it?

That does sound like a good approach to drawing the reader in.

Anonymous said...

ET: I'm in a weird position. I can't publish anything for almost two years.

Meanwhile, I need an outlet - I need to find my tribe, and I hope to locate a few people who like to read what I write (mainstream for the novel, mystery for a previous novel, stories in any genre), and to get comments from them.

So at some point I'll add an entirely optional Tip Jar - but I can't offer things for sale.

With the speed of organic blogging (let people discover you as they go) being rather slow at first, I think it will just work out right for me: by the time it's all finished and ready to publish, the time will have passed, and my new life can be launched (assuming the writing part works for people), so taking stuff off the blog prematurely isn't a big consideration right now.

But I like your idea - and it may work out because this thing is long enough, with plot points which work out, to be a duology.

OTOH, my paperback copy of Gone With the Wind is 1,468 pages (and my story isn't quite that long yet).

I'm so loving the possibilities of the digital age.

Jenny: If you're commenting on Pride's Children (the WIP), I've promised myself it will go up on the blog on or before 2/14/2013.

There's already a teaser there in the same world, called Too Late.


Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.