Saturday, September 24, 2011

The future of the book, and all that

This is an edited cross-posting of my response to a forum question posed on the literary website Verity La. Alec Patric asks:

A New Archaeology?
When the novel first emerged it was considered trivial entertainment. The literary productions most honoured were to be found in verses and sometimes on stages. As those mediums waned in their traditional states, the art of song writing matured and attracted many of the talents driven by poetry. Cinema rose into a global phenomenon—becoming the major cultural agent for all Western cultures.
We are presently watching the book dwindle into the doddering ineffectuality of old age as print media prepares for retirement. A new medium is already emerging. It is often considered trivial entertainment, just as the novel was in its youth. Will an e-form emerge in the coming generation as the new literary standard? Is the blog already the key artefact for a new archaeology?

There is one really fundamental difference between writing on the net and writing for the pages of a book which relates to the relationship between reader and text. In a sense internet writing always exists as part of a much larger text with which it is constantly forced to compete. This turns readers into skimmers and writers into copywriters. Writing on the net is a constant exercise in attention-seeking, with the text forces to double as its own advertisement.

The novel, on the other hand, is a world-to-itself. It guarantees the author not only the reader’s undivided attention, but a particular kind of rapt attention (or at least guarantees the preparedness to commit such attention). The type of novel – ‘high’ or ‘low’, Ulysses or The Twilight Saga – is irrelevant. Once the reader settles down and opens that first page, making him or herself available to the narrative, a certain intimacy and suspension is established that is simply not present online.The novel reader is implicitly committed, whereas the online reader is implicitly inattentive, restive, a single dull sentence or too-long paragraph away from disappearing altogether. If a novel is a marriage, a blog is a date with a 20-year-old with ADHD who doesn’t like the word ‘boyfriend’.

We tend to impute to literature an intrinsic value, forgetting that it is a kind of conversation between writer and reader. It depends on the quality of the attention that the reader brings to bear on the work. A great novel in a world where people are no longer capable of committing their attention is like the proverbial tree that falls unseen in the forest. Does it make a sound? Where does the artistic value reside? If the novel does truly fade into quaint obsolescence, if all our reading becomes ‘browsing’, I fear we will lose even the capacity to read the hundred-thousand-odd words in a row that a novel requires. And the imaginative, aesthetic and intellectual capacities that the novel exercises in us may atrophy too.

I don’t decry the blog and its value (obviously). But if the blog is ‘the key artefact of a new archaeology’, I pity the archaeologists who will be tasked with its excavation. It will be a job of monumental breadth and infinite shallowness, sifting an endless expanse of digital topsoil to reconstruct a picture of our society mind-numbing in both its detail and its inconsequentiality. The artist’s job has always been to dig deeper, revealing something true and important about being human in a certain time and place. The blog, for all its wonderful attributes, is not a capable instrument for such a task.

Having said that I remain personally optimistic that the paper book and the novel both will continue to have an (admittedly reduced) place in our culture, and I don’t believe that the intimate relation between reader and (paper) book is quite as easy to virtualize as the e-pundits imagine.I do think we are becoming an attention-deficit society, and this spells bad news for literary writers (who, let’s face it, weren’t exactly swimming in milk and honey as it was). But there will always be those determined to put into words important and hard-to-say truths, and others ready and indeed hungry to read those words. If the printed book does die, I don’t doubt human creativity will find ways to bend the available media to its own ends.

No comments: