Shortly after Christmas, I read this article by NPR’s Lynn Neary, titled “How E-books Will Change Reading and Writing.” Quoting from several other articles, Neary explores the future of literature in relationship to the electronic reader, and she examines how writers are adapting to what seems to be a new literary genre: writing for the screen—in this case,
not the silver screen, but the screens of computers, Kindles and Nooks and the even smaller screens of iPods and cellphones.
Not surprisingly, writers have already attempted to write novels on Twitter, embracing the form of 140-characters-or-less segments (you can see such a novel, this one titled Small Places: A Novel about Offices and Bugs, here). Limiting oneself to a certain number of words and exploring creative potential in superficially limiting forms is not a new literary practice; famous examples include, of course, many examples from poetry, like the doggerel, the villanelle, the sonnet, and haiku.
Interestingly, while restrictions on writing forms have, in the past, led to a greater emphasis on—and attention to— language (both in poetry and fiction), Neary’s article suggests that the limitations of writing for the screen of a cellphone or within the character limit of a twitter post tend to guide writers and readers in the opposite direction. Neary quotes Time magazine book reviewer and novelist Lev Grossman, who believes that fiction must adapt to e-book and cellphone readers by becoming “narratively very propulsive” in order to “hook readers right away.” No longer will readers linger over language—instead, Grossman says, contemporary readers are more likely to read quickly, “extract the data, and…move on. Grossman therefore argues that the task facing contemporary writers is one of excelling in this fast-moving, minimally ornamented and narrative-focused form, and of using it as a vehicle in the search for, or propagation of, truth (or whatever it is that writers chose to strive for in their work).
I think a lot of this article is very on point. Screens do not urge one to linger the way the pages of a book can, and writing (and writers, of course) have consistently, in the past, adapted their works to the technological requirements of printing and distribution particular to their time, place and situation. I haven’t read or written enough to say which of the myriad literary forms serves as the best vehicle for the seeking and telling of truths. I suspect that’s a question (happily) without a definitive answer. To me, it seems that some writers create their own forms and inhabit them completely, while others are never able to settle comfortably into a style that unmistakably belongs to them, and them alone. Instead, they create their works within the styles of others, emulating their heroes or contemporaries, molding imperfect forms as well as possible to their own craft.
I think the same thing might be true about writers in relation to the style(s) of their time. The works of many great artists—Dickinson, Kafka, Mahler, Van Gogh, just to name a handful—weren’t widely appreciated during their own lifetimes. Some writers, even those of the greatest merit, are less able (or less willing) to adapt to the form of the moment. And sometimes they’re recognized despite this, recognized for their originality, recognized for being different, for being exceptional. Other times they’re passed over and underappreciated, except by those lucky enough or discerning enough to discover them.
It’s strange for me to think (and I’m not sure I’m convinced that this will happen) that in the upcoming decade E-books may overtake books as the major medium for reading, and that the E-book may spawn a literary genre or sub-genre or at the least its own literary style. To me, the E-book, with all its supposed ease of use, its potential as a tablet-sized gateway to libraries full of literature, and its position as a potential impetus for a decade full of “narratively very propulsive” fiction, is just another in a long line of “improvements” that seem to make the world faster, easier, and more efficient.
And if ease, speed, and efficiency are the values of the moment, such values make me wonder if perhaps there will be a counter-movement of slow movers, of amblers, wanderers and lingerers, if there will be a rise in the number of people who believe that sometimes a step back (or a moment of standing still) can be worth as much as, if not more, than a step forward. Maybe such a counter-movement is happening already, and the world is just mistaking its members for people who simply can’t keep the pace, and mistaking its message for one endorsing (or unable to escape from) sloth, indolence, and incapability, rather than recognizing its slower pace as a purposeful emphasis on patience and attention, on lingering in a moment rather then pressing immediately on into the next one.
It seems a bit like a conflict in life philosophies…we all know we only have a limited time to be alive, so how to make the most of it? That depends, I guess, on your definition of most. What does ‘most’ measure? The most things, the most money, the most people? And how does ‘most’ measure? Quantity, or quality? Some ratio of the two or some form of measurement that’s different entirely?
This doesn’t all come up in Neary’s article, but I think these are questions the article could ask, questions implied behind her questions about the future of books and literature in the upcoming decade. Certainly, these are questions that writers ask—that writers have always asked—and that some writers attempt to answer. I’ve always thought of literature, whatever its form, as a place for the important questions to be pondered, mulled over, thought out, written up to, through, and around, wrestled with, confronted, bullied, coaxed, conversed with, and maybe, occasionally, understood. I hope that in the next decade, no matter what style dominates literature as a popular and profitable enterprise, and that whatever form the book takes for each and every reader, that these questions aren’t forgotten, or taken lightly, but that they still carry the weight of their own worth with them in every word.