There have been a few rumblings on the interweb and on the airwaves that I have picked up on in recent weeks along the lines of “what will technology do to the way we read and write?”
First I came across a fascinating experiment on the Guardian Books website called Twitter Fiction where they asked well known authors to write a story in 140 characters or less. I then listened to an interesting debate on BBC Radio 4 with someone talking about the future of literature and how technology may change what is written and how it is read. Unfortunately, I can’t find the item on the (brilliant, by the way) BBC Radio website, but I did find this debate about ebooks which I haven’t listened to yet, but will do, as it sounds fascinating. Last night, a similar debate was had on Radio 4’s Front Row about new ways musicians and record labels are finding to release digital albums (from Beck’s online sheet music to Dave Gilmour’s album app) which sounded very similar to the questions facing books and publishing. Then, when Melissa Foster from WLC posed the question on Facebook this morning, “How many years will it take until our society stops writing 75K word novels and everything published is a short story, which will then be accepted as the new novel length?”, it got me thinking…are we becoming too obsessed with how technology is changing the way we read and write? Is technology having that much of an effect? And if so, does it actually matter?
The Guardian’s Twitter Fiction challenge was a very interesting experiment, but nothing more than that. Some of the results were enjoyable (Geoff Dyer’s was tragic, Ian Rankin’s gruesome, Hari Kunzru’s thrilling and Charlie Higson’s funny…and also gruesome). But let’s face it, Twitter isn’t built for storytelling, is it? Is Twitter really going to be the go-to place to find your fiction? I doubt it. I use twitter, and plenty of authors use twitter – authors who will happily tweet away in 140 characters or less to their friends and readers then shut down their browser and churn out thousands of words for their new opus on the same computer. Are they worrying that if they can’t fit their 90,000 words into 140 characters by this time next year then their careers will be over? I doubt it! Of course, many authors think Twitter is the go-to place for people to find their fiction, in a completely different sense, but that’s another blog post entirely…
Nah, tweeting isn’t the new novel, and never will be. But Twitter does have ancestors. Centuries ago, as many fantasy and historical novelists will tell you, if you wanted to get a message to someone far away, you sent a messenger on a horse or a boat with a sealed scroll. Then, in the 19th century, some bright spark invented the electric telegraph, a way of getting a simple message across large distances in the fewest characters possible in a matter of moments. Sound familiar? The fact that the sender had to pay per character meant that messages were more often than not short and to the point and the senders often had fun with the new form of communicating (“Arriving Saturday (stop) 8.15 train from Euston (stop) Love you will never (stop)”. People still wrote letters to each other and authors still wrote novels when the telegraph arrived, and some people still write long letters to each other now (they just send them electronically rather than by post) as well as “texting” each other. When you think about it, Twitter is the natural successor of the telegram, not the novel.
So was Twitter Fiction a waste of time? Of course not, some of them were very amusing. But I have to be honest, very few of them felt like finished articles to me. More like initial thoughts to be built upon and expanded (although admittedly, Charlie Higson’s did actually have a beginning, a middle and an end, even if the middle was only hinted at). These weren’t so much stories as pitches for a story, straplines even. Fun, but I didn’t feel satisfied by any of them. Give me a meaty, wordy novel, any day.
The guest on the radio debate (which I am really peeved I can’t find – if anyone else remembers it and has a link, let me know!) seemed to argue that the fact that the method of delivery had changed, that we can get gratification from downloading book upon book instantly and relatively cheaply will mean that readers will be more inclined to ditch a novel (or writer) much more quickly and move on to the next. But don’t we do that already? Is there really much of a difference between browsing the shelves in Waterstones and having a click around Amazon? (Ok, ok, I know that browsing an actual, real bookshop is way more enjoyable, but again, another argument, another day.)
While it’s true that there is a linear path to be drawn from the first etchings on rocks of our forefathers many thousands of years ago to today’s tweeting and posting, I wouldn’t say its the same path that telling stories has taken. I’d say that the modern novel (and ebook, I think it’s time to add that link to the chain) is a direct descendent of the nomadic storyteller – the wizened old man who would travel from village to village and be paid to tell his stories of times gone by, of adventure and intrigue. Eventually, these storytellers took advantage of technologies to start writing their tales down instead of passing them from generation to generation.
These stories became novels, the novel flourished and changed and adapted, not only to the technology of the day, but also to the lifestyles and attitudes of the day, too. Yes, some of the stories became longer, but others remained resolutely short and sweet. Eventually, mass production made it possible for books to be made available to the general population, rather than just the elite. Writers of the time jumped on the mass market bandwagon and provided these new readers with the stories they wanted. The same thing is happening now, with the latest technology. The ebook is to a paperback what the paperback was to the hardback – an evolution of the method of delivery.
Of course new technology will have an impact on how and what people write, and will have an influence on what they read. After all, the advent of the ebook has been a game-changer for self-publishing. But I can’t see the death of the novel-as-we-know-it in the near future, and as for the new technology reducing readers’ attention spans and therefore the length of the average novel, I’m not convinced. Too many people download too many lengthy books (think Game of Thrones, or dare I mention it, 50 Shades of Grey) to their Kindles to make that argument stick. Whether or not it’s the ebook that has changed or will change literature remains to be seen. I believe any effect the method of delivery has on books will be negligible compared to the way society has changed in its attitudes and what it wants to read. To what extent the two are interlinked and affect each other is a philosophical debate I don’t have the brain cells for right now.
For what it’s worth, I think if a writer writes a novel and it ends up being 5,000 words or 500,000 words, if they’re good words, words which readers will enjoy reading, then there’s no need to worry.
So, what do you think? Is Melissa right in pondering whether or not the novel is doomed to be truncated to a mere footnote in someone’s busy day? Or should writers stop worrying about it and write the book they want to, safe in the knowledge that there are still readers out there with long attention spans who will want to read it?