Thursday, November 5, 2009

New Formats, New Literature?

[Rather listen to the post instead?]

I take books for granted. Not individual books. I treasure individual books. I hold onto them; I refuse to give them away or, truth be told, even lend them unless I’ve practically screened the potential borrower as carefully a nominee for the Supreme Court. But I take for granted the fact of the printed book, with its generally three hundred pages, its soft or hard binding, its black-and-white author photo, and its cryptically intriguing cover illustration. This form of narrative is more or less all I have known—even before I could read the words myself.

That’s all changing now. And I’m surprised to find that I’m not bothered. Yes, there are numerous forms now in which to experience a novel or a short story or a poem. But the existence of digital books doesn’t, I think, require the disappearance of the printed book. It’s not, as I said in a recent comment, a zero-sum game. I have yet to encounter an e-reading devotee who now refuses to read books in print. (Speaking of Books in Print, what will they title that reference volume now? Books Published? Books You Can Buy?)

What will change, though, is something about fiction itself. The technology of narrative inevitably affects the prose or poetry it’s designed to disseminate. The oral tradition gave rise to the epithet. Which one’s Athena again? The gray-eyed one. Right. You couldn’t sit through successive nights listening to stories with hundreds of characters without the crutch of labels like that. Then—I’ll skip willfully over centuries of literature—the Victorian novel had its own tricks. If you serialize a story in a monthly magazine, you’d better be sure to build in ways to remind the reader about what happed last time. Hence those long chapter titles “in which our hero discovers he is the son of a nobleman”. Hence the cliffhanger ending and the scene-setting beginning.

These literary devices haven’t gone away. It’s just that now they might turn up more often on television. In fact, television keeps bringing us closer and closer to these older literary forms. Where we once used to have (and still have vestiges of) the sitcom with its stand-alone episodes and perfect closure, we now have complicated serials that create suspense week to week and that require and, in many cases, reward a viewer’s dedication. We’re now used to that “Last week on” preface to many byzantinely-plotted shows like Lost or Gray’s Anatomy. And shows like the numerous anagram spin-offs rely on predictable moments, like visual epithets, to help individual characters stand out from the crowd of law-and-order professionals. We really haven’t left the Victorian novel or the epic very far behind.

The question is what will be the literary devices of the new generation of narratives? If we’re reading a novel on our cell-phones, as we could do in Japan, surely the form of the narrative has to be different. And if we’re reading a short story on a website or on Twitter, or listening to a book that’s been written exclusively for audio distribution? How will the structure and the language of these new forms reflect the technology we use to take them in?

My own experiences with iPhone literature have so far been fairly limited to what I have stumbled on through Stanza and Classics, where there is a prevalence of Jane Austen (actually, I defy someone to tell me where, besides perhaps a Monster Trucks rally, there is not a prevalence of Jane Austen). Which raises the question: besides the superhuman Jane, how well are older more traditional forms of narrative surviving on these new technologies? How is Dickens faring on a digi-book? How is Shakespeare on a cell-phone?

What’s your experience been with new ways of reading? Embracing them? Keeping them at arm’s length?


  1. While I have yet to embrace cell phone reading, it comforts me to know that it's there.Having a reading app on my phone is a security blanket, covering my life-long fear of being caught without a book.

    Kindle, ah, it's made for traveling. Took a 2 wk trip recently where I was luggage-limited and Kindle saved my day.

    And for the real deal--nothing beats a book. So, for me, a constant reader, vis a vis reading comfort and pleasure: hard cover trumps paperback, which beats e-reader, and smart phone is on the bottom--there for an emergency.

  2. I like the hierarchy! Somewhat different from my own, which would put paperbacks ahead of hardbacks (though I will make an exception for The Murderer's Daughter this January, of course!), and might even place hardbacks on a par with e-books. The new hardbacks, without jackets, with the design printed on the cover itself, are intriguing. Then again, there is truly nothing new under the sun, since that's how hardbacks used to be produced even as recently as 100 years ago.

  3. Hi Henriette: love the new audio feature. Speaking of new ways of reading.

    It's not the content that'll be changing, just the size of information chunks. You'll still get the same Jane Austen on a phone or a Kindle or a 140-character twitter feed. Just keep clicking and you'll get to the end. I still prefer a book. My favorite books are based on websites. Ha. That's one way to monetize a blog.

  4. Ah, yes, but does Austen's narrative offer us pauses at the appropriate intervals--say, every 140 characters, or every paragraph or so? The new Austens will have shape their stories so that they break off at certain intervals.