In part as a response to CEO Jeff Bezos’s announcement that more customers are buying digital books for the Kindle than hardcover books at Amazon, Linton Weeks, in his NPR article “Books Have Many Futures,” discusses the various forms books will take in the not-so-distant future. Indeed, within the next five to ten years, the physical form of the contemporary novel is going to change. It seems inevitable. More and more people are reading novels on Kindles, iPads, and Nooks—and even those who resisted the idea at first, such as myself, have been impressed with the readability of text on these devices.
I waver between being excited by these new changes and leery of them. As an aspiring novelist, my greatest concern has to do with how it will impact publishing industry, how writers, editors, agents, etc. will be able to make a living … but I do feel certain of one thing: We will always crave narrative experiences—it’s built into the human circuitry—and we’ll always need the active participation that reading fiction (and poetry) offers us to gain a richer understanding of ourselves.
So, my question is this: If the way we read is changing, then will the way we write need to change as well? Weeks suggests just that: “And could it be that there are new forms of storytelling out there — video games, interactive multi-user dungeons, role-playing games — that we are just beginning to explore? In the same way we moved from Homeric recitations to books, could we now be moving from books to shared, multi-narrator stories?”
I’m prone to nostalgia. My novel Dodging and Burning is set, for the most part, in 1945. I love the dark romance of mid-20th century hard-boiled fiction. I teach a historical survey course on British Literature. I feel deeply that, to write good fiction, contemporary writers must have a thorough understanding of its roots, from Chaucer to Dickens to Virginia Woolf. But I find it much more difficult to feel at peace with where the novel needs to go.
For instance, that Weeks mentions video games in his article makes me wince. When I was fourteen, I gave away my Nintendo, because it frustrated me. It hedged in my creativity. I didn’t like playing within the constraints it set up for me. So, the very idea that we need to make novels like video games—that narratives will have to be played, so to speak, to engage readers—gives me a stomach ache.
Yet, I think there’s something to it. After all, to be good, art of any sort can’t be static. Great artists and writers have always been innovators. Just think of the impact that James Joyce or Virginia Woolf had on the novel … or Gertrude Stein and Hemingway on prose. Also, good fiction—”Writerly” fiction, as I mentioned in my last blog entry—needs to involve the reader, make him or her “a producer of the text.” Could being a “player” be like being a producer?
Although we’ll always crave (and need) complex narratives, writers may have to begin stretching and bending the form more aggressively. As much as I love where the novel has been, more and more I realize that I need to pay attention to where it’s going and think about how to change narrative form to suit new tastes without undermining its integrity. No easy task.