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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Frank Norris & the fate of the novel

After his death in 1902, novelist Frank Norris's critical essays were published in The Responsibilities of the Novelist. The title essay argues that novelists have a greater responsibility to their audience than even a newspaper editor or a minister. While celebrating the form, Norris acknowledges how different eras appreciate different genres. He writes:
"Today is the day of the novel. In no other day and by no other vehicle is contemporaneous life so adequately expressed; and the critics of the twenty-second century, reviewing our times, striving to reconstruct our civilization, will look not to the painters, not to the architects nor dramatists, but to the novelists to find our idiosyncrasy.
"I think this is true. [...] There is no doubt the novel will in time 'go out' of popular favour as irrevocably as the long poem has gone, and for the reason that it is no longer the right mode of expression." [for the full text of the collection visit:]

Certainly, the novel is facing its greatest threat since Norris first declared it his choice genre of the American century. The economy threatens to freeze the publishing industry. Money to acquire and market novelists is drying up, editors are being laid off and the survivors are asked to do more work they don't have time for. Authors face shrinking advances and lower royalties thanks to fewer booksales (given the choice between groceries and books, people tend to pick groceries. Unless they are in graduate school and can live on Ramen noodles.)

The shift from print material to digital material has rapidly begun with the development of e-readers, Google's great book scanning project, and the growing sophistication of web developers and web users. The economy has pressured the industry to embrace this untested arena faster than anyone expected. Web-only journals have done some initial work, managing to spread quickly thanks to lower operating costs and the satisfaction of near-instant publication. (The time it takes to respond to stories has decreased thanks to online submissions, but reading a 5,000 word story still seems to take the same amount of time.)

It's possible the short story will have a stronger presence as web-publishing gets sorted out. But the printed novel faces a the kind of marginalization that poetry currently suffers. The printed readership will decrease, albeit slower than proponents of online reading will suggest since novelists will continue to work in the medium. It will take a few commercially viable web-novelists to help convince casual readers to get on board. (Stephen King has already tried, if I'm not mistaken.) While there will always be an argument for the portability and low-cost of mass market books (who wants to take their e-book to the beach or risk leaving it behind on the subway?), the tech-savvy members of current and upcoming generations will celebrate the advantages of e-readers.

The serial publication may be the best way to encourage online or e-book reading. It certainly worked with early novels in England and in the 19th century, though the initial reason was due more to the limitation of printing and the amount of money people had to spend on books. The growth in storyline continuity since the 1990s in television suggests a greater openness to serial publishing. Daytime soap operas and comic books have used this stategy for decades. Serial films, too, tapped into an audiences desire for a perpetual storyline.

Writers can use this strategy to lure their readers in with monthly or bi-weekly chapters or short stories. And, while the hypertext revolution didn't immediately catch on with readers, writers who become/work with webpage designers have the option to lure readers/surfers in and get them to spend an hour or more exploring a story on a website -- creating a new form where the once unseen material becomes accessbile or visual material enhances the reader's understanding of the story. Think of it as a director's cut or a special-features online novel where character sketches, alternate endings, character journals, etc. give the reader a fuller experience. Aside from that approach, a novelist could easily create a graphic-novel world with visual and audio elements that correspond with the text. The footnotes of David Foster Wallace would seem quaint or groundbreaking in this world. (For some idea of the potential of the website-as-novel, consider sites that allow readers to follow rabbit holes in the text like some older iterations of the band website or the site for the film Donnie Darko). The phrase getting lost in a book can easily become getting lost in a webpage-novel.

In this setup, publishers would still have plenty of revenue opportunities (and thus writers would still get paid for their labor). Imagine reading a book that has a musical reference and being able to play the song along with the scene? Or go off to buy the song? Imagine a publisher with 4 authors -- each author publishes a new chapter each week on the website. (or 30 authors, each publishing a chapter a day!) Readers could pay for access to the entire site or the specific author's work. Want to download to an e-book reader? It's no harder than downloading from iTunes or the Amazon MP3 store. Maybe there's a fee or maybe it's included in the website membership. I'll leave the captilism to the experts, but the novelist would not have to fear a complete loss of financial stability because of the change.

The greatest change might be to the reading experience, and not necessarily the composition. The internet doesn't encourage long reading periods both because of the physical limitation of reading things onscreen as well as the lack of interest people might have spending time online after working on a computer all day. True, printed novels are only slightly easier on the eyes, and if you've ever sat in bed reading a long novel all day you know that the neck, the hands, and elbows all ache. But the technological aspect of reading, along with the physical connection so many readers love to have with their novels, will change no matter what. The price of printing, the environmental impact of so much paper used (and so much wasted), the price of storage, etc. mean that reading digitally will become the norm regardless of the merits of the printed novel.

Publishing is going to become digital. The initial generation of writers who have access to more sophisticated technology and online distribution will try very hard to push the "novel" forward. We may see monstrocities that don't deserve our reading time. There will be pieces that later readers will say was "ahead of its time." There may even be a few commercially successful books (if publishers can convince already-proven writers to given online writing a shot and not simply paste a novel on a website.)

Frank Norris (among others) will be both right and wrong. The novel as a printed object will go out of favor. But the novel as a genre, a form, will carry on. If the novel, at its core, is a detailed story involving characters and conflict, subplots, related scenes, cause and effect, and the moral obsessions of all art, then it will be the manifestation of the genre that goes out of favor, not the novel form itself. Like the long, narrative poem, the printed novel will become an artifact, making way for a different (not necessarily better or worse) form. Most assuredly, what we'll see online will not resemble the books that line my well-stocked IKEA bookshelves. What I read onscreen or download to some device will still be called a novel, but it won't resemble its printed cousin closely, just as e.e. cummings and The Odyssey are both related but vastly different.

Still, as long as there is a story and character and sentences that make the hairs on my arms prickle with electricity, I'll be happy.

EDIT: Found this on Endgadget today:


Cory said...

For some reason, I feel very confidently that e-books just won't succeed.

People don't want to spend hours at a computer screen reading the same thing; they want to keep digging deeper.

But hey, what does the future hold? Culture may change and people might favor reading online or on their computers/e-books over print. Perhaps new screen technologies will make screens much easier on the eyes?

evanjamesroskos said...

Cory, I think you're right to say people don't want to sit in front of their screens. but the e-paper technology is not like a normal LCD "backlit" screen. e-paper is not lit -- you need to have a light source, just like paper. Both the Kindle and the Sony E-reader use this and will probably use advanced versions of e-paper-esque technology for the foreseeable future. the catch will be how the devices evolve.

The Amazon Kindle ver 2.0 is expected to come out next Monday (Feb 9th). We'll see if they are going to offer anything new and exciting to people willing to be guinea pigs. Until the prices come down for the readers, i don't see e-books taking off.

James Swezey said...

I think that the economy having as many problems will help the ebook regardless. This is because the ebook is economic and people are more than ever desirous to save money. It won't necessarily hurt it because, well things can only get better not really worse unless the whole market for ebooks just up and evaporated. At least I hope it gets better as my book was recently published via that format, and is also in the Kindle format for an e-reader. To the future.

Alicia Adams said...

Between the Kindle, the seemingly ubiquitous iPhone, and now even the Ninentendo DS to act as a e-readers, I think the dawn of the eBook *is* upon us. The question is, however, how long will it take for this new structure to begin informing content. Just as the serial publication nature of the Dickens novel had a tremendous impact on his work structurally, and one can argue -- plotwise.

Roskos points out the "website as novel" concepts, and how they have been used to limited extent so far. But with the emergence of eBooks, I think we will begin to see a new form of the novel begin to emerge as writers begin to experiment with it, just as a painter with a new medium. Imagine a Burroughs like pastiche of story, algorithimicaly hypertexted throughout so that no two readings were the same, but the reader *would* experience all the content in some form. A choose-your-own adventure novel for the avant garde literati, if you would.

There is a world of possibility for the novelist who chooses to embrace the eBook, and abandon the constraints of the paper and ink format. Text, soundtrack, visual elements, etc. How commercially viable will this turn out to be? As Roskos points out, high selling authors such as Stephen King need to be at the forefront of the movement. But doing so within the constraints of the serial system seems anachronistic to me. It's backwards looking, and eventually allows the paper and ink format to once again dominate. If you wait long enough, that serialized story will appear on the shelf at your local Borders, the market demands it.

In order for more than techno geek and gadget freak to truly embrace and transition over to an eBook format, readers need to get something out of it that they weren't getting before. People bought televisions so they could see the pictures they were missing on the radio. It is up to authors to embrace the new possibilities of their artform -- what will the novel become in this new age? I for one look forward to it, and can't wait to experience the stories and characters without the limitations of the current bulky 'book' system we have now.