Sunday, January 25, 2009

The future of the novel: discuss amongst yourself


"We think of the novel as a transcendent, timeless thing, but it was shaped by the forces of money and technology just as much as by creative genius. Passing over a few classical and Far Eastern entries, the novel in its modern form really got rolling only in the early 18th century. This wasn't an accident, and it didn't happen because a bunch of writers like Defoe and Richardson and Fielding suddenly decided we should be reading long books about imaginary people. It happened as a result of an unprecedented configuration of financial and technological circumstances. New industrial printing techniques meant you could print lots of books cheaply; a modern capitalist marketplace had evolved in which you could sell them; and for the first time there was a large, increasingly literate, relatively well-off urban middle class to buy and read them. Once those conditions were in place, writers like Defoe and Richardson showed up to take advantage of them.

"Fast-forward to the early 21st century: the publishing industry is in distress. Publishing houses--among them Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Doubleday and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt--are laying off staff left and right. Random House is in the midst of a drastic reorganization. Salaries are frozen across the industry. Whispers of bankruptcy are fluttering around Borders; Barnes & Noble just cut 100 jobs at its headquarters, a measure unprecedented in the company's history. Publishers Weekly (PW) predicts that 2009 will be "the worst year for publishing in decades."

"A lot of headlines and blogs to the contrary, publishing isn't dying. But it is evolving, and so radically that we may hardly recognize it when it's done. Literature interprets the world, but it's also shaped by that world, and we're living through one of the greatest economic and technological transformations since--well, since the early 18th century. The novel won't stay the same: it has always been exquisitely sensitive to newness, hence the name. It's about to renew itself again, into something cheaper, wilder, trashier, more democratic and more deliriously fertile than ever."

The author's ultimate point is that the internet is changing everything--that more and more people will self-publish online and that the novel itself may be dispersed in a more electronic form. What do you think? Is this a good thing? A bad thing? Whatever?


Lisa B. said...

I think it's one of those things--it is what it is. I can't believe that print publishing will die, exactly, but it will mostly exist in some relation to online publishing. I want to read novels--any long text--in print form . . . but I have been thinking what it would be like to have one of those Kindle readers, where you can download books from thin air. Doesn't that seem kind of magical and worse-than-print, all at the same time?

Louise Plummer said...

CAN you read a Kindle in the bathtub? Such a good question. In the end, people aren't going to stop reading. We'll all make our adjustments.

Jayne said...

Friday night reading old blogs from people I am coming to know and love. I am always so suspicious when writers say that they love to write on paper or with a typewriter. Bah. When I was still using a typewriter and I had done 25 pages, but wanted to rework the first paragraph - I would often just let it go (oh well I'd say to myself, it's non fiction). But the first thing I wrote on a computer was a dream. I fixed and fixed and moved things around. Creative heaven.

Reading, however is for me, a hugely physical thing. I will always want to hold and feel a physical book. Turn the pages and get more comfortable in my bed, chair, tub. I have The Beekeepers Apprentice on my desktop, downloaded from Laurie King's If-I-give-you-this-one-online-maybe-you-will-buy-the-others experiment. But when I want to read, I don't want to be here anymore.

Smanc - what I want to do to my daughter today after days of smarty pants-ness. Smack and apank. But I won't