Originally published on G. Michael Rapp's blog, "The Pipeline," and on Medium.com.
The novel, in its current form, really hasn’t deviated from the form in which it began. Reading a novel really hasn’t changed, fundamentally speaking. Novel reading is very much the same as it was two-hundred years ago. However, the thing that has changed is technology. Technology, specifically information-communication technology (ICT), has made profound leaps. We have moved from unreliable phone connections with limited coverage to (mostly) reliable connections on the Web and the phone line. Why hasn’t the novel changed with the times? What makes the novel the prevailing paradigm when it comes to the serious and not-so-serious reader? These are questions I hope to explore here.
The novel itself has always fascinated me. It is something that has dominated my reading life–for better or worse. The novel as a form has dominated my writing life as a fiction writer. I have attempted to tackle the novel in its glory numerous times, all to no avail. This has forced me to reconsider my position as a fiction writer on more than one occasion. If I can’t write a novel, why should I bother writing at all? The novel is, after all, the paradigm that dominates the fiction landscape. Long gone are the days when fiction writers can eke out a living writing short stories and selling them to magazines and/or journals. Today, if one were to look at the prevailing publishing ecosystem for short stories, one would find a rather lush ecosystem verging on ecological collapse, completely hostile to supporting writers financially. Some journals, in order to stay alive in hard times, now charge reading fees. This is an understandable position for an entity inching near death. Magazines, once the lifeblood of publishing short stories, pay penance instead of a living wage. The publishing ecosystem that I am describing is being drained, hacked away, and burned down by the novel industry. However, the novel industry, too, is on the verge of ecological collapse. The so-called gatekeepers are pushing the newest King or Rice, but don’t appear to care much about the up-and-coming writers. This has created a system similar to monoculture in agricultural circles. Instead of growing a diverse range of crops, the publishers are seeking to plant, harvest, and sell specific varieties, ignoring many others.
One might say that what I have said above is unfair to the publishing industry. However, I would argue this isn’t the case. I don’t think I have been fair in my assessment. In other words, I have pulled a few punches, out of respect for the work done by this industry. Nevertheless, I am increasingly becoming alienated by this industry. It is an industry that claims it wants variety, diversity, and refreshment, but refuses to take chances that would obtain these sorts of wants. Instead, the publishing industry appears to be like the medieval peasant, who refused to experiment for fear of starvation, even when the new farming methods proved to be more beneficial, more sustainable, and, in the end, more profitable, than those practices that dominated before.
What does this have to do with the novel? you might ask. That’s a great question, something that I wish to explore in detail here. The novel, and its future, are quite thrilling to think about. To me, I have imagined what the novel will look like in the next hundred years. Will it still be contained in something like books? Or, will it become something so alien that we can’t imagine how it will interact with those fickle readers? The problem the novel faces isn’t necessarily irrelevance. Instead, it appears that the novel appears to be suffering from what might be termed the meganovel. The meganovel is a monstrosity, a problematic development of the modern publishing world. The Rowlings and Martins of the writing world are crafting entire universes that are contained within the fragile pages of printed books. The meganovel crowds out the voices of those trying to enter the market. Rowling and Martin are like noxious weeds, crowding out those species that might otherwise thrive in the environment. Their work is demanded by readers, yes. Their work is worthy of study, yes. However, what about those voices that aren’t Martin and Rowling? What happens to them? Where do they fit in an ecosystem dominated by invasive species? That is a good deal trickier to tackle.
It was thought that the advent of cheap computers and affordable Internet access would bring about a revolution in the publishing ecosystem. To be sure, everyone seemed to be onboard with the next revolution in publishing: hypertext. Authors and poets alike flocked to the Web, publishing their work for hungry readers, who supposedly wanted these new stories, poems, and novels. Instead, as Steven Johnson, in “Why No One Clicked on the Great Hypertext Story,” laments that people really didn’t click with hypertext. It was a flop. And no wonder. Have you ever tried reading a hypertext? Yes, they are interesting. Yes, they are entertaining. However, are they really the next step?
The problem with technology is that it wore out users, and fast. E-mail, computer chat, video games, and even the beloved hypertext, wore out their welcome. We became inundated with the electronic sphere that we became numb to its charms. We tuned out. We stopped looking at our e-mail account for the umpteenth time. A resurgence in board games, vinyl records, and all things retro made it seem like we took a step backward in time. The future just wasn’t as cool as it was made out to be. To paraphrase William Gibson, we were all suffering from “future fatigue.” This future fatigue probably explains the love affair we have with traditional novels and books, in general. The book, specifically the novel, is a dominant paradigm that is unlikely to disappear, that is until it, too, has worn out its welcome in our highly globalized society. The conditions of possibility that led to the creation of the novel are still with us today. However, I believe there is a change in the wind. This change won’t replace the novel. In other words, this change is likely to co-opt the novel’s form into a new technology.
If we see novels as a form of technology, we can then understand why this dominant paradigm sticks with us, haunts us, and fills our heads with flights of fantasy. The thing about technology is that it builds on older forms of technology. It takes past developments for current and future technologies to even exist. Think about it this way: The book is a form of communicative technology. It is the byproduct of millennia of technological advancements. For example, the book relies on things like paper, ink, written language, and the like, to even exist. The same goes for the novel. Things like character development, plot structure, figurative language, and even dialogue needed to be developed before we could even have what would be considered the novel. Does that mean this technology maintains its dominance forever? No. However, it does show just how complex it is to replace existing technological paradigms such as the novel.
The thing that hypertextualists forgot is that particular dominant technology doesn’t go away overnight. Instead, technological paradigms are often co-opted into newer paradigms rather than being completely replaced. For example, the telephone didn’t go the way of the dodo when the Internet graced all of us with its presence. Instead, the telephone acted, and in some cases still acts, as the backbone of the universe we have created using the Internet’s protocols. The same goes for Cable television. Cable television provides the backbone for the Streaming revolution we see and experience today. Thus, to come up with a replacement for the novel would be pointless. However, co-opting the novel into a new paradigm, using the technological advances of the last two or three decades, would be the smartest move.
In other words, the hypertextualists were wrong to assume that they could kill a dominant technological paradigm such as a the novel. Moreover, they were mistaken that people even wanted to change, especially in an age where uniformity among operating systems and computer software suites posed a real problem for readers. How does one read a document fashioned in a now-defunct computer software? This problem explains why many readers haven’t switched over, completely, to the digital realm for their reading needs and wants. Even after nearly thirty years, the computer revolution hasn’t solved many of these problems–however, to say they’ve been ignored completely would be a gross exaggeration and one that is wholly incorrect, to say the least. Programmers and developers alike are working diligently to solve these compatibility problems. It is possible that one of the future advances we have yet to see will be a form of Babel fish for computers, something that is able to interpret how the code works and execute it for users with relative ease. Until that time comes, we are still stuck with the question, what happens to the novel? Will it become part of the electronic sphere, the Cloud? Or, will it remain the same as it has for the better part of the last two centuries?
Although I would bet money on the traditional novel sticking with us, my heart yearns for something new, something refreshing. This is where my mind is taken to the streaming revolution–where Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and even Roku dominate. Could such a technological advancement bring about significant change to the novel? Could it co-opt the novel as we know it into another technological paradigm? Or, might something like podcasting or video games do that? These are questions I would like to answer, but I don’t think I can come up with sufficient answers to these questions at the moment. Instead, I will offer this. The novel as a technological paradigm is likely to continue well into the twenty-second-century. However, it is possible that with advances in computing, storytelling, and consumer tastes will likely produce something we haven’t even considered. The weird thing about the future is that we have a hard time really understanding how weird it just might be.