Technology has always had an effect on the form of the novel, but the story remains.
by Camilla Nelson
In This Will Destroy That, also known as Book V, Chapter 2 of Notre Dame de Paris, Victor Hugo presents his famous argument that it was the invention of the printing press that destroyed the edifice of the gothic cathedral. Stories, hopes and dreams had once been inscribed in stone and statutory, wrote Hugo. But with the arrival of new printing technologies, literature replaced architecture.
Today, “this” may well be destroying “that” again, as the Galaxy of the Internet replaces the Gutenberg Universe. If a book is becoming something that can be downloaded from the app store, texted to your mobile phone, read in 140-character installments on Twitter, or, indeed, watched on YouTube, what will that do to literature – and particularly Hugo’s favourite literary form, the novel?Debates about the future of the book are invariably informed by conversations about the death of the novel. But as far as the digital novel is concerned, it often seems we’re in – dare I say it – the analogue phase. The publishing industry mostly focuses on digital technologies as a means for content delivery – that is, on wifi as a replacement for print, ink, and trucks. In terms of fictional works specifically created for a digital environment, publishers are mostly interested in digital shorts or eBook singles.
At 10,000 words, these are longer than a short story and shorter than a printed novel, which, in every other respect, they continue to resemble.
Digital editions of classic novels are also common. Some, such as the Random House edition of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962), available from the App store, are innovatively designed, bringing the novel into dialogue with an encyclopedic array of archival materials, including Burgess’ annotated manuscript, old book covers, videos and photographs.
Also in this category is Faber’s digital edition of John Buchan’s 39 Steps (2013), in which the text unfolds within a digital landscape that you can actually explore, albeit to a limited degree, by opening a newspaper, or reading a letter.
But there is a strong sense in which novels of this sort, transplanted into what are essentially gaming-style environments for which the novel form was not designed, can be experienced as deeply frustrating. This is because the novel, and novel reading, is supported by a particular kind of consciousness that Marshall McLuhan memorably called the “Gutenberg mind”.
Novels are linear and sequential, and post-print culture is interactive and multidimensional. Novels draw the mind into deeply imagined worlds, digital culture draws the mind outward, assembling its stories in the interstices of a globally networked culture.
For the novel to become digital, writers and publishers need to think about digital media as something more than just an alternative publishing vehicle for the same old thing. The fact of being digital must eventually change the shape of the novel, and transform the language.
Far from destroying literature, or the novel genre, digital experimentation can be understood as perfectly in keeping with the history of the novel form. There have been novels in letters, novels in pictures, novels in poetry, and novels which, like Robinson Crusoe (1719), so successfully claimed to be factual accounts of actual events that they were reported in the contemporary papers as a news story. It is in the nature of the novel to constantly outrun the attempt to pin it down.
So too, technology has always transformed the novel. Take Dickens, for example, whose books were shaped by the logic of the industrial printing press and the monthly and weekly serial – comprising a long series of episodes strung together with a cliffhanger to mark the end of each installment.
So what does digital media do differently? Most obviously, digital technology is multimodal. It combines text, pictures, movement and sound. But this does not pose much of a conceptual challenge for writers, thanks, perhaps, to the extensive groundwork already laid by graphic novel.
Rather, the biggest challenge that digital technology poses to the novel is the fact that digital media isn’t linear – digital technology is multidimensional, allowing stories to expand, often wildly and unpredictably, in nonlinear patterns.
Rest of the article at: http://theconversation.com/the-byte-may-destroy-the-book-but-the-novel-isnt-over-yet-42556?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Latest+from+The+Conversation+for+3+June+2015+-+2901&utm_content=Latest+from+The+Conversation+for+3+June+2015+-+2901+CID_d9aa7eed4583444a6198564d2fce1b93&utm_source=campaign_monitor&utm_term=The