Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Future of the Novel

This is one of those days when I have so many choices of things to talk about that I don't know where to begin.

For a change of pace, let's look at the new issue of Slate, the online magazine ( They're calling this edition "Fall Fiction Week." There are half a dozen reviews and commentaries on fiction.

One of the more intriguing articles is titled "The Novel, 2.0." Slate introduces it: "Slate has invited novelists Walter Kirn and Gary Shteyngart to discuss a question that's been on our minds: What is the role of fiction in the age of the Internet? By 'Internet' we mean not just the web itself but also the notion of constant connectivity . . . So, we've asked our critics to address the following questions: Does the new age of connectivity have any ramifications for the novel? Has human experience been altered?"

The article is written in the form of a series of letters between the two novelists.

Kirn writes: "I'm thrown by this new world, both as a novelist and as a person . . . I read somewhere once in the 1960s fiction writers were troubled by the notion that life was becoming stranger and more sensational than made-up stories could ever hope to be. Our new problem--more profound, I think--is that life no longer resembles a story. Events intersect but don't progress. People interact but don't make contact. Settings shift but don't necessarily change."

Shteyngart responds: "In this fragmented, distracted, levitating new world, no wonder you and I are unsure of our place as writers of fiction. According to a recent poll, 81 percent of Americans think they have a book in them. (Of course, few of these citizens actually feel compelled to read someone else's novel.) And if you put together the daydreams, misrepresentations, regrets, jeremiads, nostalgic reminisces, and so on that an average educated American now types into her computer's Outlook program during the course of a year, you will most certainly get a 250-page volume . . . The questions may well be: Who has the patience and inclination to read these (often lengthy) works, when so many Americans are already involved in their own electronic, Wikipedian journeys?"

As I read the comments both novelists made, I found myself thinking two things. First, that the novel will never disappear. There will always be a market for novel-length stories in which readers can lose themselves. I do, however, think that the delivery mediums will continue to evolve so that we will have more choices for HOW we read novels. These will include portable readers, cell phones, audio readers and computers. It's inevitable; we are moving toward a paperless society because of expense, immediacy and ecology.

My second thought was that novellas, short stories and flash fiction will continue to grow in popularity. In a world in which we do things in short bursts of time, the options for fiction will expand to include fiction that can also be read (or listened to) quickly and without a great investment of time.

I don't see these trends as a negative. I see them as an expansion of choice necessary to adapt to the faster-paced lives we are living. Everything happens more quickly now. No one is ever really unreachable or inaccessible.

This connected lifestyle creates a different set of problems (how to relax, how to communicate without the benefit of body language), but I don't see it as the End of Civilization as we know it. It's a natural part of evolution.

It will be interesting to see what happens over the next decade. Let's hope we're all around to watch it occur.

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