Latest Issue
Special Reports
Latest Special Report

Do writers need paper?

As the sales of e-books finally start to soar, what effect will this digital revolution have on publishers, readers and writers? Will the novel as we know it survive?

By Tom Chatfield   176

The author Lionel Shriver is someone, she tells me, who enjoys “a conventional authorial life: I get advances sufficient to support me financially; I release my books through traditional publishing houses and write for established newspapers and magazines.” But Shriver, who won the 2005 Orange prize for her eighth novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, is also keeping an increasingly uneasy eye on the situation of 21st-century authors. For a start, there’s the worry that if “electronic publishing takes off in a destructive manner… the kind of fruitful professional life I lead could be consigned to the past.” Then there’s her own reading life, an essential part of the creative process, to consider: “I am personally dependent on the old-fashioned, hierarchical vetting of newspapers and book publishers to locate reading material that’s worth my time. I don’t want to wade through a sea of undifferentiated voices to find articles whose facts are accurate and novels that are carefully crafted and have something to say.”

The tyranny of choice is a near-universal digital lament. But for literary authors, at least, what comes with the territory is an especially barbed species of uncertainty. Take the award-winning novelist and poet Blake Morrison, perhaps best-known for his memoir And When Did You Last See Your Father? “I try to be positive about new technology,” he told me, “but I worry about what’s going to happen to poetry books and literary novels once e-readers have taken over from print. Will they survive the digital revolution? Or will the craving for interactivity drive them to extinction? I’ve not written anything for a year, and part of the reason may be a loss of confidence about the future of literary culture as I’ve known it.”

I’ve spent the last few months talking to authors, publishers and agents about the future, and it’s clear that Morrison’s feelings are far from unusual. After a number of false dawns, books are, finally, starting to go digital. In July, Amazon US reported that its e-book sales overtook sales of hardbacks on its website for the first time. E-books now account for at least 6 per cent of the total American market, a number that’s sure to rise steeply thanks to the huge success of both dedicated e-readers like Amazon’s Kindle and multipurpose hardware like Apple’s iPad, which is currently selling a million units a month. What this means for publishers, readers and writers is the transformation not only of the context within which books exist, but also of what books can and cannot say—and who will read them.

Above all, the translation of books into digital formats means the destruction of boundaries. Bound, printed texts are discrete objects: immutable, individual, lendable, cut off from the world. Once the words of a book appear onscreen, they are no longer simply themselves; they have become a part of something else. They now occupy the same space not only as every other digital text, but as every other medium too. Music, film, newspapers, blogs, videogames—it’s the nature of a digital society that all these come at us in parallel, through the same channels, consumed simultaneously or in seamless sequence.

There are new possibilities in this, many of them marvellous. As the internet has amply illustrated, words shorn of physical restrictions can instantly travel the world and be searched, shared, adapted and updated at will. Yet when it comes to words that aim to convey more than information and opinions, and to books in particular, a paradoxical process of constriction is also taking place. For alongside what Morrison calls “the craving for interactivity,” a new economic and cultural structure is arriving that has the power to dismantle many of those roles great written works have long played: as critiques, inspirations, consciences, entertainments, educations, acts of witness and awakening, and much more.

The digitisation of the reading experience itself is the least radical aspect of this process. Although a minority of titles offer sounds and images, most e-books ape their paper counterparts. Even on an advanced device like the iPad, the best reading applications emphasise clarity and clutter-free text. What’s truly new is the shift in power that the emerging order represents.

The arguments being made for the indispensability of the traditional publishing model centre on two factors: advances and expertise. The established publishing system of paying advances against royalties enables writers, it’s said, to take the time to write and research works of proper depth and quality. The expertise gathered within established publishing companies, meanwhile, is an invaluable resource both for sifting through slush piles and for improving everything from a book’s structure and style to its grammar, presentation and accuracy—and subsequently its packaging, marketing and distribution.

Leaving aside the likelihood that this expertise will simply migrate to new media companies, this account neglects digital culture’s single most transforming force: data. Buy an electronic book and the exact details of that purchase are instantly known: exactly how much was paid, and when, and how, and in combination with which other products. What are the trends, the sudden sparks of interest, the opportunities? Which chapter held people’s attention for longest; at what point did most readers give up? Answering exactly these kinds of questions lies at the heart of the businesses that players like Amazon, Google and Apple have built over the last decade. And these three companies already overwhelmingly dominate the world’s digital publishing transactions.

It has long been a truth of publishing that—much as in movies—a small number of hits generate the bulk of revenues, allowing producers to take a punt on future productions. What, though, if there were no longer any need to gamble on success? Book publishing is based on the principle that publishers control access to a scarce, precious resource—print. But digital media models, where the costs of publication and reproduction are almost nothing, tend to function the other way around: material is first published, then the selection process begins among readers themselves.

For all the weight attached to traditional models of discernment, it’s hard not to see a logic that’s already well-established in other fields gaining ground: put as much material as you can in front of an audience, and let them do the selecting for you. Then—when your best hope of a hit appears—maximise it relentlessly.

After all, digital culture is one vast forum for debate, selection, promotion and distribution. As Angus Donald—whose writing career began in 2009 with the publication of Outlaw, the first in a series of novels about Robin Hood (the second, Holy Warrior, appeared this July)—described the experience of becoming a writer to me: “I find myself as a sort of president of a club of like-minded individuals. I’m matey, elder-brotherly and in regular contact with anyone who wants to communicate with me. I write a blog on a weekly basis, I have two Facebook pages for my books and I go to pretty much any events that invite me… ”

Donald has embraced technology, but there are plenty of authors who take a dimmer view. “When it comes to the world of the internet and blogging and Facebooking and what have you, I’m profoundly sceptical,” Philip Pullman, author of the bestselling His Dark Materials trilogy, told me. “I daresay it manages to connect with a large number of people, but I strongly resent the time it takes up. In the little time that I have ‘spare,’ I don’t want to sit tapping at a keyboard and staring at a screen, I want to read and think.”

Whether authors participate or not, however, the terms on which books are bought and read are transforming. Despite his scepticism, Pullman has birthed a fantasy world that now spans a Hollywood movie, a radio adaptation, a play, a video game, and an online fan community of many hundreds of thousands. His work has a reach that stretches far beyond his own words on a page—and that can only be understood in terms of the newly dynamic interplay between modern media.

This interplay is highly significant within a book market that—even leaving aside the torrent of self-publishing that digital technology permits—has become increasingly crowded and top-heavy. In 2009, more books were published in Britain than in any previous year in history: over 133,000. And yet just 500 authors, less than half of 1 per cent, were responsible for a third of all sales. The situation is an order of magnitude more extreme than that of 30 years ago, when fewer than 50,000 books appeared. In America, one out of every 17 hardback novels bought since 2006 has been written by the crime novelist James Patterson.

This simultaneous increase in the diversity of titles and the concentration of profits among a small number of “super authors” is of a piece with cultural trends elsewhere. And Patterson’s success—in 2009 he netted a reported $70m (£44m) from writing—is both an emblem of how the book trade has changed during several decades of corporate consolidation, and of how it is likely to continue evolving.

Patterson, a former advertising creative director, has achieved a highly-evolved pitch of efficiency as an author. He assembles detailed plot and character outlines, then hands these over to one of his stable of regular co-authors, who complete the writing process under his scrutiny. Last year, nine new titles appeared under his name, and he’s bluntly unsentimental about the writing process. “I’m less interested in sentences now,” he explained to the New York Times in a 2010 interview, “and more interested in stories.”

The most successful new novelist of the last five years is in a rather different position. For a start, he’s dead. He died before he was even a published novelist. Yet neither this nor the fact that he wrote in Swedish has stopped the three novels of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy selling almost 30m copies since 2005. Sales apart, what do Larsson and Patterson have in common?

First, there’s the binding stuff of the thriller genre: bloody mysteries played out in stylised detail; a filmic emphasis on events, intrigue and broad character traits; twisting, satisfyingly resolved narratives. Equally significant, though, is what they lack—a single, defining authorial presence. Larsson is dead. Patterson is as much a brand as an author. Neither has a high public profile, nor a distinctive “voice.” And yet they sell and sell.

It has ever been thus with genre literature. What’s new, however, is the universality with which its axioms—know your audience, give them what they want—are beginning to be applied. In an increasingly unfettered digital environment, there is something paradoxically conservative about the processes dominating ideas of authorship. The business of maximising a publication’s impact is now a battle fought across all media, by all and any means possible. And the most crucial factor in all of this is not the willingness of an author to go on the road and woo readers—potent though this can be—but the suitability of a book for mass discussion and consumption.

The best-selling British author Lee Child—whose thrillers featuring Jack Reacher have sold over 20m copies—made a similar point with some glee in a 2007 interview with The Telegraph: “The thriller concept is why humans invented storytelling, thousands of years ago. The world was perilous and full of misery, so they wanted the vicarious experience of surviving danger. It’s the only real genre and all the other stuff has grown on the side of it like barnacles.” The barnacles are now dropping off at an accelerating rate. Special literary pleading, it seems, lies at an increasing distance from the cultural mainstream. Narrative is king.

The narrowing effect of technology on language itself is something I discussed with the novelist Joseph O’Connor, best known for the success of his 2003 novel Star of the Sea. “A friend recently showed me a really beautiful downloadable edition of Alice In Wonderland, full of gorgeously ticking clocks and a dormouse whose snores were audible, and it was amazingly impressive,” he explained. “And yet. Joyce filled his books with music by learning to use words. The same with Proust or Márquez or Toni Morrison. I think if the author is doing a good job, you should be hearing the dormouse snore already. Too many novels are film scripts waiting to happen.”

The novel as film script is about as far as it is possible to get from many of the ideas at the root of the literary canon. An author, etymologically, is a person who originates something—an idea that’s implicit in the word “novel” itself. Yet the notion of authors as world-makers as well as story-tellers is increasingly under threat. As the comic novelist Julian Gough told me: “One of the jobs novels used to do was to create a universe for characters, one that felt believable and complicated. But the complexity of life at the moment is such that no writer is able to keep up. The novel once had a dream of itself as this universal art form that could describe to the world to everybody in a way that everybody could understand, and that no longer rings true.”

From this perspective, genre survives—and thrives—because its point of departure is not an attempt to conjure a reflection of the world so much as an attempt to tell a story within shared conventions. But other modes are at the mercy of what Gough calls “a crisis in the individual.” The internet and new media, he argues, “make it explicit that we’re a tiny part of a huge pattern. You can now see how your thoughts are not entirely your own, but part of a flow back and forth of thoughts moulding each other and fighting for survival—which is very destabilising. There has been a loss of confidence among a huge number of people.” This includes Gough himself, who has recently, he confesses, “re-categorised myself—even though I love the novel—as a storyteller.”

As Child recognised, storytelling is among the most ancient of arts. It is also a communal experience. Today, in an age of collaborative media, most of our grandest, most popular narratives are the products of team efforts: from sprawling television dramas like The Sopranos to the latest Hollywood movies or hit videogames. Authors, too, are beginning to construct stories along these lines. The American science fiction maestros Greg Bear and Neal Stephenson recently launched an online narrative world called the Mongoliad which readers pay a subscription to access. It’s something that, Bear told me, “puts the reader directly in touch with the creators, on a continuing basis… plus giving readers unprecedented access to our day-by-day process of researching, rehearsing and writing.” In whole fields of discourse, from politics to academia, the very notion of a book—a static, authored, discrete hunk of prose—is starting to seem quaint.

Of course, for those who simply wish to write, the digital arena offers unprecedented empowerment. As the cult science fiction and fantasy novelist Neil Gaiman told me, today is “an amazing time to be a young author… if I were starting out right now, writing short stories or whatever, I would build my little off-the-peg website, no need for a publisher at that stage, maybe never.” Yet, he conceded, online authorship is also a difficult game to come into cold for those who have hopes of doing more than seeing their words appear on a screen. “People come to me and they ask, how do I get 1.5m people reading my blog? And it’s like, you need to start it in 2001 and try not to miss a day for the first eight years.” In print, you’re struggling to be heard above 132,999 other voices. Online, the figure is a thousand times greater.

Alongside this crowding comes one of the most central features of digital culture’s suffusion: time pressure. The length and the quality of time it takes to consume, let alone create, a book is considerable. The competition between media for attention has never been more intense—and, outside the elemental appeal of stories, many books are ill-equipped to fight their corners. More words than ever are being read and written; the tools for searching and managing information have never been more advanced. There has never been a better time to cultivate a special community of interest. Yet the number of significant roles played by books—and the scale of the roles that authors themselves can play—are declining. As Per Wästberg, president of the Nobel committee for literature, acknowledged to me earlier this year: “There will always be people for whom literature is a necessary bread, the lifeblood of intellect and emotion. But I think it will shrink.”

This September, the American author Don DeLillo was asked, upon receiving the PEN/Saul Bellow award, how technology is changing fiction. “Novels will become user-generated,” he speculated. “An individual will not only tap a button that gives him a novel designed to his particular tastes, needs, and moods, but he’ll also be able to design his own novel, very possibly with him as main character. The world is becoming increasingly customised, altered to individual specifications. This shrinking context will necessarily change the language that people speak, write and read.”

The “shrinking context” DeLillo describes is the paradoxical offspring of an arena in which all media float free and fight for attention, where anything goes, and yet where it’s only an ever-more-dominant few that are able to spin their stories across media and into the popular consciousness. “Here’s a stray question,” DeLillo continued. “Will language have the same depth and richness in electronic form that it can reach on the printed page? Does the beauty and variability of our language depend to an important degree on the medium that carries the words? Does poetry need paper?” He left it unanswered. But we shall find out soon enough.


komal mishra February 23rd, 2015

what is the meaning of line --" don't want to wade through the sea of undifferentiated voice" and "...and especially barbed species of uncertainty?"

Report this comment
Nicholas Kronos March 16th, 2011

Well written survey piece of so many concurrent trends. I appreciate the good mix of fact--although I knew Patterson had turned into a fiction factory, the trivia about the extent of his sales was particularly startling--with authoritative analysis. Good stuff.

Report this comment
Peter Hayes January 4th, 2011

I was an earlier adapter and have been enjoying some books I can't get my hands on otherwise and some obscure titles.

Google Books also has some wonderful out-of-print books on historical sexuality (for want of one example). A subject I've always wanted to know more about.

The article seems more about the state of publishing than the devices or their politics. I don't read any mention of piracy (why?) or comparisons to other media (re music) and their experiences.

Very strange.

Report this comment
jack taylor November 19th, 2010

Writers may not need paper, but readers do.

I don't suppose I'm the only one who reads in a non-linear fashion, skipping around a book or an article to refresh my memory on past points.
I remember where to as much with my fingers, judging where in the heft of a book an event happened or a character was introduced.
This just doesn't work on any of the e-media. You can't flick back a Kindle...

Report this comment
Edward McWilliam November 13th, 2010

The concern voiced at the beginning of the article: "I am personally dependent on the old-fashioned, hierarchical vetting of newspapers and book publishers to locate reading material that's worth my time. I don't want to wade through a sea of undifferentiated voices to find articles whose facts are accurate and novels that are carefully crafted and have something to say." reflects just the chaotic transitional state that the e-reader business is in. That people do not want to read through wades of dross and want the reading offered them to be first vetted also represents an unmet demand. The coming Skiff Reader from News Corp. and other proprietary e-readers designed more to replace paper periodicals, than books, will be a major step toward enabling viable business models in electronic publishing via millions of micropayments flowing from readers (people) to authors and editors. Editors will have more the job of compiling content attractive to their readerships. The accumulated knowledge gained from recording feedback, such as profiling readers according to what different sorts of articles individual readers choose to read through to the end, will within the next 5 years massively improve the quality and relevance of writing presented or accessible to readers. Some examples: if you have never chosen to read an article about the Middle East peace process, you will no longer find these on the front page of your breakfast-table e-reader. If you don't want adverts, you pay a higher subscription fee. If you always read through to the end of articles by a particular journalist, these will be given greater prominence. If you only read obituaries in the afternoon, that is when they will be on your e-reader. In short your e-magazine/newspaper will become personalised to your tastes.

The first periodicals to voluntarily stop publishing in paper format, while still in the strong position of having a loyal readership, will probably clean up. Those who wait to see how things pan out, will simply find themselves circumvented by high-quality freelance journalists (working individually or self grouping into teams) and collapsing readership. The change, when it happens, will be sudden and most creatively destructive.

Will we all end up hooked on to drips of Murdoch media? No. Non-proprietary e-readers will immediately follow. Digg-style periodicals will flourish, greatly improve in quality and professionalism, and come to dominate, with freelance journalists (or journalist teams) being the prime beneficiaries. The date? 2017.

Report this comment
tempo dulu November 12th, 2010

I have an ebook reader and, yes, I use it to read novels. Why not? Electronic ink and paper are just mediums through which the words appear.

Report this comment
Janet Keen November 10th, 2010

I agree it is a confusing time for authors. I love buying and reading books and I like reading stories and news items online. I don't see why the two can't complement each other. It's up to schools and parents to foster the love of reading books to the up and coming generations.

Report this comment
Valerij Tomarenko October 30th, 2010

Whereas it is certainly true about the DESTRUCTION of old boundaries, it stands to reason that e-books will also SET NEW boundaries dividing narrative works which are little adaptable to the boon of new technology and those works (books, documents, etc.) which are predestined to profit from e-readers due to the hyperlinks and hierarchical structures. True, it refers more to technical documentation, bilingual texts, translation etc., but novels and literature as such could also develop into a rather flexible form of communication. Anyway, being not an author (but a translator), I don't see any justification for some ideological divide and enjoy reading DeLillo's novels both on paper (Point Omega) and on an Sony E-Reader.

Report this comment
gabriel October 29th, 2010

I think we're looking at this whole issue out of context and responding with knee-jerk alarmism. Many of the commenters here make sweeping generalizations ie. "kids don't like books anymore"..."literature is dead"...etc,etc.

Firstly, more books are being written and read than anytime in the history of human civilization. This creates many problems, such as how to weed out the low-quality material and find the good stuff. But ultimately, this fact is pleasing and comforting to hear.

Secondly, people still love books. I think many of you would be surprised to know that Facebook has a "Fan Page" dedicated just to books, and it has over 1.2 million "Fans". Books aren't going anywhere. The market for books has never been larger, as anyone who wishes to quench their thirst for knowledge can simply log on to their computer and purchase a book. The way in which books are being written is changing, and if you have beef with that well then you might as well give up, because times change and that's a fact of life. This doesn't mean the ways in which we write will suddenly become barbaric 'OMG, LOL' - esque writing.

Report this comment
Joanne Mullen October 28th, 2010

There will authors because we will always want stories, what the digital revolution really means is that traditional publishers will become irrelevant, just as record companies have over the last decade. What exactly is the point of a publishing company if there is no book to produce? Authors will be much better off selling their own e books from their own websites. The only book market that will remain will be for autographed limited editions or other 'value added' products which cannot be digitised - or torrented. The modern publishing industry was created by a mode of technology - printing - and will be destroyed by one - the internet - but just as stories long predated Penguin and co so will they long outlive them.

Report this comment
Bob Mayer October 27th, 2010

Excellent summary of the state of things. No one really knows what the future holds. I've changed my business plan as an author and as a publisher a half-dozen times in the past year. As I note in my latest blog at Write It Forward, we are facing the Borg in publishing. Do we assimilate or fight? Ultimately, resistance is futile. I say assimilate and try to make our voices heard as individuals using the technology. It's already here.

Report this comment
Steven Holland October 26th, 2010

It's true that literature does not depend on the printed or even the written word, since poetry and other forms of literature undoubtedly existed for millennia prior to the invention of writing. However, the issue here isn't so much that we are evolving into a post-print culture as it is the specific nature of the digital culture and its effects on reading, writing, and publishing. Literature, like art in general, has always been a communal experience in some fashion, so the possible advent of the \customized\ novel is dreary indeed, turning literature into more of a masturbatory experience rather than communion with another human soul. Of course, this will surely not be the only effect of digital technology--I would expect its effects to be a complex, very mixed bag--but it is one example of a possible decline in the status of literature in our culture. It is all too easy to imagine a world in which a large number of \readers\ choose to dwell in their own private fantasies at the expense of listening to and learning from the thoughts and ideas of another human being.

On a side note, Maria said that \good writing will continue to be well-paid\. I hope this is true, or at least as true as it is today. But I think it's important to note that good writing, even today, isn't necessarily well-paid. Many publishers seem more interested in publishing writing that sells than in publishing good writing. At any rate, good writing, more often than not, has always been enjoyed and appreciated by a relative minority, and this, at least, is not likely to change.

Report this comment
Maria Moldovan October 26th, 2010

I agree with Chance Valentine: literature is a form of art which constantly evolves. It's not just about money, although good writing will continue to be well-paid no matter which form it is sold in. I think that people are scared that the quality of writing will decline with the change to digital media. They could not be more wrong. I have read incredibly deep and complex pieces online, as well as terribly-written paper novels. I think it's a matter of personal choice: some people, most of whom are past middle-age, will continue to want to read paper novels or poetry, but others will make the change to digital media, especially the young generation, because it's just easier and more comfortable getting a hold of a digital novel.
For someone who is not used to constantly going to the library, checking out books, carrying them in a huge, heavy backpack, taking them out and reading them without feeling a bit out-of-place, then it will be much easier to get used to the whole process of acquiring novels online and reading them on a computer or hand-held device.
This is not a question regarding the art of literature, but regarding the habits of people. Customs change all the time, like many of you have said. People will continue to want to listen to or read interesting stories, no matter what format they come in, or what the process of getting them entails.
All this comes from a young aspiring writer, in case anyone is wondering.

Report this comment
Tom Evans October 26th, 2010

I've just done an experiment to write and publish a book entirely from an iPad. I used the Writer app for the text, Pages for layout and an HTML app for formatting and then uploaded it all to the Amazon Digital Platform.

Had to use a desktop machine for the print version though !!

Report this comment
Bryan Marquard October 26th, 2010

The other day, I committed what in this age must qualify as a radical act. I read a review in The New Yorker of Timothy Donnelly's "The Cloud Corporation," a collection of poems, and rushed out to buy the book. Despite the efforts of teachers who force us to memorize poems in our school years, reading poetry as an adult remains somewhat subversive. Purchasing books at a time when getting an iPad or Kindle and perusing them electronically is woefully old-fashioned. I'm not a purist. I read poetry online because I write obituaries for The Boston Globe and sometimes have to find a writer's work on deadline, or want to sample poems of an obituary subject whose work is out of print. Books of poems retain their grip on me, however. I'm particularly fond of those places where the end of one poem is on the left page and the beginning of the next is on the right side. The juxtaposition of two individual works of art, even by the same writer, sometimes offers unexpected insights. The two poems may have been written hours apart -- or days, months, years. Suddenly, the words and lines are inches apart; the reader's eyes and mind leap back and forth, making connections the poet may not have anticipated. In this marvelous and thought provoking piece by Tom Chatfield, Don DeLillo -- one of my favorite writers -- asks: "Does poetry need paper?" For me, the answer is yes, now and forever.

Report this comment
tom nolton October 24th, 2010

There has been no discussion here about our education system. Kids don't read and what they are made to read in school is often badly-written pulpish stuff written solely for the young adult market, full of painfully 'relevant' idees recus. they are tempted by the Internet not to read and sicouraged from reading by a poor choice of assigned 'novels' in school. A double whammy.

Report this comment
Chance Valentine October 24th, 2010

I would encourage Blake Morrison and the other literary authors to have faith in their work. Surely, an established writer like Morrison can find 40,000 readers the world over? 40,000 sales at 9.99 retail price @ 68% (70% minus a higher end approximation of bandwidth charge for downloads) on the Amazon platform would gross Morrison over $270,000 dollars on one title. Even spending $10,000 on professional editing/copy editing, some marketing and a professional cover, the amount is still quite respectable.

My apologies if the point has already been made, although it's important enough to be raised over and over until it gets some legitimate consideration from established, traditionally published writers.

Also, considering that the majority of writers must work outside writing to support themselves, I do not think it falls on us to continue holding up on our backs the structure that gives a comfortable living to the old guard at no benefit to us but the gossamer chance of maybe one day, in the far future, joining their ranks.

Report this comment
John Mitchell October 24th, 2010

As the author begins the article using the term "literary authors", I was highly disappointed that he shifted to a discussion of genre fiction, with a further descent into dollars & sense descriptions of the business of books. "Do writers need paper?": not really, but it helps. Do writers need readers: absolutely.

If you are looking to read some literature, I recently read a great book by the author Mark Beyer. THE VILLAGE WIT is a fully realized story about hate and love and memory and friendship ... all the points that genre fiction try to give readers, but fail for all the action and murders found in the pages, not to mention the poor writing that doesn't challenge us with language, story, or life.

Report this comment
daniel bogogolela October 24th, 2010

i like paper books. online books are a sore to the eye. everything now is done electronically. no wonder most of us are obese.

Report this comment
Ben Josephson October 24th, 2010

Poetry doesn't need paper. There was poetry before paper; and before the written word.

We might do well, when discussing the novel, to back up a bit. Once upon a time, people just told stories to each other. Those who told stories in inspired language were poets. Poets who put that language into the mouths of others were dramatists. All literature was spoken, until writing came about. And when writing began, it only served (with respect to literature) to record the spoken. Homer's written poetry was transcription. Virgil, who lived in a society whose influential citizens were literate, actually wrote his poetry down. Things hadn't really much changed by the time Chaucer showed up. If he had a wider "readership," it consisted largely of people read to by their literate companions. Okay: so, then Gutenberg comes along, as does the Reformation, and literacy proliferates.

It's +/- 1600. English dramatic poetry at its pinnacle. A gentleman in Madrid sits writing...a prose novel. This is a literary form that is now less than four hundred years old.

The novel came into being, and flourished, as people attained the ability to read, to take advantage of the technologies of writing and printing. To the extent that it incorporated the essence of spoken poetry, i.e. inspired language, it was "literature." Over time, the novel became more popular and, inevitably, the proportion of "literary," as opposed to "narrative" novels, shrank. Now, we have new technologies. There will be a place in them for authorial literature. But just as pulp came to crowd out, in terms of sales, the inspired-language novel in the course of the expansion of book reading, it is bound to predominate, probably as the product of committees, in the vastness of the electronic market.

Those concerned that word music like that produced by Joyce or Proust or Márquez or Toni Morrison will disappear, had best relax. Living language, with the support of the relative few who care, and through the efforts of the fewer yet who are able, will always generate the music we call literature. But music is not a tide. Literature never did, and never could, overwhelm the din. Still, around the camp fires of the pre-literate, on the stage of The Globe, and in a too-countable number of the uncountable books-ever-published, it has always been there for those who choose to listen.

Report this comment

Have your say

Join the conversation on Prospect.

More From Prospect