Speaking of Books, by Ann Charney

In speculating about the future of literary culture, one thing is certain: we are in the midst of extreme, unprecedented change. New technologies have shifted the ground beneath our feet, transforming how and what we read, how we write, and the very notion of what constitutes a book. 

My personal alert to the changing times came a couple of years ago. I was moving from a house to an apartment and was forced to dispose of the 29 volumes of the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which had served me well throughout my writing life. It came as a shock to find that no one wanted it. As the day of the move approached, I contemplated abandoning the encyclopaedia on the steps of the nearest library, the way unwed mothers had once left their newborn infants at the door of churches. In the end, a friend of a friend took possession of it, but the experience made me realize, like nothing else had up to that point, how quickly the print treasures of the past were becoming obsolete.

Predicting the future is always a risky business. In the absence of farsightedness, we tend to project our fears and our hopes onto the unknown. 

Philip Roth, for example, has said that in twenty-five years. reading novels will become a cultic activity. “Books can’t compete with the screen,” he explained. However, other well-known writers like Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood are enthusiastically embracing digital outlets like Facebook, Twitter, and blogs to reach more readers than ever.

New and aspiring writers see the Internet as the gateway to the new Promised Land, where fame and fortune await the intrepid adventurer.  In a recent writing class I taught, more than half the students told me they intended to publish their work themselves. They, and others like them, welcome the fact that they can now sidestep the hermetic world of publishing and editing, have complete control of their work and, with a few clicks of the mouse, make their writing available to the entire world. 

The view from this camp is that authors need no longer be hindered by the perceived marketability of a book. In the digital age, every book can be made visible and marketable. Success lies not in the quality of the writing but in the author’s willingness to devote hours each day to working the Internet.  For such writers the web has become an equal-opportunity level playing field.

Not only does the Internet give books more visibility than the neighbourhood bookstore, as well as making it easier to buy them; it also makes it easier to find them in libraries. A spokesman for the Bodleian Library at Oxford described the positive effect of digitalization on users as follows:  “Our reading rooms are still as busy as ever; the most high-quality digitalization does not replace the power of seeing the original artefact. However, people are now more aware of what we’ve got, and we are reaching a generation that feels if something is not online, it doesn’t exist.”

Looking backward can be a useful way of anticipating the future. More than 100 years ago, the English author George Gissing bemoaned the tawdry cultural trends of his time in his novel New Grub Street: "Literature nowadays is a trade,” he wrote. “Your successful man of letters is your skilful tradesman. He thinks first and foremost of the markets.” Gissing's dismal conclusion, however, failed to anticipate the next generation of innovative writers like Proust, Joyce, and Beckett, whose ambitions ignored the well-trodden path leading to Grub Street. And for those who regret the waning of the discriminating eye of the publisher and editor, it’s useful to remember that all three writers spent years trying to find a publisher, and that the first volume of À la recherche du temps perdu was published at the author’s expense. 

There have always been different paths to publication; now, as the self-published book gains in respectability, distancing itself from what used to be known as vanity publishing, writers like Jan Wong and David Frum are vaunting the advantages of ditching the old-style model of respectable publication.

But what if the medium is the message, as many observers since McLuhan have claimed? What are we to make of those who say that the Internet and electronic reading devices are changing our brains, altering the way we think, and the way we read and write? As we lose the ability to pay attention to a sequence of events spread over hundreds of pages, what will happen to the novel? 

The shifts from the oral tradition to the written, the invention of the printing press, the typewriter, the arrival of movies, home videos, have all been received with similar anxiety. Yet, life does not work in predictable ways, and the result of these changes has not always turned out as dismal as feared. V.S. Naipaul, for example, writing of his early years as a struggling writer, living in a foreign and indifferent country, describes how he found solace in the darkened movie theatres he frequented, and credits film plots with teaching him how to tell a story.

No matter how the literary landscape changes, I believe there’s room for optimism. Books have been around for a long time and resisted all manner of assault. Stories will still need to be told, and writers will continue to tell them. It’s not unreasonable to assume that the written word will persist, even if it’s in ways we can scarcely imagine.

© Ann Charney, 2012


Ann Charney is an award-winning novelist, short story writer and journalist. Her work has been published in the US, Italy, France, Germany, as well as in Canada. She is a member of the Conseil des Arts de Montréal and the Honorary Board of the Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival. She has also been named to the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France. [Photo: Joyce Ravid]

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