Will Novels Survive?

Hi Barb here. I’m in Key West where the temperature is hovering at 66 degrees and everyone is complaining about the cold. (Don’t hate me.)

From my tongue-in-cheek publicity campaign "Cute Babies Read Clammed Up." This is the first photo that came in with an e-reader. The toddler is names Winter for her Maine born-and-bred mother's favorite season. Her mom reports that the way she uses and iPad is "terrifying." I believe it.

From my tongue-in-cheek publicity campaign “Cute Babies Read Clammed Up.” This is the first photo that came in with an e-reader. The toddler is named Winter for her Maine born-and-bred mother’s favorite season. Her mom reports that the way she uses and iPad is “terrifying.” I believe it.

* * * * *

Constitutionally, I have to say I hate all conversations that have the theme, “Things were great back then, and they’re crap now.” They make my blood pressure rise, and I begin to sputter. As a young person my reaction was, “Why are you telling me this? You mean I have to live my whole life in crappier times? How can that information help me in any way?” As an adult, I hate these conversations because I’ve learned they’re ubiquitous and cyclical. Everyone’s lamenting the rise of Barnes & Noble, and then everyone’s lamenting their fall. People also tend to cast the past in a rosy glow, while ignoring the advantages of the present.

But the main reason I hate these sentiments is because we are not going back there, people. Ever. And it would be terrible if we did. There’s a reason being “bombed back to the stone age,” is a threat and not a promise.

All of us who write and publish think and speculate about the publishing industry. It is, I think, the curse of “interesting times.” I wasn’t a published author ten years ago, so I don’t have any other context. Now is my reality.

I think the whole debate about ebooks is a snare and a delusion. My goodness, what impact does a slightly different device delivering the exact same content matter?

And that’s what dedicated e-readers do. They deliver the written word, for the most part meant to be read linearly. In fact, they excel at supporting written-word, linear reading, since they’re not so great for either graphics or browsing.

Those dedicated ereaders aren’t the game changers, in my opinion. It’s the iPads and other tablets people are now reading on and everything else that is on them. The videos, the games, the photos, the internet and the rest of the world.

The question is not whether people will read print versus e. It’s whether we will continue to have an interest in stories told in written prose in a linear fashion at all.

I come from the educational technology world where as part of my work I helped textbook publishers envision the brave new world they were entering. There, the whole ebook debate seemed particularly crazy to me. As a device for transmitting knowledge across distances, in the 18th and 19th century books were the best that we had. To make books work, a lot of non-linear, non-prose things had to be force fit. (Remember, pulling yourself out of the prose to find Figure A. some pages away in the book, and wildly trying to make sense of Figure A. with the prose you were reading?) Why would we take those clunky accommodations and move them to digital textbooks? Shouldn’t demonstrations be videos? Shouldn’t discussions of cause and effect be interactive simulations? Language learning clearly should have audio components. Practice quizzes should be interactive and branch based on the knowledge you demonstrate and should link you right back to remedial information for the questions you got wrong. Footnotes should link you to the original text. And so on.

Which has me wondering about the future of the novel. It took a very specific set of conditions to allow the prose novel to arise. The printing press had to be invented, for one thing. Enough people had to be literate for there to be audience. Before that, stories were told in epic poems and plays because even if they were written down, the principle means of transmission had to be oral to reach the bulk of the audience. And paper had to be cheap enough for books to move beyond the Bible and critical history and science tomes to become a form of entertainment.

All these were the technology and societal revolutions of their times.

And now, all the conditions that gave rise to the novel are changing again. Video production gets cheaper and cheaper, there are a thousand channels on the TV (which you watch on tablet screen anyway) and the brightest story-telling minds may be off creating video games.

When you hand my eight-month-old granddaughter a board book, she runs her hands across the surface of the pages and squawks in frustration because the pictures don’t change and it doesn’t make any noises the way Mummy’s phone does.

The novel is already much diminished in its influence. When Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, he allegedly said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!” When Joe Biden switched his position on gay marriage, he attributed it to the television show Will & Grace. I believe without any evidence that if Dickens were alive today, he’d be working in serial television for Showtime.

So why, you may be wondering, have I dedicated my second career and my final act to working in a form I believe is obsoleting? The truth is, if I were younger and lived somewhere else and had different talents, I might give one of those other media a go. But as Popeye says, “I yam what I yam.”

Besides there’s that old saw from my much younger days, “If the railroad executives had realized they were in the transportation business they’d be running the airlines.” (Which to me ignores a lot of important stuff about monopolies and core competencies, not to mention how crummy being in the airline business has turned out to be.) But the point is the right one. We’re not in the novel business, we’re in the story-telling business, and story-telling is wired deep in our DNA and will be with us as long as the species survives.

There’s also the stove. When stoves first came indoors, there was a hue and cry across England about these things that were dangerous and would probably kill you (and sometimes did) and would destroy the family, no longer gathered around the hearth. And central heating–oh my God! The work of the devil. But when developers build expensive condos in skyscrapers today, they often still include gas fireplaces. Which are not a source of heat or light or cooked food, but we still love to stare into them. New technologies may come to dominate, but it takes a long time for old ones to disappear completely.

So somewhere in the future someone will be sitting by a fire, reading a novel. It won’t be her principal form of fiction or entertainment, just as the fire won’t be her principal form of heat or light. The fire may be propelled by a fuel not yet invented, and the novel might be transmitted on the inside of her eye glasses (or her eyeballs). But still, the picture I see in my mind’s eye is a pretty one.

So what do you think dear readers (if you’ve made it to the end of this lengthy post). How do you see the brave, new world?

About Barbara Ross

Barbara Ross is the author of the Maine Clambake Mysteries and the Jane Darrowfield Mysteries. Her books have been nominated for multiple Agatha Awards for Best Contemporary Novel and have won the Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction. She lives in Portland, Maine. Readers can visit her website at www.maineclambakemysteries.com
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21 Responses to Will Novels Survive?

  1. Jule Dupre says:

    Barb – well said – albeit a little lengthy for a generation of shorter attention spans…..nevertheless, a story is a story because someone wants to tell it and because someone else wants to hear it. The means of communicating the story are simply the tools – and a matter of the right tool for the right job in the right place at the right time….
    Jule

  2. As a 67 year old former high school history teacher, I enjoyed your slew of analogies and observations about technology in learning as well as the question about the future of the novel. I am a mystery-thriller junkie and read them on paper or Kindle. There are differences but not my main concern. What really bothers me about the brave new world of electronic media is its transience.

    I find the trend, now in its infancy, of getting rid of books in libraries and replacing them with computer terminals to be frightening. When I read news accounts about this, reporters include quotes from interviews where people lament these changes with silly comments like, “I miss the feel of paper on my fingers.” Like your observation about the passing of fireplaces, we can always give these folks a piece of paper to hold while they read from their tablet. No, they miss the frightening part.

    Last month I saw the movie, The Book Thief. During the book-burning scene, my thought was, it’s happening today in a different manner. It’s not the Nazi’s doing it all at once, but Google doing it bit by bit. It’s not supported by brown shirt thugs, but by librarians in colleges, high schools, and small towns everywhere.

    Books last forever because there are multiple copies and distributed far and wide. Digital is temporal, dependent on the latest software and hardware. I have many documents created during the course of the very brief personal computer age (starting around 1984 with the Mac) that are no longer readable.

    Even worse is the movement to the “cloud.” Put it another way, the movement of the masses to surrender the control of their digital possessions to a few corporations. Oh yeah, for a fee! The printing press and books helped to democratize our world. My fear is that getting rid of books will contribute to a less democratic world, where information will be more controlled (because the technology makes it easy to do this) and less accessible (because of the fees and other socio-economic considerations).

    So for me it is a much larger issue than what a Kindle can do versus what a book can do for me. It’s more about access and control and choice. No, for me it is not a “pretty” vision of the future.

    • Barb Ross says:

      I agree that these are important considerations. For me, I don’t think the issue is the medium–digital or print–but the means to control the channel. And while we’ve seen a massive centralization of companies in the entertainment industry generally, technology has also given rise to millions of small publishers, and that gives me hope.

    • Richard. You raise some important points. However, the cheap mass produced books I’ve been buying are unlikely to last as long as my kindle purchases. Ironically, the highest quality books in terms of paper and bindings have those produced by self publishers like CreateSpace.

  3. Wonderful, Barb, I loved every word. There is nothing for a reader to fear in a new format. It’s a different means of delivery. At some point, the e-reader will be obsolete too. You have laid out this so sensibly.

    To me, what’s important is this: Civilizations crumble, buildings fall apart, governments rise and fall, books mold, paintings rot, sculptures erode away. Sometimes that takes a very long time, but physical things do not last forever. Words can. The delivery changes with the times–as they should–so that our stories can survive.

  4. Things were great back then and they are great now. Maybe even greater. You are right, in my view. Bookstores may come and go but books will remain and will accommodate new technology. The monks undoubted complained when Gutenberg’s press arrived. Radio folks complained that TV would destroy radio and so it went and so it goes. There are more independent bookstores operating right now than there were at this time in 2013. So let’s just keep on keepin’ on (to coin another cliche). You do good work.

  5. hope nightingale says:

    enjoyed your post i am a blind reader and listen to books all the time many i get from the talking book and braille library ;in washington state or from the internet sites please include tapes or cds or downloads to your list of places to promote you materials i love mysteriies and other areas of learning thank you for your great blog
    remember the blind community when promoting your work
    sincerely hope

    • Barb Ross says:

      Thanks for your comment, Hope. My daughter-in-law was a sound engineer for several years at Talking Books. I’m interviewing her Monday on Wicked Cozy Authors. Both Clammed Up and Boiled Over have been licensed by Audible, but I have no idea when they’ll be released. Can’t wait.

  6. What a great discussion, both your original post, Barb, and all these comments. Not much to add here, except I hope to remain competent in whatever format I need for another few decades!

  7. Linda says:

    Librarians are not “burning” the print books. The community is limiting the financial resources for libraries (be it local city, county, state or even federal government) because too many of our leaders see the Internet/digital as a god not a tool. If a library’s budget stays flat or is reduced, most libraries have to cut somewhere. The librarians listen to their customers who are clambering for the latest & greatest – digital books, audio, DVDs, or magazines. We want people reading & using library resources whether they step into our physical building or visit digitally. Librarians try very hard to do more with less. And, to give their customers what they want. The digital format is just a vessel. The important part is the content of the vessel. The printing press allowed more reading material to more people. So does the digital. I’m happy to see teenagers, seniors, whoever reading more…no matter how that is accomplished. These are still book lovers even it doesn’t look like a traditional reading device.

  8. John Clark says:

    I checked out three times as many movies as books today at the Hartland Public Library…BUT the people who did check out books, or stopped in to get some of the 20 or so we received via the interlibrary loan van delivery, were far more excited and tuned into what I handed them than the movie junkies. When I got home this evening, I had to decide which of the two books I borrowed from Lewiston Public Library I wanted to read first and then I had to force myself to put down the book that was more interesting so I could do some writing myself. When I look at the constantly growing list of books I really want to read in the near future, my first instinct is to panic because there won’t be enough time to get through all of them…Not at the rate I’m discovering new candidates for that list. We’re in an amazing sweet spot of intriguing novels right now and that, I hope, will continue.

  9. Barbara: I enjoyed your thoughtful post, particularly the way you honor the joy to be found in old technologies while seeing the potential in the new. I too love the feel of a book of paper and ink, but within my household there are at least a half-dozen electronic devices on which my family read books. In our cars we frequently listen to audio books. The new practice of bundling e-book and print versions of books by Amazon lets me continue reading on my smart phone a novel I started in paperback. What a great time to be a reader! The idea behind the novel will undoubtedly persist as its manner of expression broadens. I’m particularly looking forward to the time when texts will be converted seamlessly into unabridged animations. Why not?

  10. Mark says:

    I have often said I will be dragged into the ebook era kicking and screaming. And that’s despite the fact that I have no more room in my condo for books I’ve bought. My thinking on this is much like Richard’s that I don’t feel I truly own the digial stuff I have bought.

    However, your point about things changing is good. I actually writing essays in college about why Barnes and Noble wasn’t the evil anti-Christ, and this was while one was being put in my home town. The horror the horror. Now the same people are bemoaning the death of Barnes and Noble and the rise of Amazon FOR THE EXACT SAME REASONS. It’s almost funny but a little bit sad.

  11. Shan M says:

    The brave new world won’t include correct English. Example: it’s principal means, not principle. What saddens me is that nobody seems to care. Microsoft grammar check FTW.

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