My post for the Scottish Book Trust’s Re:write blog is up on their website now, and can be found by following this link. It’s an attempt to engage with some of the questions about digitisation and the rise of the e-reader that the writer Ewan Morrison has raised in his articles for the Guardian. I’m neither for nor against the idea that digitisation could or should influence the way we read and write, but often in debates like this the baby tends to get thrown out with much of the bathwater, so I thought I’d add a few ideas of my own. For reasons of space, the blog post is around 600 words or so, but I thought it might be interesting to include a fuller version on this blog as well – not to replace the Re:write piece, but to go a bit deeper into the arguments if anyone is interested. Here it is:
In a recent article for the Guardian, Ewan Morrison claimed that technological advances in the form of the e-reader and an increasing digitisation of texts have so altered the way we read that the novel as a form must adapt to reflect these changes or risk becoming completely obsolete. He has coined the term ‘multiscreening’ to describe the way people swap between applications when reading text, either by following links, checking information on Wikipedia, or updating their social network status. In a world of instantly accessible information, writers who still rely on the traditional form are forcing their work into uncomfortable positions in order to convey all of the information they require for their narrative. Drawing on David Shields’s recent manifesto, ‘Reality Hunger’, Morrison uses the example of Jonathan Franzen’s ‘Freedom’, where the characters are manoeuvered into unlikely conversations for the sole purpose of an expositionary info-dump that he would have been better off including as straight fact, or inserting through hyperlinks to relevant articles. As Shields argues, in a postmodern world where the divisions between fact and fiction have irremediably broken down, literature must reflect this porous border between what is real and what is invented in order to explore life as it is actually lived.
It’s a bold and provocative thesis. However, by assuming that form has to mirror the means by which we consume it and should take priority over other questions of style and subject, I think Morrison has conflated formal innovation with technological development, and is in danger of dismissing much that is still of value in traditional forms. Putting aside the questions of e-readers and digitisation for the moment, subjects which Morrison has explored more than any other contemporary writer, formal innovation is actually more widespread than he assumes. He draws on antecedents like Boccaccio, Milan Kundera and James Frey, but he could also have mentioned Lawrence Sterne, or Thomas Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution, or, more recently, the ‘non-fiction novels’ of Truman Capote and Norman Mailer. John Berger, Geoff Dyer, and JM Coetzee are other writers who have explored ideas through means other than the strictly fictional, and who, in doing so, have drawn attention to the odd prioritisation of fiction in our literature as a whole.
I think the real question here is not are these new forms absolutely necessary to reflect the way we live now, but an aesthetic one of when it is most appropriate to use them. Franzen’s ‘Freedom’ is designed as a long-form exploration of the ethical and social changes in the American liberal middle class from the late 1970s to the present day. By definition this is going to have to be presented in linear form in order to have the greatest impact – change, after all, happens over time. He may be guilty of an occasional didacticism of style, smuggling information through his characters’ long and unconvincing political conversations, but in a way this really does reflect ‘the way we live now’, at least for the particular social group he is writing about, where monologuing over the dinner table is an occupational hazard. (Certainly, I have lost count of the number of boring, didactic political conversations I’ve had in my time.) Norman Mailer offers a good example of the opposite tendency here, in his non-fiction novel ‘The Armies of the Night,’ where the author appears as a 3rd person narrator, and where the narrative is an extended piece of reportage on the 1967 march on the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam war. By placing its own composition so closely within the moment it describes, Mailer’s book achieves an analytical and rhetorical immediacy that would have been lost if it had been designed as a longer piece of reflective fiction. If every writer felt compelled to follow Morrison’s argument and adapt to a new form that might not have any stylistic association with their subject, they would render their work unreadable. It’s hard to see how a form adapted so faithfully to multiscreening would work in the case of a novel like, to pick a recent example, Stephan Kelman’s ‘Pigeon English.’ The infinitely reducible multiscreen reading experience (i.e.: browsing the internet) already exists, but it simply would not work when used to generate or explore every idea, theme or story.
Morrison is right that undoubted changes in our reading habits have exposed how constraining traditional forms can be, and that formal innovation is laudable in itself regardless of how it relates to our present social and cultural conditions. But writing and literature are more than the forms in which ideas are explored, or the delivery system through which they are consumed. Made of the indivisible but differently weighted imperatives of form, style and subject, what unites all writing is that it is made from language, from the relation of words to one another. By focusing on a form that emulates the method of its own delivery to the exclusion of all else, writing could fall into a self-reflexive loop, and an uncritical response to technological novelty contains within itself the seeds of its own obsolescence. For a start, economics and geo-politics is probably going to make the multiscreen world a luxury priced out of the hands of most readers before too long. Perhaps fundamental to this whole issue, and the question that I really want to pose, is what is writing for? What is literature for? Should art reflect life in the first place, and should books explain our society to us? Should they explore what it means to be human, unfettered by our cultures and the societies in which we live? Is writing communication, or self-expression? Or is it all of these things, and any proscriptive argument in favour of one form over another a way of imposing the very limits and boundaries on a text that Morrison so persuasively argues against?