Rumours of the novel’s death, etc etc

Paul Raven @ 25-10-2010

I guess we’re gonna keep hearing this particular riff until the day they close the last printing press on the planet, but hey – the handwringing of the literati never gets old, right? [via BigThink]

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.”

Great solution, Mr Morrison, very Gen X of you: can’t win, so why try? Put In Utero on your stereo, stare out of the window for a while, read some Doug Coupland; that’s sure to work. Literary novels have long made genre’s sales figures look epic by comparison, and poetry – in its written-and-printed form, at any rate – has been in recession since before I was born. Horse, barn door, yadda yadda; bit late to be worrying about relevance, really.

Snark aside, the rest of the article is actually a pretty decent “what’s coming down the pike” sort of piece; not a great number of new ideas in there (at least not to me, and probably not to most regulars here at Futurismic), but a good synthesis of the current state-of-play:

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.

Personally, I see this as a liberation for the novel, though I’d be a fool to deny it’ll be hugely transformative.

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.

Which isn’t so much the death of the novel as it is the death of pre-digital hierarchical culture itself, really; the novel is but a small appendage of that withering body.

The strength of the article is that it admits what many of the others seem to shy away from: that the publishing landscape has been changing for a long time, and this is just the latest phase of that inherently market-driven mutation. Long tail ahoy!

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 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’s “writing” process pretty much buries any romantic notion of the novelist as pure artist; that’s not to say he doesn’t care about what comes out under his name, but he’s realised that there’s a certain direction he can head in that will net him more money than the others. Nothing to stop you or Blake Morrison writing literary novels and poetry, of course; you just need to accept that, like the few buggy-whip manufacturers still in business, you’re catering to a niche, and as such your annual balance sheets aren’t going to look like those of General Motors.

And if anything, the ubiquity and portability of the written word in a networked world makes your chances of finding an audience much higher than the days when dead-tree was your only option. Granted, turning a profit from that audience is a trick that awaits perfecting… but it’ll come.

Lots more good stuff in that piece, so go read.

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5 Responses to “Rumours of the novel’s death, etc etc”

  1. Wintermute says:

    As much as I’d love to believe so, they said the same thing about Nixon’s economic can openning of China that was supposed to be the bursting of a pinata, creating millions of jobs in the US manufacturing toothbrushes to sell to the billion+ Chinese. But, ah, they started selling *us* the toothbrushes and the pinata turned out to be a can of worms. The newly awakened Asian Tigers devoured whole swaths of the US economy whole sale, turning once-roaring cities into withered necropolises, going out with the whimpers of bleak-pornographers and the bangs of poverty and drug-related violence. And we haven’t recovered since, still limping along as the middle class continues to deteriorate under the weight of automation*, outsourcing (and in-sourcing to maltreated Mexicans), financialization and digitization, with wages declining since the 70’s (adjusted for inflation).

    *DARPA recently announced they’re going full-steam into developing robotic doctors, therapists, farmers, construction workers, and more. Here comes the whirlwind, baby.

    Maybe we’ll figure out a system, design the rules of the game, garden a culture, work out a digital social contract 2.0 that will allow creators – writers, artists, entertainers, etc — to be rewarded for their valued work. Maybe we’ll kick General AI in the next couple decades (that’s a prophesy 40 years past the expiry date), maybe we’ll solve climate change, maybe we won’t have another financial blow up, maybe the Singularity will come, scoop up all our brains into e-heaven and we won’t have to ask any of these difficult questions ever again. But I don’t think anyone has any strong empirical arguments for the true likelihood of these class of things, and those who claim to tend to be charlatan futurists passing glorified daydreams stitched together with #futurecool buzzwords and airbrushed with vague metaphors as stone-tablet visionaryness. 🙂

  2. Chad says:

    Though, you have a lot of buzzwords and some decent imaging in your writing, it is still rather one dimensional in the fact department. China is by no means the main cause of the declining middle class (I’m not even sure the decline is all that large). It is significant, but there are other variables as significant and maybe more so. It should be noted that the U.S. is still the world’s largest manufacturer by a lot…

    “In 2008, its manufacturing output was greater than that of the manufacturing output of China, India, and Brazil combined, despite manufacturing being a very small portion of the entire US economy as compared to most other countries.”

    It should also be noted that the size of the world economy grew faster through the 90’s and early 2000’s than previously. Thus, part of the reason for a “decline” in U.S. manufacturing is the faster growth in the world economy.

    This erroneous political meme is annoying.

    Concerning the novel…I don’t see the novel or variations of it going anywhere. The paper version probably slowly disappears, but other than that the written word seems rather sticky. Oh, I’m sure there will be interactive novels/writting/video/graphics, but part of the reason people read books is to allow their imaginations to fill in the gaps that are not present in other media. The digital world isn’t necessarily taking away this need, it is just changing the form in which the words are presented.

  3. Wintermute says:

    “China is by no means the main cause of the declining middle class ”

    No, it’s not just China’s big boo-boo. China is just an outlet for the wage arbitrage, currency manipulation and virtual slave labor (sub-minimum wage and below) similar to the atrocious conditions at the start of the Industrial Revolution in the 1800’s that has allowed the Ownership Classes to fuck over the average American.

    “I’m not even sure the decline is all that large.”

    What, have you been living in an Orange County Starbucks the past few decades? Or perhaps you live in some cushy EU country where you get livable salaries and free health care that doesn’t suddenly cost you your house if you get sick. Why don’t you bring some statistics to the table if you’re going to start throwing around accusations of one-dimensionality. Try this on for size:

    “The top-earning 20 percent of Americans — those making more than $100,000 each year — received 49.4 percent of all income generated in the U.S., compared with the 3.4 percent earned by those below the poverty line, according to newly released census figures. That ratio of 14.5-to-1 was an increase from 13.6 in 2008 and nearly double a low of 7.69 in 1968.”

    And then take the top first percentile which accounts for about 50% of the wealth in the US. Then realize that middle-class income neighborhoods have dwindled by around 20% while lower class income neighborhoods have risen 10% since the 70s.

    Then compare that to the first few decades following WWII when increases in productivity benefited the upper, middle, and lower classes nearly equally, with the bottom 20% actually benefiting *faster* than the average till around the time the whole outsourcing thing took off. All of a sudden we’ve got the opposite going on with the wealthiest shooting to the moon and the rest of the population stuck or getting poorer in a world where it costs more to get by every day. Hmm.

    http://www.spokesman.com/stories/2010/sep/28/census-finds-record-gap-between-rich-and-poor/

    “In 2008, its manufacturing output was greater than that of the manufacturing output of China, India, and Brazil combined, despite manufacturing being a very small portion of the entire US economy as compared to most other countries.”

    And how long will that last? By some accounts, China will be ahead of the US in manufacturing in a couple years. The statistics themselves are often skewed, due to aforementioned market distortions, and counting products whose “final assembly” occurred in the US as US manufactured even when the brunt of the work occurred elsewhere. The US went from a high of around 19 million manufacturing jobs in 1979 to 14 million in 2004 — that’s six million jobs — and the trend continues down. Add to that the fact that manufacturing wages themselves have fallen as well.

    Reality is annoying.

  4. Chad says:

    Yes, reality is annoying. I don’t live in the EU. I grew up in the rust belt and I can’t think of one friend from high school or from college, or any relatives (I have a very large family) who aren’t at least doing as well as their parents, and I can think of multiple people doing better than their parents. Admitedly, this is a very small sampling when compared to the overall population, but it’s at least 100 people in an area of the country that has been beaten down for 40 years. An area of the country that has manufacturing as it’s base, so you would think the decline would be very visible and it’s not.

    I have no argument that manufacturing jobs have declined, and never said I did. I just stated that China isn’t the only cause and that we still make more than anyone else.

    I also didn’t say China wouldn’t surpass us for top manufacturing country at some point. Any country of that size with a reasonable economy would. Though, it will be interesting to see how their hybrid free market/planned economy fairs over the long term.

    I also didn’t say that the rich haven’t gotten richer while everyone else got poorer. Nor did I say I think the rich getting richer is what we want. I just said the decline in the middle wasn’t as large as gets portrayed…and you proved it for me…

    “Then realize that middle-class income neighborhoods have dwindled by around 20% while lower class income neighborhoods have risen 10% since the 70s.” – Ok, so what happened to the other 10%? The only category left is rich, so apprarently that is where they went. So, a 10% decline in the middle class is catastrophic? I’m not saying we shouldn’t pay attention to it and not try and fix it, but it’s also not the end of the world. A 10% reduction is exactly what I said (words not numbers) happend to the middle class. It declined, but the decline isn’t as large as portrayed.

  5. Wintermute says:

    “Admitedly, this is a very small sampling when compared to the overall population, but it’s at least 100 people in an area of the country that has been beaten down for 40 years. An area of the country that has manufacturing as it’s base, so you would think the decline would be very visible and it’s not.”

    That’s a pleasant anecdote but I can just as easily point out the dozens of my friends who graduated with Masters+ degrees who have done their best to look for work yet have wound up managing McDonald’s for salaries far below their parents or scrambling for crappy government administrative jobs. Or all the other classmates who are selling drugs and jacking cars.

    “The only category left is rich, so apprarently that is where they went.”

    Actually, it’s more likely they dropped down under the poverty line.

    “So, a 10% decline in the middle class is catastrophic?”

    I also think the 10% is not accounting for the increases of the cost of living (adjusted for inflation) in the past fifty or so years. A family with a house, a car, and a reasonable middle class lifestyle was carried easily by a father working a regular eight hour day in 1957. Today, people are working far longer, and 2 people in the workforce per family working for the same means what we have seen over the last 50 years ultimately is a reduction in our standard of living by about half.

    Even if it was only a 10% decline, that is a travesty for America “Land of opportunity” given the opportunity-cost, the stripping of the actual wealth that has been generated. But if living standard-per-work-hour loss is actually closer to 50% or worse, then yes, I’d call that catastrophic. Not quite apocalyptic yet, but hey, we’re getting there. We’re still putting bandaids over the systemic debt-tumor hidden off balance sheets and from mainstream discourse. We’ll see how long we can play hot potato.