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.

Looking back on cyberpunk1.0

Paul Raven @ 21-09-2010

An interesting personal-reflection post from Adam “Everyware” Greenfield on his formative experiences with cyberpunk. In a fresh refingering of the “we live in that fictional world now” riff, he wonders if anything could possibly strike such a powerful chord for him again:

[This graffiti’d Chinese shipping container] struck me as occupying an amazing position in material-semantic possibility space, the polemical-made-real. Running past it was something like listening to a digital file of Brazilian speedmetal, or having a woman you meet at a party nonchalantly introducing you to her wife, in that everyday life seemed to have more or less effortlessly remolded itself around tropes which once, and not so very long ago, dripped with futurity.

And a world filled with such objects is in some way almost beyond commentary, or critique. Maybe this is why William Gibson’s own last few books, delightful as they remain — the brand-new Zero History being the most recent case in point — read as yarns told about people we (quite literally) already know, capering through places, scenes and contexts we know all too well. It’s competently constructed entertainment, resonant enough of our moment, and is amusing as something to play the roman-à-clef game with. But it’s not (and cannot be?) revelatory. I’m having a hard time imagining anyone having their ass kicked by Zero History the way mine was by Neuromancer.

I know what Greenfield’s talking about here, but I suspect that personal subjectivity has a lot to do with it; Justin Pickard crops up in the comments to point out that, as a younger reader, he got something of the same gutpunch from Gibson’s Pattern Recognition reproducing the world he recognised from beyond the book’s covers. Just like the books we read, we’re products of our own milieu… atemporality is rarer than it might appear from inside our favoured goldfish bowl.

I can easily imagine the inquisitive teens of today seeing themselves and their world in Lauren Beukes’ Moxyland, or in the more recent works of Ian McDonald and (to a lesser extent, because as much as I feel he tries earnestly to capture the world as-is, he can’t help but Disney-fy it at the same time) Cory Doctorow. But thinking about sf from this angle, it feels to me like there’s a real paucity of works that seek to engage the world on political and economic terms in the way that cyberpunk grappled with the Eighties…

… or perhaps that’s what’s going on in the world of YA urban fantasy (or whatever we’re calling it this week). Which might possibly explain why I just don’t understand the appeal of that stuff whatsoever. *shrug*

Stop press: arbitrary marketing category finally overlaps more respected arbitrary marketing category

Paul Raven @ 03-09-2010

I think we’ll end up looking back and deciding that the favourite critical riff of 2010 in science fiction is the one that goes “hey, look, we’ve won!” Here’s some highlights from a lengthy solo in the same key from io9‘s Charlie Jane Anders:

… the thing that jumps out at you when you read this new wave of lit authors doing SF is how aware they are of the genre. You’re not dealing with Philip Roth writing alternate history without ever having read any of it, or Margaret Atwood denying her SF is SF — Moody is, to some extent, paying tribute to science fiction. Charles Yu’s book is clearly about science fiction. Cronin’s book attempts to channel the style of Steven King as much as possible. Writing a science fictional book without acknowledging the genre would be missing the point for these authors — they’re writing about genre as much as they are about science fictional ideas.


Reading through a stack of these recent literary books, you’re left with the feeling that these two themes — technological dislocation and imperial collapse — are resonating in the consciousness of the book-reading classes, and any author who manages to exploit these themes in an evocative way will make it big. There’s a hunger for heartfelt, even disheartening, books set in the near future, and science fiction authors should be doing more deeply personal near-future stories if they want to catch this wave.

I’ve found myself becoming more and more frustrated with this particular meme, for reasons I’m not entirely able to articulate. I think it’s the underlying sense of patting-ourselves-on-the-back, a subtext of vindication that says “hey, we were right all along, and now everyone else is finally catching up and will have to acknowledge the fact that we were out in front before anyone else”. It’s the last part of that subtext that’s the problem, even if you argue (as I think you can, with a limited degree of success) that the first part is true. Yeah, sure, OK: the ivory tower denizens have looked down upon the works of the barbarians, and found them novel (pun intended). This is not a new thing, really. It’s cultural colonialism at best, and we all know how that works out in the long run: “literature” will use “science fiction” for as long as it’s expedient or interesting, no longer, and there’ll be no gratitude beyond that extended by the writers who’ve borrowed liberally from the toolshed. It’s not about genres, it’s about the stories that speak to readers and writers alike, which in turn is a function of the Zeitgeist – something that, by definition, doesn’t do a whole bunch of sitting still.

Interestingly, Anders ends this triumphalist piece by deliberately undermining the very constructs whose triumphs it seems to celebrate:

So it’s finally come true — the literature of the future has become the future of literature. Our collective literary consciousness is crying out for near-future books that are deeply personal, obsessed with technological change, and viciously satirical. We could just be seeing the first wave of a whole new tide of science fiction novels, with authors from both the artificially constructed “science fiction” and “literary” genres making equally wonderful contributions. Let’s hope so, anyway.

If there’s anything for science fiction fandom (and indeed for everyone else) to celebrate, it’s that there are more good books to read. Much as with the YA craze of the preceding few years, I’m really getting tired about arguing over which particular shelves those good books should or shouldn’t be found on… and the utopian “one day soon, there will be only one set of shelves!” riff just doesn’t wash with someone who’s worked in a public library, I’m afraid.

Maybe it’s to do with the geek psychology of feeling like underdogs or outsiders that causes it, but I worry that science fiction’s thirst for validation from those who once dismissed it out of hand is a sign that, rather than leading the literati into the near-future, it’s being charmed out of the driver’s seat by them. Are we in fact celebrating our own sunset, here?

Genre: the ossification of literature?

Paul Raven @ 13-08-2010

Damien G Walter in full-on chin-strokin’ literati ponder-mode (which is how I like him best): genres are the fossils left by movements.

Movements are conversations between writers, conducted through stories. During the period of movement, writers are talking to each other, exchanging ideas and generally discussing how to move the art of fiction forward. As these conversations develop, the movement develops identifiable motifs. Over time, these motifs solidify in to tropes, which become genres.

Some examples. William Gibson, Bruce Sterling et al shape a movement to reform Hard-SF, which results in the Cyberpunk genre. (And also the Steampunk genre) J.R.R Tolkien, C.S.Lewis and the other Inklings form a movement to bring mythic values back to modern stories, and some decades later the Epic Fantasy genre is the outcome. A motley crew of British and US writers have the ambition to write fantasy and horror with added literary value, and a decade later we have the squid obsessed New Weird.

It’s a workable theory. But what about po-mo genre revivalism, retrogenres, mash-ups?

Is there a movement in the other direction, where writers eat up the fossilised genres to fuel new movements?

Of course there is, because it’s easier than finding new alternatives. Fossil fuels… heh, timely metaphor. 🙂

Read ’em if you got ’em: cigarette vending machine modded to sell books

Paul Raven @ 23-07-2010

Here’s a novel bit of repurposing. Thanks to stricter laws on verifying the age of tobacco buyers, masses of Germany’s old cigarette vending machines will be obsolete by the end of the year. But rather than consign them to the scrapheap, German publishing company Hamburger Automatenverlag has modded them to sell literature instead:

The repurposed machines carry a series of condensed novels, photo books, graphic novels and collections of poetry by local authors — all designed to be exactly the same size as a packet of cigarettes. The idea is to get people into the habit of reading as opposed to smoking.

As smoking prevention plans go, I doubt it’ll be a roaring success, but I do like the idea of books on sale in the sort of unusual locations that cigarette machines might be found. I also like the idea that conversions like this are like miniature versions of what Bruce Sterling has taken to calling “stuffed animals” – relics of the past, stripped out and repopulated with the needs of the present. Cigarette machines, Victorian-era bank buildings… who knew there was a connection?

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