Previously in Part II, Sam Byers looked at love and longing and boredom as seen by writers in the our age of World of Warcraft and the Worldwide Web. Read here for Part I of his series setting out the state of technology and the novel.
THE PROBLEM WITH all this fretting and whining and general sense of manufactured panic and despair is that it all feels so . . . well . . . naff, for want of a better word. At what point did we all decide to stop innovating? It can’t be a habit we’ve picked up from other media because they’re all busy innovating like there’s no tomorrow. The visual arts have embraced video, photography, motion sensors, webcams and just about every other development it’s possible to imagine. Film and television now think nothing of having plots that revolve around emails and texts. The wonderful UK political satire The Thick of It is in many ways nothing more than a bunch of people checking their BlackBerries and screaming at each other about what they find. The latest BBC adaptation of Sherlock Holmes overlaid text messages onto the screen so confidently that many viewers weren’t even aware of the innovation. Amidst all this, we fretful novelists are starting to sound a bit like recalcitrant Neanderthals, squatting stubbornly in a darkened corner of a cave screaming at our fire-lighting, food-cooking relatives: “I was happy with raw meat, darkness and numbing cold! Why did you have to go and fuck it all up with your fire?”
So instead of collectively throwing up our hands in despair and locking ourselves away with Tolstoy until such a time as some sort of techno-environmental catastrophe has reduced the world to the kind of barren wasteland of entertainment presumably required for the novel, that most boring of media, to experience its resurgence, perhaps it would be better to begin a discussion of the ways in which the novel, far from being the much-maligned red-headed stepchild of the entertainment world, might in fact be slightly more well-placed to deal with some of these challenges than we tend to give it credit for.
The first thing to say about the novel is that when it comes to dissemination, text has one decided advantage over other forms: it can be replicated with no loss of quality. Whatever the fears around the effects of devices on people’s reading habits, at least what they’re reading is still what was written. It hasn’t degraded in the transfer process. Spare a thought for musicians, who spend months in the recording studio mixing everything until the balance is absolutely perfect only for their listeners to promptly compress it into a 96kbps MP3 file to save space on their hard disk and then listen to the damn thing through their laptop speakers while trying to watch telly at the same time. However much importance film directors attach to the decision to shoot on film or digital; high def or 3D, it all looks pretty much the same when you’re watching a bad rip on an old netbook. What’s more, text takes up next to no disc space. A couple of gig probably equates to more books than you will ever be able to read, or a couple of episodes of Modern Family. Your choice.
Indeed, it is the novel’s very text-based nature, so often presented in these discussions as a shortcoming, which makes it so ideally placed to interrogate the era in which we presently find ourselves, because make no mistake about it, this is the age of text. Yes, there is much buzz about multimedia content and embedded video and click-to-play and pull-to-refresh, but nevertheless our world depends on the word (albeit not the printed kind) like never before. Film and television, for all their CGI gimcrackery, must contort themselves into all sorts of new shapes in order to make even the faintest gesture towards including emails, text messages, blogs and tweets, and there is still a sense of “workaround” in many of their approaches. Should texts scroll across the screen like surtitles in an opera? Should characters just continually read out the contents of their phones to other characters? Novels, of course, (and poetry, short stories, etc) breeze through these limitations without so much as a second’s hesitation. Why? Because, as the Icelandic novelist Sjón recently reminded us, novels are by their nature absorptive. They move through oceans of data like blue whales, sucking up info-plankton by the ton. To date, the novel has successfully swallowed and regurgitated diaries, letters, transcripts, press cuttings, even other novels. It thinks nothing of throwing emails, texts and tweets into the already-varied mix.
If we agree that we live in a text-based era, let’s also agree that, by the very nature of so much of our communication switching to a textual form, we are also entering a more internalized era. I’m not trotting out the old argument that the internet is making us all unable to relate to each other “in real life” (always said as if the internet isn’t itself part of real life), but it does seem clear that an awful lot more of our interaction is carried out in silence. The novel is the internal medium par excellence. It speaks to us in silence, when we are alone. It knows, and makes real, our innermost thoughts. In a novel, people can sit still and think. They can react without any external gesture or expression, and we will still share their reaction. We can read a text at the same moment as a character in a novel, and then we can react, wordlessly, with that character, with none of the splitting and overlaying and explaining that visual media must resort to in order either to dramatize or symbolize what is happening.
And while we’re on the subject, let’s also pause to consider the dramatic impact of our connectivity. This nonsense that plots depend on distance (because who wants to read a novel about intimacy, right? Oh, yes, hang on, lots of people, including me; OK, put it another way: who wants to watch a film about a bunch of people trapped together in an enclosed space and forced to get along? Oh, yes, of course, everyone wants to watch that film, that’s why it keeps getting made) is all the more absurd for the fact that we are obviously more physically distanced from each other at the moment of successful communication than ever before, meaning distance can be used even more creatively. So-called cyber-thrillers exploit the speed of email dissemination to spin globe-spanning plots. Distance, as a device, is absolutely ubiquitous. Moreover, the dramatic possibilities of when or where people receive news are now near-infinite.
Consider for a moment the long, utterly insipid era of the telephone in books and films, where the same scene was repeated so often it could be distilled to its merest essence and the audience would understand: person stands in kitchen or hallway (beside one of those little tables designed solely for the telephone, which no-one I’ve ever met actually owns), listens on phone, gasps, clutches phone to chest, etc, etc. Now, people receive the best and worst news of their life while they are actually out in the world living their life. Which is more dramatic: person alone in kitchen getting phone call, or person in the middle of a family gathering receiving a life-shattering text they then have to keep secret?
We also need to remember that drama and conflict are not limited to the external. Internal conflict has long been a rich seam for the novel to mine, and our weird techno-present must surely be one of the most internally-conflicted eras to date. The internet, by putting all of our desires and fantasies at our fingertips, would seem to have ushered in the era of the Id: a moment in history when we can finally do, say, see and be everything we’ve always been too ashamed to explore. In some ways, that has happened, but so has something else: our collective super-ego has rushed to redress the balance, meaning that every second we spend tinkering about on the web is fraught with previously unimaginable levels of guilt.
“Must get off Twitter,“ people Tweet. “Meant to do some work today but spent all day on Facebook instead,” people post on Facebook. “Meant to write a novel,” write the novelists, “but ended up just pissing about on Wikipedia.” The novel, with its access not only to our emotions but also to our meta-emotions, the things we feel about how we feel, is the perfect medium for this conflicted age.
Next week in the final installment, Sam Byers says the problem is not distraction, not that we need Freedom or to blame our internet addiction, rather the issue is attention. Too much of it.