Ebooks are changing the way we read, and the way novelists write

By admin  | 

 September 13th, 2015 | 

By Paul Mason (in The Guardian)

If you hand me the original paperback edition of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow I can, quickly and without too much scrabbling, find you the page where the hero loses the girl. My disappointment on his behalf has lingered physically on that page for the past 20 years. Likewise, in Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, there is a long section where a platoon of the Red Army defends “House 6/1”, establishing a temporary zone of political freedom there. For me, this freedom seems to live in that chunk of pages. If I look at the book end-on, I can see, roughly, where House 6/1 exists.

Yet with the coming of ebooks, the world of the physical book, read so many times that your imagination can “inhabit” individual pages, is dying. I’m not the only person in my circle who has stopped buying new books in anything other than digital form, and even the cherished books described above are now re-read, when I need to, on Kindle.

But what is the ebook doing to the way we read? And how, in turn, are the changes in the way millions of us read going to affect the way novelists write? This is not just a question for academics; you only have to look at people on a beach this summer to see how influential fiction remains, and how, if its narratives were to change radically, our self-conception might also change.

In Words Onscreen, published this year, the American linguist Naomi Baron surveyed the change in reading patterns that digital publishing has wrought. Where the impact can be measured, it consists primarily of a propensity to summarise. We read webpages in an “F” pattern: the top line, scroll down a bit, have another read, scroll down. Academics have reacted to the increased volume of digitally published papers by skim-reading them. As for books, both anecdotal and survey evidence suggests that English literature students are skim-reading set works by default.

The attention span has shortened not just because ebooks consist of a continuous, searchable digital text, but because they are being read on devices we use for other things. Baron reports that a large percentage of young people read ebooks on their cellphones – dipping into them in the coffee queue or on public transport, but then checking their work email or their online love life, a thumbswipe away.

In turn, in so far as form and business models has reacted to such behaviour, fiction has become shorter. Every major publisher has experimented with short stories, serialised fiction, anthologies and mid-range “e-only” books. By contrast, experiments with fictional forms that only work for ebooks and hypertext have failed to make the big time.

Predictably there is a literary backlash – not just against the ebook, and the short attention span, but against writing styles that authors have evolved in the post-Kindle world. The American novelist Joanna Scott last month bemoaned the tendency, even in award-winning serious fiction, to produce a “good read” with a gripping plot and unfussy writing, “instead of a work of art”.

I think such complaints are missing the point. The addition of an “information layer” to everyday life is transforming the way we react to stories: both for the creators and the mass audience.

Our lives are already impossible without summarisation. Just as the first encyclopaedias were written in response to the problem of too many books, so we, too, have evolved new, instant reference tools.

Any word in an ebook can invoke its own dictionary definition, simply by selecting it. If a passage in an ebook strikes you as cogent, beautiful or profound you can bet – once you’ve switched the highlight-sharing function on – hundreds of other people have already highlighted it. It’s a short hop from realising that to paying special attention to the highlighted bits – not out of laziness but as a wise learning strategy.

And while the academic study guides to major novels are usually worthless, the Wikipedia pages devoted to them can be invaluable. That is because study guides are often the work of a single, low-paid hack and the Wikipedia page contains the real-time wisdom of crowds: often wrong, but rarely worthless.

What I think the literary academics are worried about is the loss of immersiveness. If I list the books I would save from a burning house – or an exploding Kindle – they all create worlds in which one can become immersed: Pynchon, Grossmann, Marquez, Lawrence Durrell in the Alexandria Quartet, Peter Carey in almost everything.

In the 20th century, we came to value this quality of immersion as literary and to see clear narratives, with characters observed only through their actions, as sub-literary. But a novel such as Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-winning The Goldfinch, subtly derided by the literary world for its readability, is not the product of the Kindle – but of a new relationship between writer and reader.

Pre-digital people had a single “self” and they hauled its sorry ass through the pages of the literary canon in the hope that it would come out better. Digital people have multiple selves, and so what they are doing with an immersive story is more provisional and temporary.

So writers are having to do different things. But what?

It’s probably too soon to generalise but my guess is, if you scooped up every book – digital and analogue – being read on a typical Mediterranean beach, and cut out the absolute crap, you’d be left with three kinds of writing: first, “literary” novels with clearer plots and than their 20th century predecessors, less complex prose, fewer experiments with fragmented perception; second, popular novels with a high degree of writerly craft (making the edges of the first two categories hard to define); third, literary writing about reality – the confessional autobiography, the diary of a journalist, highly embroidered reportage about a legendary event.

Somewhere among them is probably a novel that will impact as indelibly on the teenager reading it as Pynchon and Grossman impacted on me. But here’s the difference.

I remember reading novels because the life within them was more exciting, the characters more attractive, the freedom more exhilarating than anything in the reality around me, which seemed stultifying, parochial and enclosed.

To a kid reading Pynchon on a Galaxy 6 this summer, it has to compete with Snapchat and Tinder, plus movies, games and music. Sure, that kid can no longer see what other people are reading on the beach – whether its Proust or 50 Shades – but they can see in great detail what people in their social network are recommending. Life itself has become more immersive. That’s what writers are really up against.

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