The Networked Novel: Gestation Periods, Birth Weights and the Literary Heartbeat (Part 1)
November 28, 2005 | 8:57 am
By Robert Nagle
In his essay on the Problem of Length and the Novel Michael Allen writes:
We must always remember, however, the effects of survivorship bias. When we look back at the past, and see big thick books which became famous, we are seeing the survivors. A select band indeed. We do not see the big thick books which were bloody boring and of no real interest either to the literati or the hoi polloi. Neither do we see those novels which never achieved publication at all, because they were judged to be too short. Who knows what lost masterpieces were in that category? We must greatly beware, therefore, of falling into the trap of thinking that long novels are, by virtue of their length, somehow inherently superior to short ones.
This fascinating essay illustrates how the social and economic realities of publishing affected the literature being consumed. For example, in the 19th century, publishers favored longer books that could be split into multiple parts as a way to support lending libraries (started by Charles Edward Mudie).
What the market wants, the market gets. But then the market changes. Allen traces how 20th century social trends have affected book length: short books were produced during wartime, while fat books became popular in the 1980s. Allen might be making a point that is more speculative than empirical, but it jibes with my own observations. In technical publishing you still see a definite bias towards fat books: when consumers started preferring books that are Unleashed/Complete Reference/ Bibles , etc), publishers noticed pretty quickly. In 2000 and 2001 (when I was reviewing technical books for amazon.com), 1000 page books seemed like the norm. Compare this to poetry books, which rarely exceed 100 pages. If you consider the book product purely on a cost-per-page basis, poetry books seem like a rotten deal.
Allen asks, what are current trends in book lengths? Current trends are contradictory. Lower print costs (and cost-free web publishing ) insulate the literary consumer from market forces. Buy a 1000 page book or a 150 page book from half.com for under $3; it no longer matters. (I gleefully download Dickens’ Bleak House and Journey to the West on Blackmask for free , but –can I be honest– will I ever read them?) Entertainment options proliferate, yet it is harder finding time to tackle the tomes, physical or virtual. Is anyone old enough to remember back in the last century when people said things like, “Well, the first 100 or 200 pages were slow, but once you got into it, the book is great!” Wait, who has time to read 100 pages of anything these days–just as a prelude to the main course? I still have 3 Seasons of Angel episodes to catch up on.
Then along came the all-text, read-it-straight-through book. You and I grew up with an idea of “the book” as an all-text performance by one person that was meant to be experienced straight through, from page one to page whatever. Remember what a big leap out of childhood it was thought to be to be able to manage an unillustrated book? Remember the disdain that was encouraged towards kids who never developed the taste for plowing through all-text books? Well, that was (in part, at least) a consequence of the book-publishing technology of the time. Mass publishing technology for a few hundred years simply couldn’t handle much in the way of visuals or design.
And when you think about it, what an odd taste it is: staring at oceans of text, dutifully trudging from one page to the next. What an odd thing, to want to spend hours in a single author’s mind. And what an oddly arrogant demand it is on the part of an author: imagine asking people to sit there and burn up their eyes attending to nothing but your work and your mind for 5-20 hours. The audacity of it: why, I have misgivings about putting up a blog posting as long as this one is.
Technology affected not only the kinds of books that were printed, but also how people spent their leisure time. I once told my students that “for Emily Dickinson, nature was her television.” But in a world without television (or electricity), the novel was about the best form of prepackaged entertainment available during those long candlelit nights. From that necessity, an aesthetic emerged.
“Three-decker novels” (to use Mr. Allen’s phrase) are engrossing; they offer thrills and comforts and a degree of introspection. Earlier this year, while reading Arnold Bennett’s masterful Old Wives’ Tale, I enjoyed the long journey for its own sake. But such events are now rarities. It’s hard to predict how ebooks will be sold or what the market will bear, but it no longer makes sense ( either for the writer or the reader) to play with longer forms anymore. The reader can’t afford to spend time reading something of uncertain value, and the writer can’t afford to spend time on a single work lasting 600/800/1000 pages. If the remuneration of producing a 200 page book and a 1000 page book are essentially the same, what size will contemporary novelists tend to produce?
Instead we may be returning to shorter forms or (more likely) serialized forms. Weblogs, for example, have changed expectations about output. Would we ever expect Ralph Waldo Emerson or Northrup Frye to post daily essays on literature and art? And yet, when Dan Green or Matt Cheney miss a day or two of blogging, I feel miffed. How dare they!!!
Ignore for the moment the difficulty of producing on a daily basis. The journal/blerialization format offers the opportunity to remind an audience on a daily basis that you (or your story) still exist. Like a literary heartbeat. The blook/blogstory is clearly a case where the technical constraints of the software have imposed a form..a chronological/autobiographical one. The much derided “haircut blog” (“…Today I had a haircut and then walked the dog and then called my girlfriend“…) actually is an easy narrative to follow, especially if the character is interesting and the story occurs in “real time” ( a time frame identical to the person reading it). Lacking in structure perhaps, and lacking dramatic incident (telling and never showing), blogstories nonetheless create a first person protagonist with emotional nuances and significant backstory for those willing to delve into the archives. Web guru Eric Meyer once compared reading a weblog to watching the film Memento. You read the latest entry first, and then go backwards. Like a TV show you catch in syndication and later watch the earlier episodes, weblog-based literary forms either have a backward focus or an obsession with the eternal present. The pleasure comes not from anticipating the future but comparing the present with past.
Long novels have forward momentum and a single starting point. Few who start actually complete the journey, but those who do feel the pride of accomplishment (that is true both for creators and consumers). For blognovels, there is no single station to begin your journey; that train is constantly picking up passengers at various stops, and nobody has stayed on the train the whole time.
This has implications on the creative process. Novels used to have long gestation periods, but how realistic is that anymore in an age of rapid product cycles and CPU upgrades? Out of sight, out of mind. Blogs don’t start out with a plan; a blogger just starts something and cannot stop appending. But are novelists like that (generally, I mean)? Some just take the word processor and start adding chapters until they decide that the result is substantial enough to be called a novel. But most take a more deliberative approach. Usually it’s three years of silence and then—plop!– we have a novel. From a purely marketing perspective, this is an incompetent way to launch a literary career.
on-the-page fiction offers nothing but the author’s words — nothing but the author and his/her skill and talent, really. Just that one person … Yet, despite this fact, a novel-author also wants to stake a claim on the reader’s full attention for, say, 15 hours. Whoa, Nelly. In real life, I don’t know a soul who can hold my attention for such a long time. Yet that’s what a typical novel is: a 15 hour long performance by one person — snoozola, man. I’m also struck by how arrogant it seems for any artist to say, “Here’s the deal. I’m going to tell you a tale, and it’s going to last for 15 hours. And for those 15 hours you are going to have nothing but my imagination, my craft, and my voice to enjoy.” I’m not sure I want to be in the same room with such a person, let alone pay close attention to him.
The attitude expressed above is absurd. People would be more than happy to devote 15 hours to a form of entertainment if they could be certain of their enjoyment beforehand. But how can anyone have that certainty? The problem is not simply time but developing an effective strategy to engage the audience. How do you grab the audience’s attention? How do you get them hooked?
Videogames face that same problem; they aim for 20 hours of gameplay, but how do you convince gamers a game is worth the time investment? First, encapsulate the best parts of gameplay in the first 10-15 minutes. Start with a well-produced trailer, a series of immediate rewards and a sense of the long-term challenges ahead. That first step into the videogame world can be strange, clumsy and disorienting. But the best videogames turn this initial sense of disorientation into something exciting and enticing. Dozens of decision paths await you; where to go? where to begin? The true boredom comes when you are stuck, when you are trying to perform a certain action for the umpteenth time and cannot figure out how to do it right. Videogames use Lewis Carollesque “trapdoors” to help players escape that vicious cycle and resume gameplay in a totally new arena.
These are techniques videogames use to engage players. How do they relate to novels? A good first chapter (or paragraph) and a distinctive narrative voice can provide the hook, preferably one which foreshadows plot and conflict. First chapters need to be clear enough for readers to catch a story without getting completely lost, but ambiguous enough to suggest a variety of plot directions. Novels like Cortazar’s Hopscotch have played with the notion of reordering chapters or incident, but the main kinds of trapdoors are drastic narrative disruptions (shifting point of view, flashbacks or flashforwards–my favorite being “Four thousand years later…” in Spielburg’s AI).
Hermann Broch once wrote, ‘The sole raison d’être of a novel is to discover what can only be discovered by a novel.” In a time where movies and videogames predominate, that raison d’être has changed. Suppose camcorders were around in the 19th century. Don’t you think stories like Huck Finn might have been written for film rather than the novel? What about Pride and Prejudice? Recently it has been the fashion to lament the predominance of the “literary novel” and pine away for old-fashioned storytelling virtues (incident, character, etc). But why should an old-fashioned story take the form of a novel when it could just as easily be dramatized into a movie?
We need to recognize what is still unique to novels (and text-based artistic works) in the digital age.
First, size. Big novels can have teeny tiny chapters (example: Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being). People in publishing still have this crazy notion that readers eschew short stories in favor of novels. Not true! Readers adore short stories–especially when they are strung together along some unifying theme or setting in a larger form. Find me a great long novel, and I could probably untangle 10 or 20 short stories from it. Kundera’s novels offer good examples of the novel’s advantages in the digital age. He was a great believer in “essayistic novels” (using philosophic meditations and political essays as counterpoint to plot). Think about the loose forms of Melville’s Moby Dick, Broch’s Sleepwalkers, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Rabelais’ Gargantua & Pantagruel, Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. These novels are more like intellectual junkyards than elaborately planned landscapes. And yet if you examine their organization, you will be struck by how segmented they are. When the reader encounters Melville’s chapter on Cetology, he knows he could skip it without missing any of the story. Looser literary forms let you skip around without worrying about missing the gist of things. What would happen if you skipped a few of the chapters in Winesburg, Ohio or Dubliners? Your enjoyment would be lessened, yes, but not altogether spoiled. If the reader fully comprehends the overall structure of a three-decker novel, he can choose alternative abbreviated paths throughout the novel–skipping some parts and moving through others. This ability to devise alternative paths, by the way, is something ebooks and hypertext novels do especially well.
Second, novels don’t squawk or scream or require Dolby speakers or HDTV screens. It’s easy to read in public without calling attention to yourself or what you are reading. Entering this imaginary world depends not on technology or access to a darkened world but simply on your ability to concentrate on a page of text.
Third, text stories are easy to carry around, easy to copy, easy to read on just about anything. Some might call this a disadvantage (how can you protect the creative property?), but actually the sheer convenience of it wins readers.
Fourth, text-based literary forms offer a depth of introspection afforded no other genre. A novel is about ME ME ME! I am the one imagining it and the one writing it. You are reading it because you are curious about MY world and MY vision and MY emotional landscape and MY narrative idiosyncracies. The novel doesn’t have to become a confessional or diary (especially if told in third person), but the nature of the form calls into question the reliability of the telling. Really, words are amazing. Hey guess what, I’m a tiny insect crawling underneath a rug. I just threw that sentence out, and suddenly the image has popped into your head whether you like it or not. I could go on and describe my adventures as a bug, how I groom my antenna and flee from human feet and vacuum cleaners. Actually, I am not really a bug but a mental patient imagining himself to be a bug (or an essayist imagining himself to be a mental patient…), but as long as you keep reading, the world of the bug persists. Never has conjuring a world required so little effort.
Fifth, novels can be reconstituted into other derivative formats. Can’t get funding for that movie idea? No prob. Write it first as a novel. Yes, the two genres are different (and btw, Ray Bradbury had a hilarious time adapting Moby Dick) , but in an age where Hollywood studios are producing mediocre sequels like American Wedding for $55 million, it’s still possible for A-list novelists to produce great novels with stingy production budgets totaling $1 million or less!
Sixth, text-based forms have built-in advantages for web promotion. I spoke about this already with regard to serial forms and the weblog. When a “blogstory” sends a literary ping to your RSS reader every few days, that creates a habit and an expectation.
Finally, I ask you: how many people can watch movies or play online games clandestinely at work (or in a nonimmersive context)? In this dawning age of ebook readers, one can read all the scandalous fiction one wants in plain view without tipping off bystanders. Reading in public used to have social utility; people could be impressed that you were carrying a book by Sartre or Ruskin. Now we have the advantages of clandestine entertainment. I personally can’t read for very long in a public place; I need the silence and solitude. Nonetheless, in an age where attention spans are lessening, where work hours and commute times are increasing and you never know when the next bloc of free time will materialize, the need for just-in-time entertainment will grow.
You can turn to handheld devices for this–not only for text-based entertainment but also multimedia. But producing quality multimedia requires significant time and resources (not to mention expenses). On the other hand, you can read a script much faster than you watch the movie (or listen to an audiobook version). Until it becomes possible to hook the brain up directly, text stories will still be the fastest and most efficient method for conveying a story from one brain to another. That is one reason text-based storytelling will stay popular regardless of technological innovation.
One question remains. Novels and ebooks are still essentially closed forms. The author writes it, and then kicks it over the fence for readers to catch. How can the “networked novel” exploit the advantages of the web’s openness without diluting the magnificence of an individual’s artistic vision?
That in fact is the subject of Part Two.
Robert Nagle (aka idiotprogrammer) still writes old-fashioned fiction under various pseudonyms on the web. This is Part 1 of a series of essays on the Networked Novel. Part Two will appear in a few weeks. He lives in Houston, Texas. Email: idiotprogrammer at fastmailbox.net .