I love ‘traditional’ (read: 19th century) novels. In my most angsty teenage years or the most alienating months at my first “real” job, my best days were gobbled up by absorption in Dickens, Hugo, Tolstoy, and Doyle. I’ve also broadened my reading horizons to include other living authors, too, such as Zadie Smith, Muriel Barbery, and Alice Munroe, most recently [shameless name-dropping!]. But despite this broadening, just pass me Anna Karenina and leave me alone to read in peace (gosh-darn-it!). I don’t like technology-novels or Twitter novels. Those are not novels.
And then there are two inescapable, contrary things to my love of “traditional” reading materials: (1) my uber-accepting stance on open media and (2) my digital essay (a WRITING project). In these two things, I advocate: free materials! Open education! Unhampered access to learning! Embracing all the digital things but think about how to do them well! Abandon paper publishing for the present and future! Write and communicate using online mediums and language!
But the deckled-edged novel in bed with tea all day.
NOT Tweetbooks. NO. THOSE ARE NOT NOVELS.
I decided to learn more about the way that authoring texts (literary, in this case) is changing since I recognized that I needed to come to some sort of conclusion about what I really thought about this subject before I could both address the potential arguments against my project and stare my ideologies in the face. I came across Alex Clark’s article in the NewStatesman (online, appropriately), “Anxiety of influence: How Facebook and Twitter are Reshaping the Novel,” which promised to be the sort of thought-piece I needed.
Clark brilliantly takes on those among us who fear that the Twitter-novel might replace the ‘real’ novel (really, a 19th century construction) by addressing the issue of the “essential self.” This self is influenced by the digital world that we live in, and it is what makes us both accept new technologies and fear the erasure of old technologies. This essential self is troubling:
“We know that our apprehension of things isn’t inherently stable – consider the way time seems to speed at some points and drag at others, for example, or how our emotions can suddenly flip-flop – but we hold to the idea that there are as many ways of processing the world as there are people in it and that our subjectivity is what separates us from one another.”
Clark continues: “It is foolhardy to define the purpose of the novel or the job of novelists or, more accurately, to suggest what the novel and novelists have, so far, been like.” Instead of defining these terms, Clark determines three ‘poles’ which comprise interactions in the digital world that novelists are trying to trace: “ourselves, our society, our language.” Instead of panicking and wondering what we’ve ‘lost’ or how we’ve ‘lost’ it—which, it seems, are always worries connected to our understanding of how the self develops and maintains identity—Clark asks us to consider: “What happens if the poles get uprooted, knocked over, repositioned?” (emphasis is mine).
Perhaps, Clark contends, those who are worried about this infiltration of digital technology into the novel and loss of the old forms are worried instead about technology just becoming another gimmick or obvious plug in the pages that we know and love. Perhaps we will just mold the old novel-forms to fit some new or flashy ideas. This is not the case, though. Instead, the novel is being re-formed.
Clark goes on to list several ways that technology becomes an actress or plot-point in novels, how writing online has created a new language, and how the structures of the novel have adapted to platforms like Twitter. These things are scary, Clark says, but scary things are not always bad things. Novelists have always (are always already) created within these three poles as they create the thing that we think of as novel. Novel is reshaping culture at the same time as it is being reshaped by culture:
“Cultural Jeremiahs have tended to see that reshaping as a threat to the novel. Yet we have not ceased to produce stories; we have yet to dispense with metaphor and make-believe to explore what can’t be encompassed by straightforward documentary record. The novel of the future will be different from the novel of the past but the same heart will beat behind the screen.”
We’re not losing ourselves (or our strange sense of selfness) in this changing novel. People still write these things, people still read these things, ideas are still created and distributed, communities still exist around them, lives are still changed. It’s okay to love these old forms, too, but just to claim that they are the best way of creating novels and disseminating ideologies is reacting in fear.
Instead, it’s better to consider “how” and “why” writing is changing/is changed by the digital world. Let’s also consider what kind of place we—and our projects—can take in this digital space, which will also require our willingness to change the way that we think about reading and writing and creating practices.