According to British author Tim Parks, the “state of constant distraction” created by the internet, email and instant messaging is killing the traditional literary novel. As a result, he claims that novels will have to adapt to “the state of constant distraction we live in and how that affects the very special energies required for tackling a substantial work of fiction – for immersing oneself in it and then coming back to it over what could be weeks, or months, each time picking up the threads of the story or stories, the patterning of internal reference, the positioning of the work within the context of other novels.”
How much do you agree with this? I know myself that I can be easily distracted by the easy availability of information and interaction provided by the various electronic devices I own. This distraction applies to writing as well as reading. But does that mean I don’t enjoy reading long or complex novels? Does it mean the likelihood of me picking one up or actually finishing it is so much less? Absolutely not. It also doesn’t make me less likely to read a physical book as opposed to an e-book, something author Will Self claims to be apparent: “The literary novel as an art work and a narrative art form central to our culture is indeed dying before our eyes. If you accept that by then the vast majority of text will be read in digital form on devices linked to the web, do you novel also believe that those readers will voluntarily choose to disable that connectivity? If your answer is no, then the death of the novel is sealed, out of your own mouth.”
I suppose I can accept that I might ne in the minority, and that there will no doubt be many people out there who will slowly slide away from real books to e-books, and subsequently be distracted by the connectivity of their reading devices, so slowly sliding away from reading altogether. But, as Philip Pullman points out, “if there is a demand for it, it will survive.” And I believe there will always be a demand for books. All industries go through periods of change, and writing/publishing is not immune from that. Change doesn’t have to mean death.
“Books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators.”
Ultimately I am torn between two conflicting aspects of the claims made by Parks:
- That the term “complex literary novel” sounds quite pompous, and I’m not sure what Parks is referring to specifically. As a term for a novel it sounds off putting, and implies that other books that don’t fit this category (whatever it means. War and Peace perhaps?) aren’t worth reading.
- Some might say “Well, we would read more, but there isn’t anything out there worth reading.” There is a lot of choice out there in the literary world – both established and wannabe authors are churning out novels that appeal to the lowest common denominator, presumably motivated by money, which is just as off putting to readers. Sounds harsh, I know, but I believe it’s true none the less.
So where does that leave the reader? Torn between the daunting task of reading a “complex literary novel” or choosing some light hearted dross that they will be distracted from after 10 minutes? We need more of the in-between – compelling characters, interesting plots, and no Masters degree in English Lit required to enjoy it.