Twilight of the novel?

Minority report

The death of the book has been oft prophesied, and so far the old dear keeps hanging in there. Here Bill Janssen is quoted by Peter Brantley, suggesting that what the casualties may be are forms of content rather than forms of publishing.

Will the novel become a marginal form like opera?

In the hype around the Kindle, I haven’t noticed a mention of Monday’s NEA report, To Read or Not To Read. Seems much more interesting.

I’ve been saying for a few years that we are entering an age where textual fiction is becoming less and less significant, particularly for the canonical long text, the novel. The novel is a relatively recent innovation in entertainment, and the popular novel is a product of cheap production and distribution, thanks to the industrial revolution.

The delivery channels have multiplied, and the economics have changed. Television killed off the pulp magazine (and crippled the market for short stories). What would replace the novel? Something which would produce a ludic experience for hours at a time — a movie. But movies have not succeeded in killing off the novel. They’re too expensive and too complicated, and major players control the distribution channels. The best they could do was to absorb years of talents like Chandler and Faulkner.

But now we have kids who don’t read, the Web, game engines, and the writers’ strike. Game engines and machinima make it possible for writers to produce and direct their own work without actors or sets, for a relatively modest capitalization (a game machine). The Web provides free distribution. Kids provide a hungry audience. But the wild card here is the WGA strike. Suddenly all the folks who normally spend their days creating teleplays are looking for other outlets for their creative energies. Maybe write that novel they’ve been talking about? Maybe not. People like Rob Long (Cheers) are suddenly blogging. Maybe someone will tell them about machinima. We may be entering a twilight for the popular novel, perhaps relegating it to a niche more like opera.

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