Media Tomorrow Eclipse of the Novel?

Before Gutenberg invented mass production for the printed word in the mid-1400s, lengthy fictional prose was a rarity. Hand-scribed and bound books were terribly expensive, produced manually one copy at a time. Furthermore, with low pre- Gutenberg literacy levels, the market of readers was miniscule. The word “novel” itself didn’t come about until the 1700s. Now after 300 or 400 years, the novel as we know it may be at a crossroads. The question is whether modern technology, with its abbreviated format, has eclipsed the need for longer prose. In other words, has technology, which gave birth to the novel as a high form of literary art, been its comeuppance?

The Digital Revolution and the State of Traditional Literature

Competing Technology.

Newer media technology, particularly digital media, has created potent storytelling forms that encroach on the novel’s once exclusive domain. Movies

have emerged as a powerful vehicle for exploring the human condition and great social issues. Television has potential for serious literary expression as well, making it another competitor with the traditional novel. Competing technologies have both unique attributes and shortcomings, such as the movie’s relative compactness, which can be somewhat limiting in expressing literary nuances.

Ease of Access.

New technologies have made access easier to electronic-based and digital-based media. Going to a movie house for a two-hour experience is far easier than acquiring a book and committing to two weeks of reading. Access could hardly be easier than on-demand movies and television streamed to a mobile tablet.

Time Constraints.

Although novels can be downloaded, the process of consuming long-form literature involves the slow and laborious intellectual process of reading. Most people, when reading for comprehension, move through only 300 words a minute—less than a page. As a learning tool, textbooks are even more labor- intensive. At an extreme, quick reading, like skimming, is typically 600 or 700 words a minute. With easier access to more compact media communication, it seems that people have either shorter attention spans or less patience. Certainly, more is competing for people’s attention than ever before; 24 hours a day is not enough for even a fraction of the media involvement most of us would like.

Will the novel disappear?

Not overnight, but even some champions of long-form story telling, like novelist Philip Roth, see the sun setting. Roth bemoaned to the Daily Beast: “The book can’t compete with the screen. It couldn’t compete beginning with the movie screen. It couldn’t compete with the television screen. And it can’t compete with the computer screen. Now we have all those screens.”

New media forms, such as Twitter, are attracting creative people who in earlier times might have chosen the form of the novel for their artistic explorations and expression. For example, Twitter has become one of the newest media outlets for poetry, with users such as @Poetrytweets whose handle is “exploring the power of 140 characters or less” (a reference to the limit of characters per tweet), and the newly coined term “twaiku” representing the new Twitter haiku movement. Linguist Ben Zimmer notes with interest Twitter’s increasing popularity as a literary source, stating how an author’s use of Twitter to mete out storylines, one tweet at a time, is both novelistic

and intriguing.

Episodic delivery—in chunks—exists in television series and to a greater degree in the edited breakdowns of shows into mini-segments for downloading and consumption on the run. For instance, the trend for shorter content is apparent with the increasing popularity of episodic television series featured solely on YouTube channels, as well as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon original series, many of which are under 20 minutes.

Writing Prompt Journal: What Do You Think?—Longevity of the Traditional Novel

Do you think that the novel, in its traditional form, is becoming obsolete? What might save its seeming ultimate demise?

The response entered here will appear in the performance dashboard and can be viewed by your instructor.

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