Skip to main content

In the beginning was the Word. Then came Gutenberg, and it was good. But then came a giddy army of Japanese school girls, writing and "publishing" novels on cell phones.

And lo, the end was nigh. And loudly did the literati bewail the Death of the Word.

But then those clever girls revealed their true intent. Mere moments after the emergence of the so-called keitai novel, heralded worldwide as a revolutionary blow against the hoary tradition of the literary elites, this exciting new creature morphed like a perverse genie into plain old paperback form, where it now fights for shelf space in brick-and-mortar bookstores.

Story continues below advertisement

It turns out that success for these young writers, as ever, means being published. Their innovation was simply to apply a new tool to the ancient task of breaking into print, which is where they all want to be - and where the best of them now thrive.

The twisted fate of yesterday's game-changing e-fad is a useful corrective to current panic over the end of literary culture, according to Professor Raymond Mar of York University. A psychologist, Mar brought a calming message from the frontiers of cognitive science to this year's Book Summit in Toronto, a Canadian publishing industry conference where the panic reliably concentrates once a year.

"The best lesson is a simple one," he says. "If you want to understand the future, look to the past."

Every new technology produces the same panic, according to Mar. "But radio didn't kill the book, television didn't kill the book, movies didn't kill the book and the Internet's not going to kill the book," he says. "These things just create different sources of inspiration for one another."

We're mistaken to say the rise of the image is a nail in the coffin of the word Michael Strangelove

And an ever-greater number of cash transactions for paper books, exemplified on this side of the Pacific by the growing cohort of Western bloggers with lucrative book deals. To celebrate their victory over traditionalists - and to profit from their labour in the only way available to them - bloggers murder trees.

"My feeling is that things are going to change, but we're never going to enter into a realm where things are unrecognizable for us," Mar says.

One distinct trend of the Internet age is the return of the Victorian-style triple-decker: huge, unwieldy novels that let netizens tune out the annoying chatter of their native realm by means of total immersion in alternative realities. Between them, J.R.R Tolkein and J.K. Rowling set a powerful magic afoot, and it took flight in the Internet age.

Story continues below advertisement

The advance copy of the first volume of Ken Follett's upcoming The Century Trilogy is 985 pages. Evelyn Waugh's entire oeuvre could easily fit inside Stieg Larsson's three bestselling detective novels.

"People always say the novel's going to die," says Justin Cronin, author of The Passage, a heavily promoted, 766-page vampire novel (review on following page), the first part of a planned trilogy, which is currently contesting with Larsson's 563-page finale for top spot on the Kindle bestseller list. "I say the novel's going to be at your funeral."

And not just the novel: The Internet is a mighty engine for creating words of all kinds, notes Ottawa's Michael Strangelove, author of Watching YouTube: Extraordinary Videos by Ordinary People.

Until recently, he says, the most commented-on video on YouTube was a static title that read, "Macedonia is Greece." More than 700,000 people added their views (777.024 as of January, 2010), creating a text that, if printed, would likely extend to a dozen thick volumes - encyclopedia size. With many repetitions of the phrase, "You suck," according to Strangelove.

"But my point is that this high age of amateur video production is bringing with it a massive outpouring of words," he says. "We're mistaken to say the rise of the image is a nail in the coffin of the word."

Blame Marshall McLuhan for leading people to believe that every new communications technology fundamentally changes everything from individual neurons to the global economy. But it was also McLuhan who observed that human society walks backward into the future, navigating by means of a rear-view mirror. "Spaceship Earth is still operated by railway conductors," he complained.

Story continues below advertisement

That truth is key to understanding the phenomenon of the e-book, according to Darren Werschler, a professor of communications at the University of Waterloo. "To call what we're reading on our phones and our computers an 'e-book' is like calling a car a horseless carriage," he says. "It's another thing entirely."

But what? Kate Pullinger, e-book pioneer and Book Summit speaker, wishes more writers would make an effort to find out what today's horseless carriage really wants to be.

"I do think that writers need to be getting in there and shouting," Pullinger says. "We run the risk of the digital realm being occupied solely by film-makers and video-makers."

Veneration of the book as artifact stifles innovation, according to Pullinger. "Writers need to be really seriously engaging with the new ways to tell stories that these technologies potentially allow us," she says.

On her own account, Pullinger is experimenting with hybrid forms that use images, videos, text, music and sound to tell a story. "It's a very different experience from reading a novel," she says. "But I think there's room for this kind of form within the realm of literature."

In the meantime, she remains best known as the author of The Mistress of Nothing, a conventional narrative that won her the 2009 Governor-General's Award for Literature. Two hundred forty-nine paper pages, it is readily available at a bookstore near you.

Report an error Licensing Options
Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.