Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

Resurrecting the serial novel: Finding a niche in modern reading culture

Not long ago, I came across a book titled Orchestration by English composer and musicologist Cecil Forsyth. The old volume had been left on the kitchen table by my housemate, a film scoring student at the Berklee College of Music. I am not a musician, but string instruments have been a particular weakness of mine. Violin sonatas often leak into my mental soundtracks whenever I sit down at my computer to work. Flipping through Orchestration to Forsyth’s description of the violin, I encountered the following passage:

No attempt will be made here to describe accurately the shape of the violin or the possible relationship of that shape to its exquisite musical qualities. It may suffice to say that the form in which we now have the instrument is apparently beyond improvement. Since Stradivarius’s day only non-essential alternations have been made in the instrument.

What caught my attention was the phrase “beyond improvement.” As in perfect.

Returning to my own room and the novels that line my shelf, I began to wonder: is the print book also an instrument “beyond improvement,” and is its current digitization only a facet of “non-essential alternations” brought on by a screen-dominated modern milieu? Or could it be that we have taken the physical structure of our books for granted? Perhaps the codex is not to be the ultimate form for our literature.

As someone who became a reader before the digital revolution, my foray into literature had always been framed by the codex—compilations of silent, spatially constrained, static pages. To write about a print book using such terms may seem harsh, but I summon these descriptors affectionately. Within the silence, restricted space, and inertness provided by the printed page, only the story and the reader exist. The printed book is a floating island, hovering just over our reality but at the same time blissfully detached from the distractions of everyday life. It is a place to peacefully, intellectually lose myself. A perfect getaway.


But the Internet has changed our reading habits. In an article in The Atlantic entitled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” writer Nicholas Carr —author of The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison to Google—bemoans the effect of living perpetually connected to a clamoring cyber universe. “My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles,” Carr laments. “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

As the modern mind juggles emails, blog posts, online articles, podcasts, images, videos, and multiple social networks, it estranges itself from the act of deep reading. Literary attention span shortens. The craving to multitask increases. When I read, I am no longer detached from the world but ceaselessly connected.

Now how does the serial novel fit into all of this? While reviving old literary practices within a modernizing literary climate may be the publishing equivalent of dancing with the devil, the genre may be surprisingly fit for survival.

Short installments of literature might just do the trick for the hyperactive eye. But this not only implies parsing out pieces of a novel at regular intervals. There are also craft issues to consider. Given the spacing between installments, thought should be given to how these sections would cohere. How should the author remind the reader of the events in a previous section without being redundant? Would a linear plot narrative structure be less appealing than a non-linear one? How should an author time those “big reveals” that create mystery and drive the plot forward?  Then again, these are age-old questions Dickens himself had to tackle.

So it might be time to start entertaining the idea of an enhanced serial novel. Installments may not always be in text—a relatively short leap given that our senses are already accustomed to erratically fluttering between popular websites such as Facebook, YouTube, Spotify, and Twitter. While current ereader technology is not yet fully optimized for multimedia storytelling, it may only be a matter of time before literature flaunts the trappings of Internet culture.


This entry was posted on April 4, 2012 by in Culture, Technology and tagged , , .

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