Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Future of the Novel.

Recently I attended the Melboure Writers Festival. I went to a panel called The Future of the Novel. Most people would expect a panel with that title to be a discussion about the demise of book reading in the near future. Refreshingly, that was not what this panel was about. Instead the panellists were concerned about the effect social media could be having on what novelists write.

The panellists were an impressive intellectual in Nigerian born American novelist Teju Cole, who wrote the much lauded Open City. The other, much quieter panellist, was transmedia creator Christy Dena.

Cole began with the proviso that anything he had to say about the future of the novel was likely to be wrong. He then tried to describe what makes a great novel. He said a novel was a place where life slows down. He said great novels always had something wrong with them, and this was a good thing, because in their wrongness they managed to create something unique. He then asked, in a world full of social media and its instant feedback, would this wrongness continue?

Let me explain. The panellists felt that writers who used social media extensively, which is most of us, now receive instant feedback on anything they post. In our attempts to increase the number of hits, retweets, and friends, most writers seek to avoid offending their readers. They also endeavour to write positive posts as no one likes a whiner.  Many writers like to look busy to, as though they are leading pro-active lives. So writers adjust what they write on social media based on the feedback they are receiving.

Before social media arrived, a writer might worry about offending their mother with their writing, but now they risk offending the twitterverse. So social media could lead to writers, tooled in its rules, writing sanitised versions of their novels as they impose social media learnt self-censorship.

I found this self-censorship concern interesting in relation to another panel I attended: Healing Words. The panel was about how reading and writing can help the healing process. It was about how reading about someone who had gone through similar health problems, could be beneficial or console the reader. But what if the reader is reading a sanitised, self-censored version of what really happened?

Another panel I attended, On The Spectrum, was about writing about Asperger’s Syndrome. Jo Case was a panellist who had written a non-fiction book about bringing up her son who had Asperger’s. I have nearly finished reading her book. In it she says she blogged a lot about her son. The book itself reads like a lot of blog entries. She said she received a lot of comments on her blog, a lot of empathy for her situation. Then finally some bloke made a comment that her son might have Asperger’s.

I have to wonder how the blog feedback she received influenced the writing of her book. As it is, the scenes in the book seem to go a bit like this: Leo doing something strange and then Jo or someone else doing something that, for the moment at least, causes Leo to acknowledge or modify his behaviour. There are very few dummy spits in the book by the author.

Feedback from social media might also affect how novelists write their self-censored novels. Most writers try to write easy to read blogs and tweets in order to make them as accessible as possible. This might lead to a lack of experimentation by writers. So the future of the novel could be bland, unchallenging, self-censored writing.


Reid Kemper said...

Although writing what people want is the typical business model to increase sales, I believe it's better to write from the heart without considering if you will offend someone. If you write the best story you can, it will show in your writing, and others will like it as well.

Graham Clements said...

Reid, I agree whole heartedly. I write what I want to read, which may or may not be what publishers and most readers want to read.