Is Literature Evolving? Kate Pullinger
Publishing is changing rapidly, and writing, reading and bookselling are changing with it, as is the book itself: there is no escaping this fact. While writers are urged by their publishers to engage with social media in order to market their books, storytelling itself is evolving with the new technologies.
I’ve been writing books – novels and short stories – for more than twenty years now, and writing digital fiction for a decade. In 2001 I was asked to teach a creative writing course online which, in turn, led to a year-long AHRB research fellowship at NTU, looking at new forms of narrative online. I began to experiment with hybrid forms of literature during that year – writing stories that combine image, video, animation, sound, music, etc. with words on the screen – and since then I’ve continued to write both books and digital fiction.
Moving online had as profound an effect on me as a writer as publishing my first book did. Beginning to create works of digital fiction forced me to consider the future of publishing, indeed, the future of writing and reading itself, much more deeply than I could ever have anticipated.
A bound book is a technology for reading, created by a printing press, moved from warehouse to retailer to reader via a network of transport technology, conveying the writer’s words to you in a manner to which you are completely accustomed; a technology you were taught to use on your mother’s knee, most likely. But many people are deeply attached to books, myself included, for reasons much more complex than the simple statement ‘I like to read’ could ever convey. The book-lined room is a status symbol as potent as the most expensive hand-printed wallpaper; the desk surrounded by books is as significant an image of intellect as that photograph of Einstein with his hair standing on end. The positions of The Book and The Writer in our culture are laden with layers of meaning, and digitization disrupts and transforms both these things.
As a fiction writer, I’m not really interested in the technological platform itself, be that bound book, e-reader, or web browser. What I am interested in is writing. What I am interested in is language; words, crafted, precise and beautiful; and the way that the right words in the right order can create mental pictures as indelible as the greatest film or photograph or painting. I am interested in what happens when words are liberated from the book – what happens to language, what happens to reading? What does it mean to put text on a screen, to use text combined with other forms of media?
Pundits bemoan the fact that young people are reading fewer books - though actual research on the effect of the internet on reading is in its infancy - but for the under-twenties, the born-digital generation, the acts of reading and writing have been fundamentally altered by the digital age already. With this in mind, it could be argued that the novel, as defined as a single work by a single author aimed at the solitary reader published on paper using fixed print type – or an electronic replica of that - is a relic of a cultural moment, a moment that lasted more than two hundred and fifty years or so but – as all you scholars of the history of literature know - in the context of humanity’s immense shared history of story-telling, a moment nonetheless. The new technologies enable the integration of story and community, writer and reader, media and text; they provide a platform for interactivity and response that we’ve only just begun to explore. It’s the hybrid forms that are now emerging that interest me, as both a writer and a reader. Literature is evolving.
What do you think a Literature of The Future will look like?