Is digital transforming the way we read and even the way writers write? Some people think so. “Our attention spans have shortened, we’re distracted, and authors have changed their style to suit, but these changes are part of the wider digital transformation,” Paul Mason writes today in the Guardian. And, Mason suggests, not all of these changes are bad.
What I think the literary academics are worried about is the loss of immersiveness. If I list the books I would save from a burning house – or an exploding Kindle – they all create worlds in which one can become immersed: Pynchon, Grossmann, Marquez, Lawrence Durrell in the Alexandria Quartet, Peter Carey in almost everything.
In the 20th century, we came to value this quality of immersion as literary and to see clear narratives, with characters observed only through their actions, as sub-literary. But a novel such as Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-winning The Goldfinch, subtly derided by the literary world for its readability, is not the product of the Kindle – but of a new relationship between writer and reader.
Pre-digital people had a single “self” and they hauled its sorry ass through the pages of the literary canon in the hope that it would come out better. Digital people have multiple selves, and so what they are doing with an immersive story is more provisional and temporary.
So writers are having to do different things. But what?
What indeed? It’s early days yet, so Mason doesn’t know any better than we do. He has a few guesses though, and they’re here.