Monday, December 18, 2017

Is the digital age killing the novel?

The other day I woke up to the very un-festive headlines of “Books in Crisis!” and “Collapsing Fiction Sales!” Apparently, more and more readers prefer to pick up their smart phone than a book, choosing to stream films or hang out on social media – or both – than read a story. If this sounds a little familiar, it may be because I touched on this subject in the first piece I wrote for Type M for Murder (Are we losing the plot?). While it would be foolish to deny there isn't a problem, the arrival of the digital age doesn't have to be the death knell of the novel. In China, for example, millions of authors write their novels by installments, Charles Dickens like, publishing a new chapter every day, almost before the ink is dry on the previous one. And just as we might wait to download the next episode of True Detective or House of Cards, over 300 million young readers anxiously wait to download the hot-off-the press chapters onto their smart phones. 

And that's not all. Not unlike the fan sites of Goodreads and Smashwords, readers of China's “online literature” have their own web forums based around their favourite novels. Here they discuss at length all aspects of the stories they love and often chat with invited authors. In fact, readers can even tell authors what they would like to see happen in the stories and in many instances an author will shape the plot of his or her novel to include the changes. If a story doesn't get enough followers, even after making changes, the writer simply ditches the story and starts a new one. 

Why is “online literature” so big in China? It's believed that would-be writers, frustrated at China's strict censorship, turned to the internet to tell their stories. Writing online avoided State scrutiny and readers, bored with a diet of books full of state propaganda and self improvement, quickly discovered the online story gems. Regardless of how “online literature” came to be, however, it is very much a thing in China. The less good side of the phenomenon is that writers are not able to charge very much for their hastily scribbled chapters, some even write for free. But for those who succeed, it can be very profitable. Ambitious editors from China's new private publishing industry are always searching through the online installments to find the next big thing with the hope of selling lucrative spinoffs, such as movies and TV shows and video games. (Maybe not so different from here, after all?) 

Interestingly, online readers are not confined to China. There are four million overseas readers from more than 100 countries logging on daily to read the next chapter of novels such as the "Empress in the Palace," or "Scarlet Heart” – and North Americans make up about one third of that number. That's some readership.

What do you think about online literature, if anything? It's certainly a more sociable way to read – if sociable is what you want, although I prefer a more solitary reading experience. I also prefer a solitary writing experience. I can't imagine writing the present draft of my latest novel to demand, adapting it to suit the feedback of strangers. As for the idea of publishing daily installments online, that makes me feel weak at the knees. I am a slow, leisurely writer. Could this make me a dinosaur? Hm?


Aline Templeton said...

Marianne, The thought of readers waiting for the next installment fills me with horror. Publishers' deadlines are bad enough and sometimes even the thought of having to produce my blog on time has me very twitchy!

Sybil Johnson said...

I agree with Aline. I'm having a hard enough time with a deadline that is measured in months. Can't imagine having to put out a daily installment. But at least people are reading.

Unknown said...

I have some difficulty with the notion of modifying a novel on the basis of readers' expectations. What happens to my original vision, developed and refined from my own heart and mind?