Are Ebooks changing the way we read and write novels?

The young author engrossed in a book, 1985
The young author engrossed in a book, 1985

As far back as I can recall, I’ve had an immoderate appetite for two things; sweets, and reading. One of my favourite childhood pastimes was to combine both; lying on my bed, or in the park, or lolling on the sofa with a large dog-eared paperback and a bag of American hard-gums, was my idea of bliss.

I’ve gorged on the works of the well-loved but long-winded giants of Victorian literature; Dickens, the Brontes, Austen and George Eliot. I lapped up the protracted Russian greats, as well as such leviathans of fantasy as Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. My point is that as a reader I never shied away from long, involved works of literature, or a book approaching 1,000 pages.

However, reading this article about the changing nature of reading and writing by Paul Mason in The Guardian gave me pause for thought, both as a reader and a writer. It’s true that I haven’t read one of my old favourite epics lately, not even while on holiday, with lots of reading time built into my lazy schedule. What’s going on? Have I succumbed to this dreaded modern shortened attention span? And if I have, is this informing my choices as a writer?

I think it’s fair to say that with an iPhone and a tablet or Kindle literally to hand wherever I go, I’ve caught the mobile reading bug. It’s not easy reading Dostoevsky or Cervantes while bouncing along in the 8.05 to London Euston, or as a passenger in a car; maybe the need for shorter, punchier stories to fill these blanks has worked its way, insidiously, into my general reading habits. However, when I do bite the bullet and reach for a longer work, I never fail to be mesmerised and caught, once again, by the rich imaginary life of the epic, of the three-volume work, of the marvellous scope of long, immersive, multi faceted fiction. It requires me to pay attention, to work, but it rewards me so richly for my efforts.

But it’s safe to say that Paul Mason’s article contains some undeniable truths. I too tend to buy and read my books online now, saving physical print versions for mainly non fiction works; cooking, reference books, books with gorgeous pictures of artwork. My fiction is strictly digital.

The physical size of the screens it is suggested, together with the need to scroll or turn virtual pages frequently has led to a change in reading patterns; Linguistic expert Naomi Baron suggests that digital reading is different from print reading; we tend to “skim”  digital works rather than read each line, starting with the top line, and then jumping down the page and reading another line a bit further along the scroll. Digital readers are also, as I can attest, much more vulnerable to other digital distractions, and the opportunity to multi task with our mobile devices means we do not give our reading matter our full attention.

Paul Mason suggests that authors and editors are reacting to this seismic change by updating how they write and select books for publication. Lots of advice for the budding author, whether intent on traditional or self publishing is to write serials, lots of em, and while you’re at it, provide lots of flash and micro fiction for your readers.

Has writing changed because readers have changed? Probably. As noted above, there are many more distractions for the digital reader, and they read in many more distracting situations and locations. I also believe that social media has taken the place for some for the need for the novel; its constantly changing dramas, social dynamics and updates are hard to resist, particularly I’d suggest for young people today growing up with them firmly entrenched in our social interactions. I agree with Paul Mason that the novel has to compete with a world that is itself much more immersive; I also agree that there is still a place for  the literary novel, albeit probably in a more pared down format.

Although I pooh poohed the idea of serial novels above, I do think that they fit in well with the “box set binge” phenomenon that has occurred within our TV watching habits in recent years. The idea of a serial novel is nothing new – Dickens published many of his great works in monthly or weekly instalments in journals such as Master Humphrey’s Clock and Household Words, later reprinted in book form. Publication by instalments not only made the works affordable for many Victorian readers, they popularised the “cliff hangers” on which many episodes ended, making the avid readers wait an uncomfortable length of time for the denouement! Dickens’s genius was in exploiting this episodic formula while retaining a fully immersive work of fiction when the installments were published in a single volume.

A century later, Stephen King’s The Green Mile was originally published in 1996 in six monthly installments. The Green Mile is one of my favourite King novels, and in my opinion one of his most immersive (but then I am fascinated by stories and movies based in prisons -watch this space for a future novel idea along these lines!). A blockbuster novel such as The Green Mile published today would undoubtedly do incredibly well in the digital market

So has my writing style changed to adapt to this modern multi-tasking reading style? I conclude by agreeing with Paul Mason that there will always be room for good fiction and a strong story. My intended length for And The Buntings Flew is a relatively standard 80,000 words; I believe that the story is fairly simple, and I can convey what I need to in this length. Reading through the draft recently I noticed that most chapters end with a bit of a cliff hanger; is this my unconscious mind shaping the story for e-reading me? Possibly. Tune in to the next installment of my blog to find out more…

Sources:

Are eBooks changing the way we read and the way novelists write

Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World. Naomi S. Baron