Challenges in the Digital Age

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Writing off the Page

In a participatory digital domain it is hard to tell what will provide and confer literary value. Yes. The old guard is going digital. Fine. You can get published with the old guard online. But how else have things changed? What is new and literary?

John August delineates some of the challenges writers face in the digital age. Two of the four challenges he presents have to do with the timeliness of the work: immediacy and permanence. It is quite strange to adapt our assumptions and expectations of literary fiction to a chat room mentality. Yet online, even if a story disappears from the homepage of a given publication fairly quickly, it may reappear in an Internet search for much longer than anyone would ever expect a print journal to last.

Some worry that the digital age will put an end to good literature. But even if we’re culling for quality in a search for what is literary in the overwhelming morass of digital content, we do not want to re-introduce elitist sensibilities. We want to get away from the tiers and hierarchies wherever possible. We don't want to get trapped in a mentality that ranks books above literary journal publications above other online publications above blog posts above comment threads above chats above Tweets above text messages. Yet it is exhausting to put equal artistic effort into every single use of language exchanged online. Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa said, "My hope is that the new technology won't mean a banalization of the contents of the book.”

I found his quote on what was itself a fairly banal webpage. It was right beneath a directive to “Download Audiobooks - Start your 14-Day Free Trial today. Listen on your iPod or Mp3 Player!” And on this same page, if one takes the time to truly consider Mr. Llosa’s further comment that "…good literature, by awakening the critical spirit, creates citizens who are more difficult to manipulate....” one will also find herself wondering about the veracity of, “Local mom reveals $5 trick to erase wrinkles. Shocking results exposed!” and whether or not to click on the picture of the friendly old man with the white mustache to discover which, “4 things happen right before a heart attack.”

Yet I do not believe that literature can possibly lose its way. Nor do I agree with TIME’s assertion that literature is out of control. It’s changing quickly, yes. The current world of digital publishing can easily be likened to a red algae bloom or a gold rush boom town—two analogies that do little to offer the painstaking writer much solace. And yes. Fine. The simple fact is that if we’re going to make any headway at all about the worthiness of even a fraction of what’s out there, we really do need a website called The Review Review.  But even when faced with an incomprehensible marketplace, Mr. Llosa reminds us that, “No matter how ephemeral it is, a novel is something, while despair is nothing.”