Fiction, Form, and the Digital Revolution

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Writing Off the PageWhat is fiction? A book? A story? A craft? A solitary artistic endeavor? A meeting of minds? I don’t know. What I know is that the digital revolution affects our assumptions about what forms fiction can take.

At the least, we know literary fiction is a book. No question. And, my, what would happen to all its high-brow respectability if there were no lovely end leafs or perfectly cut pages?

Before we get going on this exploration of pomp and circumstance I’ll give you my background as a writer so you have some sense of whatever bias to which I’m blind. I decided to write one day while reading The Great Gatsbyor Tender is the Night—one of those prodigious Fitzgerald novels—at my grandmother’s summer cottage on Long Island. My parents, my grandparents, my aunt and uncle, perhaps a cousin, and my sister were all laid out on their backs with books on a hot summer afternoon. The sounds of pages turning, cowbirds singing in the grapevine, and large screens shifting on light breezes in syncopation with waves were all I heard for an hour after lunch. I was the youngest.  While I was very much enjoying whichever novel determined the entire trajectory of my life that day before fifth grade, mainly I was bored and wanted to go down to the beach. I was not allowed to swim alone so I said, “Mom?” She said, “Read.” 

I lay back on a green, sun-warmed, jungle flora print 70s, bedspread, oppressed by maternal directive, and thought, “This is so boring. No one’s talking. Everyone I care about is here but there’s no interaction. They’re all just reading.” Then my eureka moment came. If you want to have any kind of interaction with a chemist, an English scholar, a teacher, a social worker, a nurse, two biologists, and a pianist, well, then you’ll likely have to write a book. They’re all introverted readers and have absolutely no interest in communicating with anyone directly. I very much wanted to communicate with the people I held most dear. So it was decided: I’d write.

I’d already been writing for at least three years but not with any formal ambition. Having galvanized my conviction and admitted my dreams to an interested third party I was rather surprised to be told again, “Read.” Why? What on earth would reading have to do with writing? But whether or not there happened to be any logic in it at all dominant forces prevailed and I read. I won’t say I read everything because I spent a great deal of energy and effort avoiding all the books that constitute what anyone means when they say they’ve read everything. But. I read all the other stuff and loved it.

Okay. By high school I was taking myself and everything else rather seriously and allowed myself to be influenced by the following books on the writer’s life. I recommend all of them. But. When reminiscing about that era I might also be apt to recommend the Beverly Hills Cop II soundtrack so take this list for what it is: Aspects of the Novelby E.M. Forster, A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande, and—during what may or may not have been a drug-addled, new-agey period of my life if I were not currently in rather covetous defense of a license to practice pharmacy— The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. During my more recent MFA work I was introduced to Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin. If you haven’t read A Room of One’s Ownand you’re trying to become a writer I don’t know what you’re doing and I can’t help you.  

It’s funny. When I was in high school diligently reading all these books and more I only ever imagined I was going to be writing books. To me, at that time, books were stacks of nice paper bound with perfectly respectable covers. I mean, what else could they be? But even as I was oh so diligently indoctrinating myself to the concrete aspects of a writer’s reality things were changing, quickly.

I do not think that any of the books I read that discuss writing ever really said you had to assemble a bunch of sheets of paper and put a cover on them to post a bit of work for sale and sharing. So. Without being able to ask explicit permission of Forster, Woolf, Brande, Cameron, or Le Guin (who I know would say it’s perfectly fine to plunge headfirst into the production of reflowable content), I think we’ll just go ahead and assume here at the outset that fiction can be liberated from our assumptions of physicality.