Technology is Destroying the Novel Again

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Yesterday, the New York Times ran a piece about a storytelling app called Wattpad and the growing popularity of online, serialized novels. The lead example is a work called After that has built an audience of one million readers for its frequent installments — which are read on smart phones.

As a blog and a so-called “micro press,” we at Fiction Advocate are not automatically averse to new ways of advocating for fiction. And yet, all of us here are also notoriously over 30, and can remember when books were only read on paper. For us, 2014 is most notable as the 20th anniversary of The Western Canon (as the Times also pointed out this weekend). Thus, we tend to react to things like Wattpad with mild terror and stern disapproval.  

But rather than putting on my angry Andy Rooney eyebrows and harrumphing, I’ll just let the evidence speak for itself. Here are a few key sections from the Times story:

Now technology is transforming the writing of fiction, previously the most solitary and exacting of arts, into something nearly the opposite. It is social, informal and intimate, with the results not only consumed but often composed on the fly.

Everyone knows that writing is better when done quickly and with the constant input of large crowds of anonymous commenters.

(Harry in “After” is inspired by Harry Styles, the teen heartthrob from the band One Direction.) Other popular categories are vampire fiction and mysteries.

I think we all can agree that literature can only benefit by having more of the things listed above. 

The writers — who are not paid for their work…

This seems like a promising direction.

This is writing reimagined for a mobile world, where attention is fragmentary.

Finally, someone has provided a medium for writing in the mobile world.

Before the Internet collapsed time and space, a vast gulf existed between writers and readers… in general the more successful the writer, the greater the distance between the author and the reader. The writer was an imperial figure, an artist who dwelt on Mount Olympus. The reader was nowhere.

Does it seem like this person had a bad experience with a novelist at some point?

Wattpad eliminates any remaining distance between creator and consumer. The reader has been elevated to somewhere between the writer’s best friend and his ideal editor, one who offers only adoration.

Only adoration is how Gordon Lish got Raymond Carver to produce such magnificent work.

“If you can go to a publisher and say, ‘I have 15,000 fans,’ that counts for more than someone who comes out of their basement with a perfect manuscript who knows no one.”

No one “Likes” a basement writer.

The rest of it is pretty tame. Wattpad is getting rounds of funding and putting people to work in jobs, which is undoubtedly a good thing. And some writers are using the app to produce and sell physical books, the merits of which are probably best judged on a case-by-case basis.

Stories like this almost invariably hype the subject as a transformational sea changing threat to the old ways, which upsets people who liked the old ways. Upon calmer reflection, novels have survived radio, TV, Nintendo, Tamagotchi pets, smart phones, Facebook and on and on. The publishing industry is being hit hard by the changes of recent years, but also by following a business model that has always been wildly inefficient in the publication of both crappy and quality books.

Wattpad is not what I would consider a real threat. The approach to writing and publishing a novel is kind of unsettling, but tons of terrible books have been written the old fashioned way. It may be that a new way leads to something worthwhile — and profitable — for good writers. Who knows what kind of genius it might unlock? All we can do is stay tuned.

– Michael Moats

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3 Responses to Technology is Destroying the Novel Again

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  3. I really like the appeal of sharing stories so fast, but I’m still having trouble blending technology and storytelling together in my mind.

    Like Mike, I saw that there are a ton of vampire and fanfiction-perfect stories on Wattpad. It seems like their primary genre. The app reminds me of a New Yorker article on Chinese literature that I read last year. There’s a growing trend (actually a demand) in China for authors to write novels about businessmen and woman that all end the same way – the protagonist gets a big promotion or raise at his or her job. It sounds like a simple ending, but the fast pace of life in cities like Beijng, along with the fact that the US outsources so much labor to Asia, make these stories incredibly popular in Asia.

    I think the source for so many supernatural stories, romances, or combinations of the two in American literature is something embedded in the national psyche. Americans are certainly attracted to the speed and social recognition that technology like Wattpad promises. But the monotony of the vampire and romance novels on Wattpad says a lot about the other things Americans are preoccupied with – clearly the perfect romance, for one, and two, the impossible, almost supernatural perfection we seek in our own jobs and personal lives.

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