| at random magazine


Has the Internet killed the novel?

On Monday, May 17, 1999, Scott Rettberg (rettberg@xsite.net) said:
Q: Has the Internet killed the novel?

A: No. That's a silly question, really. The terms of this debate are the problem. Since these currents first started wafting through the air, I haven't been able to stop shaking my head mournfully. We're asking the wrong questions.

Q: How so?

A: We shouldn't be asking if one thriving, intellectually stimulating field (the American novel) has been killed by another thriving, intellectually stimulating field (the World Wide Web). They're both alive, and they aren't really fighting. We should be asking how the two are, or could be, working together.

Q: Where are the ambitious literary web-based novels?

A: Here's one: The Unknown
The Unknown is a hypertext novel dense in plots. It is a millennial satire of American literary and popular culture circa 1999, written by four unknown writers. Robert Coover, the judge of the 1998 trAce/AltX hypertext competition, referred to it as, "genuinely multisequential and massively rich in story material."

Q: Is it a masterpiece?

A: Oh come on. We're not even done with it yet. It's a comedy.

Q: Does it kill the novel?

A: Will you stop that, please? This bipolar thinking has really got to go. The Internet isn't killing anything. It's a bunch of machines networked together. It's a kind of library. It's a communication device, one that is enabling a kind of cultural revolution. I've never seen it eat any books.

Q: Well then, is anything at stake?

A: Yes. Yes of course. More people (in Western, wired cultures) are reading in the course of their regular day than they have in the history of our culture. They are reading off a screen, on the Web.

Q: What are they reading?

A: Email. Love letters. Silly debates. News. Stock quotes. Pornography. Jokes. Advice. Horoscopes. A little poetry.

Q: Is there room for literature on the Web?

A: I sure hope so. The only way the Web *could* kill literature is by not doing anything about it. That is, by not working on a native Web-based lit that learns from, rather than presents itself in opposition to, our shared literary heritage.

Think about the kids. As an experiment, ask a class of thirty college freshman how much time they've spent reading on the Web vs. reading books. Many of them will not have read more than one or two books. Virtually all of them will be able to rattle off three or four of their favorite web sites.

Q: So what does that mean?

A: That means that they're reading, but they are reading differently from previous generations. They're not illiterate. The computer has not been sucking their brains out. They just watch less TV than the kids of my generation did, preferring instead to spend time with a medium which doesn't treat them like a herd of cattle, one which allows them to respond and to interact to their own particular interests.

Q: But they're not reading books on the Internet?

A: Because there aren't many books on it yet.

Q: So what can we do?

A: There you go. Every naysayer and every evangelist should start asking themselves that question, and make a list, and start working on it, rather than generating more hot air. Laura Miller--so you don't like hypertext lit--what kind of lit would you like to see on the Web? Sven Birkets--so you're nostalgic for the days when media was not omnipresent in our lives, and literature presumably was--taking that omnipresence as a fact, how do you make the media more literature-friendly? John Katz and Kurt Andersen--why don't you write the about electronic lit that's out there for magazines like Rolling Stone and the New Yorker, get a semi-useful debate started. Publishers--why don't you start to think about electronic literature as a field you should invest in, or at least investigate, rather than percieve as a threat and/or studiously ignore.

Q: So what was the question again?

A: The question is "So what are you doing about it?"