Old Media in a New World

Most of the people I know aren’t in the habit of reading fiction.

They listen to music and podcasts all the time. They watch television avidly. Many watch at least one movie per week; most play video games on a daily basis. And they do read. They read internet news, editorials, and blogs. They love comics. Many enjoy nonfiction books. But they don’t read much fiction. Some express regret about this and say they wish they could make more time for it. Others simply deem it an unnecessary pursuit.

This isn’t to criticize anyone for their choice of entertainment or leisure activities. (There’s a lot of good stuff on TV these days, after all.) But as a reader, you can’t help feeling a little lonesome when the people in your life are talking about video games you haven’t played, and you want to talk about books they haven’t read. And as a writer, you can’t help feeling discouraged. At times it makes me revisit the same gnawing anxiety I felt when first reading Marshall McLuhan’s prognosis of a “dying literate age.”

Compared to television, music, film, and software, print—and fiction in particular—seems to be shrinking into a niche market here in the United States. A survey conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts found that in 2012, only 47% of US residents read at least one novel, play, or book of poetry. The data really just confirms what we can guess from correlating anecdotes. How many people of your acquaintance have Netflix accounts? Is it a greater or lesser number than those who have subscriptions to Granta? How many blurbs on your Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr feeds are about television shows and video games? How many are about novels?

We can, with some caution, presume that the decline in fiction’s readership corresponds to the proliferation of alternatives. Fiction was arguably at its peak during the nineteenth century, when Dickens, Twain, Stowe, et al., were serializing their novels in the newspapers. As far as mass media was concerned, print was more or less the only game in town. The next century saw the development and proliferation of electronic media (and the coinage of the phrase “mass media” once the phenomenon was sufficiently visible): radio, television, software, hypertext. It’s difficult not to link these developments with how we’ve changed as readers in the last fifty years. Those who read fiction, those who write fiction, and those who would like to see it flourish should consider where it stands with regard to a media landscape that has seen geological upheavals in the last century.

This is a fertile (and hardly unfamiliar or undiscussed) topic, but I’d like to focus on one stem in particular: the question of fiction’s purpose and potential in the digital age.

Obviously, TV, video games, and social media are competing with fiction for viewers’ time and eyeballs. But of more concern to us is how these media may alter—even undermine—the traditional arguments for fiction’s value as an art form. The most familiar one might be some variation of the “lie that tells the truth” epithet: fiction uses fabrication to peer more clearly at reality.

For an example of these arguments, let’s glance at a snippet from a Henry James essay called “The Art of Fiction”:

As people feel life, so they will feel the art that is most closely related to it. This closeness of relation is what we should never forget in talking of the effort of the novel. Many people speak of it as a factitious, artificial form, a product of ingenuity, the business of which is to alter and arrange the things that surround us, to translate them into conventional, traditional molds. This, however, is a view of the matter which carries us but a very short way… . Catching the very note and trick, the strange irregular rhythm of life, that is the attempt whose strenuous force keeps Fiction upon her feet. In proportion as in what she offers us we see life without rearrangement do we feel that we are touching the truth; in proportion as we see it with rearrangement do we feel that we are being put off with a substitute, a compromise and convention.

“As people feel life” is a curious and perhaps unfortunate qualifier for fine art. Writing in 1884, James had every reason to presume that fiction was the medium by which life could be represented with the highest degree of verisimilitude. What else was there? He couldn’t have known the motion picture camera was about 15 years away, nor could he have foreseen Philo Farnsworth’s unveiling of the television system in 1928.

Human beings are not natural readers. We’re built to be watchers, listeners, reactors. Audiovisual media—particularly with interactive components—seize our attention much more effectively than text. The medium that most closely approximates our experience of life will be the one that most closely approximates the world of sight, sound, and sensation we inhabit. That medium is not print; that art likely isn’t fiction.

Moreover, if verisimilitude to human life (or to the observation of human life) is what fiction strives to attain, electronic media seem to be demonstrating that they can go farther.

Consider: if John Steinbeck had the tools and resources of, say, This American Life or the modern video documentarian at his disposal, would he have needed to contrive the drama of the Joad family to bring the plight of dust bowl migrants to America’s attention?

What if Kerouac and his friends had been wearing Google Glasses during their On the Road years and could mine thousands of hours of first-person footage and edit it into an HBO or web series?

The internet has granted hundreds of thousands of people the platform and opportunity to publically tell hundreds of thousands of stories. Their stories; true stories. Would Raymond Carver’s own fiction be necessary if the lower-middle class Americans he wrote about were all chronicling their own lives, bearing their own witness on Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr? If the stories are already composed, is the artist’s role changed to that of compiler and curator?

When a video game can render fantastic worlds in three dimensions and set players loose to explore them at will, what becomes the place of speculative fiction and fantasy? What happens when technology like Oculus Rift and its successors refine these digital worlds to be even more detailed and immersive? When some future incarnation of World of Warcraft unfurls around players at 360 degrees, has Tolkien been obviated?

Questions such as these, however bad a taste they might put in our mouths, are well worth chewing on. But there’s another, much less pessimistic line of inquiry they demand we embark upon: what can fiction do that digital media cannot? What do we stand to gain from seeing it preserved? How can it supplement a digital diet?

We’re here because we read fiction, and we must be reading fiction because it gives us something, satisfies some appetite that won’t be sated elsewhere. We believe that fiction as an art form offers us something invaluable, and we want to see it continue to edify our intellectual and spiritual character through the next century and beyond. With a clearer understanding of what fiction uniquely offers, and of the work that it is best suited to do in the modern world, its producers and propagators can sooner see that work carried out.

What is the place of fiction in the epoch of social media and video games? What can and should it be doing? And how will it thrive in whatever role it assumes?

What do you think?