Multiscreening: The Death of the Traditional Novel?
In a recent article for the Guardian, Ewan Morrison claimed that the technological advances of the e-reader and the digitisation of texts have so altered the way we read that the novel must adapt or risk becoming obsolete. He has coined the term ‘multiscreening’ to describe the way people now swap between applications when reading, by following links or updating their social network status. In a world of instantly accessible information, writers who rely on the traditional form are forcing their work into uncomfortable positions in order to convey all the information their narrative requires. He uses the example of Jonathan Franzen’s ‘Freedom’, where his characters are manoeuvred into unlikely conversations for the sole purpose of an info-dump that he would have been better off including as straight fact or a hyperlink. As David Shields argues in his manifesto ‘Reality Hunger’, in a postmodern world where the divisions between fact and fiction have irremediably broken down, literature must reflect this porous border in order to explore life as it is really lived.
Morrison’s thesis is provocative and bold. However, by assuming that form has to mirror the means by which we consume it, I think he has conflated formal innovation with technological development, and is in danger of dismissing much that is still of value in traditional forms. He draws on experimental antecedents like Boccaccio, Milan Kundera and James Frey, but he could also have mentioned John Berger, Geoff Dyer, and JM Coetzee, writers who have explored ideas through means other than the strictly fictional, and in doing so have drawn attention to the prioritisation of fiction in our literary culture.
I think the real question here is when it is most appropriate to use these forms. Franzen’s ‘Freedom’ is designed as an exploration of the ethical and social changes in the American liberal middle class from the late 1970s to the present day, something that has to be presented in linear form in order to have the greatest impact - change, after all, happens over time. Franzen may be guilty of smuggling information through his characters’ improbably staged conversations, but in many ways this does reflect the particular social group he is writing about, where monologues over the dinner table are common. Norman Mailer offers a good example of the opposite tendency, in his non-fiction novel about the 1967 Vietnam War protests, ‘The Armies of the Night.’ By appearing in the third person, commenting on events and his own compositional interpretation of them, Mailer achieves an immediacy that would have been lost if he had written just another piece of long, reflective fiction.
Morrison is right that changes in our reading habits have exposed how constraining traditional forms can be, and that formal innovation is laudable regardless of how it relates to our present social and cultural condition. If every writer felt compelled to adapt to a new form that might not have any stylistic association with their subject though, they would run the risk of making their work unreadable. Writing and literature are more than the forms in which ideas are explored, or the delivery system through which they are consumed. Made of the indivisible but differently weighted imperatives of form, style and subject, what unites all writing is that it is constructed from language. By focusing solely on a form that emulates the method of its own delivery, writing falls into a self-reflexive loop, and an uncritical response to technological novelty contains within itself the seeds of its own obsolescence. Perhaps the real questions behind this debate are: what is writing actually for? Is it communication, or self-expression? Should art reflect life? Or should it do all of these things, and is any proscriptive argument in favour of one form over another a way of imposing the very limits and boundaries on a text that Morrison so persuasively argues against?