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Books special: Can intelligent literature survive in the digital age?

Is the paper-and-ink book heading the way of the papyrus scroll? Can serious literature survive in the brave new world of web downloads, e-books and ever-shortening attention spans? John Walsh introduces our special section

Look at this chap sitting outside the Caffè Uno at Paddington station. He is reading For Whom the Bell Tolls with slightly exaggerated attention. He has a Uniball pen close to hand, for making shrewd marginal comments. He holds the book up before his face, and his chin juts slightly, as if the fall of Hemingway's lapidary prose were giving him some caffeine boost of vicarious heroism. Behold, his whole posture seems to say, at least someone around here has a brain.

Check out the woman on the Tube reading Sadie Jones's 1940s-set The Outcast. She sits quite still and unself-conscious, lost in the narrative, her spine upright as a schoolmarm's, her head bowed, her hands cradling the book on her lap, unintentionally mirroring the famous 1955 picture of Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses. And she is reading the hardback version of Ms Jones's novel. That puts her in a minuscule percentage of British people prepared to shell out £17.99 for a new cloth-bound book, rather than wait for the paperback. But can it be that all these readers – the coffee-shop man, the Tube schoolmarm, Marilyn Monroe – represent a doomed species? Has the actual business of reading a book, of digesting a whole text of 70,000 words or more, become too much for the human race?

A transatlantic debate is currently raging about whether a decade of staring at computer screens, sending emails and text messages, and having our research needs serviced instantly by Google and Wikipedia, has taken a terrible toll on our attention, until our brains have been reconfigurated and can no longer adjust the tempo of our mental word-processing to let us read a book all the way through.

An important contribution to the debate was Nicholas Carr's Atlantic Monthly article "Is Google Making us Stupid?", in which he reports that he can no longer connect with long articles or books the way he used to; the intensity of focus and concentration that used to see him "immersed" in connecting sentences has dissipated. And the villain to whom blame can be attributed is the internet.

"As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s," writes Carr, "media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."

Carr quotes a research programme that monitored the behaviour of researchers visiting information sources. Most of the researchers, it found, hopped incontinently from site to site, never staying longer than a few paragraphs, apparently unable to sustain interest in one text. The report's authors coined a splendid phrase: "...there are signs that new forms of 'reading' are emerging, as users 'power browse' horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts, going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense."

Power browsing! But what if our loss of focus in sustained reading is more than mere impatience with accessing information? It seems that we may be losing the capacity of "settling into" a book, of immersing ourselves in a plot or – more importantly – in the stream of somebody else's thoughts, in a way that readers (and writers) once took for granted.

In the days of the Enlightenment, when few books were published and people read for amusement in their leisure hours, the speed of thought, as expressed in books, could afford to be slow, proceeding from point to point in Augustanly balanced steps. Victorian prose substituted orotundity for harmony: readers would settle in for long evenings letting Barchester Towers or Our Mutual Friend wash over them. This was the period when, say, William Gladstone could tell friends, with every expectation of empathy, that he had stayed up all night to read The Woman in White.

In this century, 150 years later, it seems that our attention span has shortened alarmingly. The average-length novel is too much of a stretch for the time-challenged, multi-tasking, BlackBerry-prodding "entertainment consumer" to contemplate reading, let alone the 700-page biography of VS Naipaul or Edith Wharton. Not because of the size of books, but because of the thought processes they contain.

In 1994, an American academic called Sven Birkerts published a seminal study, "The Gutenberg Elegies: the Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age". Before plunging into the page vs screen debate, he recalled his experience of teaching a course on "the American short story" to a class of undergraduates. They tackled Henry James's story "Brooksmith", and hated it. Was it, asked Birkerts, the language, the style, the syntax? All of those, said the students. It turned out they were defeated by everything that James was trying to communicate. The narrative river of thoughts wasn't one on which they could sail. The subtle moral distinctions between characters, the importance of their choices in the society through which they moved – it wasn't just that the students found such things old-fashioned; they couldn't grasp them at all.

Birkerts found that, as watchers of TV and videos, "they had difficulty slowing down enough to concentrate on prose of any density; they had problems with what they thought of as archaic diction, with allusions, with vocabulary that seemed 'pretentious'; they were especially uncomfortable with indirect or interior passages, indeed with any deviations from straight plot; and they were put off by an ironic tone, because it flaunted superiority and made them feel they were missing something." It dawned on Birkerts that a whole generation of young American readers were becoming gradually decoupled from the whole culture of the written word.

Are we similarly affected, in Britain, in the early 21st century? It seems we are. We haven't enough time to read as we used to. We have less and less inclination to tackle the kind of "classics" (Don Quixote, Bleak House, Moby Dick, In Search of Lost Time) that teenage readers once confidently approached. We'd love to be au courant with the modern novel, but we feel suspicious of the extravagant claims made by reviewers and prize judges: does Joseph O'Neill's Netherland really "deserve to be ranked with the best of Updike and Fitzgerald" (The Observer)? Was Stef Penney's first novel, The Tenderness of Wolves, which won the Costa Book of the Year, really the finest book in any category to be published in 2006?

And we buy fewer and fewer works of serious fiction. Twenty-five years ago, when the Amis-Barnes-Rushdie generation was getting under way, readers seemed to have no problem ' being steered towards experimental, inward-looking, linguistically challenging fiction. Flaubert's Parrot sold well, despite its metafictional games with biography, as did Amis's Money, despite its torrentially exhausting Amer-English prose style. Graham Swift's Waterland, now on school English syllabuses, flew out of bookshops in its Picador paperback livery, as did One Hundred Years of Solitude and Midnight's Children.

Now, many serious writers complain, challenging fiction doesn't appeal; "difficult" novels don't sell. Adam Mars-Jones's massive, and beautifully-written novel Pilcrow, published earlier this year, sold only a few hundred copies, and there have been several similar casualties. Although, traditionally, every Booker winner invariably becomes a world bestseller, the 2008 winner, Anne Enright's The Gathering, made the briefest appearance in the top 10 before disappearing. It had a narrative of sorts, but was broken-backed in structure and its strength was the narrator's wry, funny, piss-taking tone – exactly the kind of thing that Prof Birkerts' students hated in Henry James.

To sell now, books evidently need to be big on plot and incident, short on interior monologue – the sort of titles that the Richard & Judy Book Club strenuously promotes. "Most literary programmes, which are on late at night and concerned with 'literature', intimidate lots of people," said Judy Finnegan last year. "For some, that a book has been Booker-nominated is actually a turn-off." Can this, then, be the future of reading: an increasing number of low-brow, plot-driven works will flood the market, consigning works of literary merit to a watery grave, while the low-brows vie with each other for the attention of readers so badly affected by the moving stream of internet info-processing, that they can no longer focus their attention for longer than a few pages?

It seems oddly coincidental that the e-book is coming into our reading lives around now. With its hand-tooled leather binding, its don't-be-scared page dimensions (two-thirds the size of a standard paperback), its flexible typeface and typesize formats, and the astounding capacity of its memory (it can store up to 160 standard-size titles), it is user-friendly, glossy, rather pretty in its ingénue novelty. But its callowness makes you weep.

The instructions tell you, "One battery charge is equal to 6,800 page turns (that's enough to read War and Peace five times over on a single charge!)" Yeah, right. But it's not going to happen on the Sony Reader. Nobody is ever going to read Tolstoy on this fatuous device. It's an electronic simulation of a page, but it'll never convince you it's a book, to be read by your sentient eyes and brain. It doesn't have the solidity, the pages, the tactile companionship of a book. You'll never know where you are in the story, or how much of it is left. You won't have the cover artwork, to steal inside your head and become a lifelong reminder of the book it encased.

And you can't turn the pages. I spent half an hour reading Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (the first book to be installed) with my fingers itching to turn a page; "turn" one electronically, and the screen goes blank before the next page is displayed. It's a nasty moment, the screen going blank and interrupting your train of thought; but it's a good metaphor for the blankness to which our minds are tending, as we gradually lose the ability to interpret the old world of sequential thoughts in the new blizzard of information retrieval.

What's the word? Eight experts predict the future

The agent : Clare Alexander

"I've been an agent for 10 years and was a publisher for 25 years before that. Digitisation has had both an enormous impact on my job and, at the same time, no impact at all.

"The impact is that I now spend an enormous amount of time in negotiations with publishers getting ready for the digital explosion they perceive is about to happen.

"Print on demand is a new technology which, to my mind, is far more important than the e-book. It means that, effectively a book never goes out of print – and the author never gets their rights back from the publisher, even if the publisher is no longer promoting it. It means there is no opportunity for a new publisher to give a book a new lease of life.

"Another big digital issue is that publishers are now selling themselves to authors by saying that they can police their work, and stop them being ripped off [by pirating]. But nobody wants a publisher who's a policeman – you want a publisher who can market your book.

"Part of this new policing mentality is that publishers are becoming more risk-averse – children's book authors, for example, are being asked to sign contracts agreeing to 'appropriate conduct' in their private lives. There's also censorship: Jacqueline Wilson had the word 'twat' in one of her books changed to 'twit'.

As a result, I'm spending much more time talking to publishers about legal issues and far less time on creativity. There's also the other side of the digital revolution – that original ideas filter through to print from the internet. Yes, occasionally a blog becomes a book – about sex, usually – and the really original ideas percolate through, but most stuff online is crap!

"I don't believe the publishing industry will have an 'iPod moment'. People say that the new generation isn't interested in reading books, but they forget that this is the generation that grew up reading Harry Potter.

Clare Alexander is a literary agent at Aitken Alexander Associates Ltd, whose clients include VS Naipaul, Mark Haddon, Sarah Dunant, Germaine Greer, Colin Thubron and Penny Vincenzi

The new-media lecturer: Sue Thomas

"The aim of my course is to produce 'transliterate' writers – ie, literate across many different kinds of media. When we think 'literacy' we think about print and transliteracy is about shaking off that domination of print which has, in a sense, I think, been a distraction.

"The internet has caused us to rethink what we mean by literacy: the [traditional] idea of literacy implies that before print people were illiterate – but, in fact, people simply were literate in many other things, such as oral and visual culture.

"One of the writers from my course is Alison Norrington, a chick-lit author: she learnt how to take her stories beyond the book on a blog, on Facebook, on Twitter, by making little movies, by sending her heroine into Second Life. Another is Christine Wilkes, who has a filmmaking background and wrote an interactive memoir using design and programming. You don't need to be able to read and write much to tell a story.

"Will books exist in 50 years? Definitely, but they will also be just one of the many ways we experience art. I feel quite cynical about the cloak of preciousness that's been woven around the novel: it's such a recent medium – we've only had it a few hundred years and yet you often hear people say, 'We've always had novels.' No we have not!"

Sue Thomas teaches the world's only MA in creative writing and new media at the Institute of Creative Technology at De Montfort University

The author: Tracy Chevalier

"Digitalisation comes up at every Society of Authors meeting. It's an anxiety-filled discussion: how's it going to affect contracts; what percentage of royalties should be put on downloads; pirating; Google scanning all the books in the world to put them online; Amazon's 'search inside the book'.

"The death knell for the novel has been sounding for years. An American study in 2004 found that only 49 per cent of adults there read even one book that year, so the good thing about the internet is that there's a lot of reading going on online.

"Younger people are more adventurous in the way they take in information and not so emotionally wedded to the book as older people. The music industry has paved the way in terms of expectations of how we receive information and it'snatural that our industry will have its iPod moment.

"I don't know whether [new technology] will change how I write a book. Some authors will, some I know are appalled at the idea. I think it's more a matter of broadening out the types of books that are written – seeing these new forms as another genre. We've got the literary novel, crime, romance, westerns, chick lit, and I think the e-novel will become just another genre and it'll bring the younger generation in."

Tracy Chevalier is the author of novels including 'The Girl With the Pearl Earring'. She chairs the Society of Authors

The Google guy: Santiago de la Mora

"There are two strands to Google Book Search. One is a collaboration with publishers to showcase their books online, though it is important to explain that users cannot see a whole book on screen (however they can do keyword searches on the full text).

"The other strand is a collaboration with libraries, where we scan and upload their books – the out-of-copyright ones. These books can then be viewed in their entirety online.

"Does Google Book Search symbolise the death of the [printed] book? On the contrary, it gives books more visibility and makes it easier for people to buy them, or to know they exist in libraries. Now they can be read by anyone, anywhere. I'm originally from Columbia: I know what I grew up with and that the biggest barrier in life is no access to information. So from a personal viewpoint, it's a beautiful project."

Santiago de la Mora heads Google Book Search's European partnerships

The librarian: Richard Ovenden

"The Bodleian is one of the oldest libraries in the UK – over 400 years old – but we were the first to start doing serious digitisation, in 1994, and the first UK library to partner with Google Book Search, four years ago.

"Hundreds of thousands of cultural objects from our rich collection can now be viewed, free of charge, online – from medieval manuscripts to 19th-century industrial catalogues. These are really important tools for scholars and having them online not only makes access easier but also helps reduce wear and tear.

"Our reading rooms are still as busy as ever: the most high-quality digitisation does not replace the power of seeing the original artefact. However, people are now more aware of what we've got: a recent report identified a generation that felt that if something wasn't online it didn't exist. So if you digitise things, it does exist to that generation.

"As for reading for pleasure on screen... when you want to read a good book on the bus, in bed or at work, it's a lot easier with a book made of paper and tucked under your arm.

"I took my nine-year-old daughter to see A Winter's Tale at the Globe recently and as soon as we got home she said 'Can we read the play, Dad?' There are dozens of versions online but I just went to the shelf, pulled out a copy, and we sat on the sofa and read it together."

Richard Ovenden is Keeper of Special Collections at the University of Oxford's Bodleian Library

The publisher: Jeremy Ettinghausen

"Penguin is the publisher that invented the paperback: innovation is in our DNA. We were early bloggers, the first publisher with a podcast; our Blog a Penguin Classic project won us an award. We have 5,000 friends on Facebook, we're on Twitter, and were the first to go into Second Life, where we took William Gibson, the writer who invented the word 'cyberspace'.

"We don't believe books will disappear – 99 per cent of our revenue still comes from ink on paper - but the way people read will change.

"People have shorter attention spans – a website has about three seconds to capture their attention. As a result we are spending time learning from what Nike, Sony, Xbox, YouTube do – we're competing for people's entertainment time, particularly with a young audience. One of our most successful new projects is Spinebreakers, our website for teenagers. In the past it's been hard to talk to teens – so we gave them a platform where they could talk to each other about books.

"People no longer want to be passive – they want to interact and share. Another project was our 'wiki novel', A Million Penguins, written by the public. It got 11,000 edits in five weeks, though it was more interesting as a social experiment than a valid work of fiction.

"With 'Telling Stories', we teamed authors up with video-game designers to tell stories. There was a Google Map story, where you could follow the character's story around the UK. Another story, by Nicci French, was written live so viewers could see the words appear as they were typed.

"Our job is to get the work of our authors into as many people's hands as possible – format is less important."

Jeremy Ettinghausen is digital publisher at Penguin, the only publisher to be nominated for awards at this year's New Media Age Effectiveness Awards

The digital convert: Chris Meade

"I used to be director of Booktrust [which promotes books and reading] and the Poetry Society, so I've spent my life promoting books and reading. Yet there was a huge reaction to my move [to a charity investigating the potential of new media]: people felt I was deserting literature and books – but I think it depends how you define a book. If a book is a container of culture or knowledge, then our culture has been moving from the printed word to the moving screen for a long time.

"When I started my career it was all about the printed word, but I see these changes as exciting and a new creative opportunity for writers – and given that we've spent so long asking how can new voices be heard, it's great that now everyone can put their work out there rather than letting it gather dust under the bed. It is also an opportunity for writers to take control and manage their affairs themselves.

"As for readers – reading has always been a creative activity, but online the reader plays an even more creative role in interaction.

"Could you compare a blog or a story told via Twitter to Dickens? Well, Dickens wrote in soap opera-like episodes. It's always easier to decide where the cultural action has been, but hard to spot it at the time. These things are happening and we need to adjust."

Chris Meads is director of if:book, a charity exploring the creative potential of new media for writers and readers that is part of the organisation The Future of the Book

The teacher: Andrew Cowan

"Is the world of books changing? I honestly have no sense of that at all. As a student 20 years ago, I did the MA that I now teach in prose fiction and I see no change in the approach and ambitions of my own students to that of me and my peers back then.

"The touchstone authors my students, mainly in their twenties, are referencing are still the traditional ones. It's Nabakov, Joyce, Austen.

"Their interest is in the books reviewed in the broadsheets and the ones that win the Booker. Their ambition is to be on sale in high-street bookshops and published in book form by a mainstream publisher. That is, to them, a badge, because it measures the value of their writing against the writing they admire.

"Ahead of this interview, I talked to them about digitisation and not one of them had heard of Twitter, and they were all hostile to the idea of e-books.

"They're not immersed in digital fiction, either – some have been published online, but feel it's second-best; they're concerned about the lack of editorial control on the Net and only pursue it because there is a dearth of [print] outlets for short stories.

"None of them keeps a blog, though one admitted sheepishly that she'd started one, and the others were all smirking about it. This is the new generation of writers."

Andrew Cowan is an author and senior lecturer in creative writing at UEA. His novels include, 'Pig', 'What I Know' and 'Common Ground'

Interviews by Kate Burt