Internet spells end of long, complex literary novels, says author Tim Parks

Tim Parks says every moment of reading has to be fought for in the digital age

The “state of constant distraction” created by the internet, email and instant messaging is killing the traditional literary novel, a leading British author has claimed.

Tim Parks, whose novel Europa was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1997, said the traditional long works would have to be broken down into bitesize chunks to allow for competing demands on the modern reader’s attention.

Writing in the New York Review of Books, Parks, 59, said that “the seductions of email and messaging and Skype and news websites constantly updating on the very instrument you use” meant “every moment of serious reading has to be fought for”.

As a result, he said, novels would have to adapt to “the state of constant distraction we live in and how that affects the very special energies required for tackling a substantial work of fiction  – for immersing oneself in it and then coming back to it over what could be weeks, or months, each time picking up the threads of the story or stories, the patterning of internal reference, the positioning of the work within the context of other novels.”

He concluded: “I will go out on a limb with a prediction: the novel of elegant, highly distinct prose, of conceptual delicacy and syntactical complexity, will tend to divide itself up into shorter and shorter sections, offering more frequent pauses where we can take time out.”

Parks’s comments reflect growing anxiety in literary circles that the internet is eroding the status of the serious novel.

In a lecture in Oxford last month, the author Will Self said: “The literary novel as an art work and a narrative art form central to our culture is indeed dying before our eyes. If you accept that by then the vast majority of text will be read in digital form on devices linked to the web, do you  novel also believe that those readers will voluntarily choose to disable that connectivity? If your answer is no, then the death of the novel is sealed, out of your own mouth.”

Parks’s anxieties about the distractions of modern technology have also been echoed by Philip Roth. When his 2010 novel Nemesis was published, Roth told an interviewer: “The concentration, the focus, the solitude, the silence, all the things that are required for serious reading are not within people’s reach any more.”

Not all authors, however, are so pessimistic. Philip Pullman, the author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, told The Independent: “There are always a few people who are going to want to read a serious literary novel.  If there is demand for it, it will survive. What will change is the nature of publishing. That goes through periods of change and convulsions. 

“The first big one was writing things down – previously we just sat around and told stories. The next was Gutenberg’s printing press, which allowed things to be duplicated much more quickly.

“The internet and digitisation represent the third great change – but story telling in one form or another has come through all sorts of convulsions, and it will continue to do so.”

Other commentators have also sought to downplay the current crisis of confidence in the literary world by claiming that the demise of the novel has now been predicted for more than half a century.

They cite articles like that published in 1965 – also in the New York Review of Books – in which the British critic Frank Kermode observed drily: “The special fate of the novel, considered as a genre, is to be always dying.”

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