Most people professionally enmired in the world of books – and quite a few beyond it – will have read the resumés of Fay Weldon’s address to last week’s Bath Literature Festival with a certain amount of misgiving.
Had Ms Weldon suggested that the novel was dead? Or that reading was on the way out (both arguments regularly given an airing in newspaper arts pages when I started writing fiction)? No, this indefatigable ornament of the Waterstones shelf had, in the course of promoting a career-encompassing selection of short stories, merely suggested that authors should, as she put it, “abandon their dignity” and write alternative versions of their works suitable for the ebook audience.
Ms Weldon’s thesis – a by no means original one in the teeming techno-fest that is contemporary literature – was that a different type of reader needs a different type of book. “Writers have to write now for a world where readers are busy, on the move, and have little time for contemplation and reflection,” she gamely deposed.
“The writer has to focus on writing better, cutting to the chase and doing more of the readers’ contemplative work for them.” She also directed her audience to the results of a survey published in The Bookseller last year which showed that 90 per cent of book buyers read ebooks, with genre and commercial fiction comprehensively outselling “literary fiction”.
It depends, of course, what you mean by “writing better”, and doubtless there are one or two impenitent highbrows out there, clinging barnacle-like to the old world’s cultural hull, who still believe that all this tedious contemplation and reflection are what gives a novel its savour. By chance, Ms Weldon’s remarks were delivered on the same day that her younger colleague, Rachel Cusk, informed an audience at the University of East Anglia that when she sat down to write a novel, the last person she thought of was the potential reader. As defences of creative autonomy go, this may not be quite as extreme as, say, Lou Reed’s comment that he made records “for me” and that “record company executives can eat rat-s***”, but the principle, surely, is the same.
The question of how technology affects our ability to think has, of course, been going the rounds for several decades. Respectable academic studies have suggested that students who compose essays straight onto a computer produce work less intellectually coherent than those who write it in longhand first. Press reports of Ms Weldon’s talk were accompanied by reports of a survey on the effects of digital text reading which concluded that “research shows that the amount of time spent reading long-form texts is in decline, and due to digitisation, reading is becoming more intermittent and fragmented”. Ebook readers are apparently “significantly worse” at recalling events in a mystery story than those reading in paperback.
It is a mark of our obsession with technological advance that this kind of thing gets nodded through with only the mildest of head-shakes. In a properly regulated world, you might think that, in the wake of this research, governments would insist that ebooks be marketed with the words “Warning: this device will make you stupid” on their packaging, whereas we just have Ms Weldon and some useful advice on the necessity of joining them if you can’t beat them. On the other hand, before one gets all huffy, or starts to accuse prominent authors of “dumbing down”, it should be said that the author of The Life and Loves of a She-Devil does have a point, or rather two points – one of them about the way in which the form of literature changes in response to the technological and commercial processes available, and another about the abyss which separates the animal known as “literary fiction” (the kind of novel which is entered for the Man Booker Prize) and the genres which ebook readers so avidly hoover up.
It was Evelyn Waugh, writing more than half-a-century ago, who noted the existence of a link between the words on the page and the implement that transmits them. To a certain extent, the rolling periods of the Augustan satirists are a result of their being written with a quill pen, each sub-clause marked by a dip in the ink-well. Similarly, the boiled down, staccato prose pioneered by Ernest Hemingway in the 1920s is intimately linked to his habit of composing straight onto the typewriter – an act which, according to Waugh, makes you write like a Gatling gun. Commercial pressures, too, have always dictated the length of novels. The reason, for example, why in the 1890s Victorian writers suddenly stopped producing novels in three volumes was because the circulating libraries – the principal purchasers – stopped stocking them.
And if Ms Weldon is correct in noticing the way in which literary forms calibrate themselves to market conditions and technological development, then she is also right to draw attention to the widening gulf that exists between what gets known as the “serious novel” and the “fast-moving event-driven stories” so apparently beloved by the e-book fan. A useful exercise guaranteed to drive an iron spike into the soul of the highbrow is to look up any book written by a “serious novelist” that has been well-reviewed in the national press and see what Amazon reviewers made of it. In four cases out of five, Kazuo Ishiguro or Will Self will have been convicted by the amateur audience of being impenetrable, overly clever, or – a rather peculiar insult but there you are – “literate”.
And fair play to the Amazon reviewers, you might say, because there are no exact standards in literature, and surely anyone who buys a book is entitled to say what they think of it, however much more august authorities might regard this opinion as valueless? The “literary novel” in this country would sell far more copies and attract far more attention beyond the books pages if it didn’t habitually come served up in a light sauce of snootiness – if, in fact, it didn’t refer to itself as the literary novel in the first place. On the other hand, Ms Weldon’s advocacy of simpler ebook versions takes this divide a step further by alleging that there are, in effect, two audiences nowadays – serious readers on the one hand and Kindle-addled lame-brains on the other.
A certain type of readership might think that it was being patronised by the e-lite versions of great works that Ms W proposes to offer them, and that, like the proles in Nineteen Eighty-Four to whom pornography is supplied in sealed packets, they were having their tastes and inclinations judged in advanced. But the real reason why the e-lite version looks a non-starter is that hardly any serious practitioners, however convinced of the necessity of writing “for the market”, will be able to bring themselves to take the plunge, conscious as they will inevitably be of the intellectual sleights of hand and duplicities required.
It may very well be that the modern literary landscape is occupied by two increasingly distinct audiences, but a writer who believes that the act of reading is anything more than a way of passing time will probably want to try to bring them closer rather than force them farther apart – which is all that Ms Weldon’s little exercise in cultural apartheid amounts to once its good intentions have been stripped away.
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