One distinct trend of the Internet age is the return of the Victorian-style triple-decker: huge, unwieldy novels that let netizens tune out the annoying chatter of their native realm by means of total immersion in alternative realities. Between them, J.R.R Tolkein and J.K. Rowling set a powerful magic afoot, and it took flight in the Internet age.Right, because, you know literary masterworks are generally slight, like The Iliad, The Decameron, Don Quixote, Anna Karenina, Moby Dick, The Last of the Mohicans, Ulysses, The Grapes of Wrath, Gravity’s Rainbow, The Quick and The Dead, and on and on.
What bothers us here is not that this is wrong (we all make mistakes from time to time), but the way in which it is wrong. Because this author, John Barber, sees that there are some large novels out there (as there have always been) and that the Internet, well, exists, so therefore the two must be somehow causally related. The entire history of the novel here is swept under the rug to connect dots because the dots seem to be close together, not because they form any sort of whole.
Using this mode of thinking, I could also make the exact opposite argument for the recent interest in flash fiction? By this logic, the Internet makes people want to read things that are both longer and shorter.
My point here is that the Internet, especially in the publishing world, becomes a nexus for all sorts of anxieties that often don't have anything at all to do with ebooks, digital publishing, Kindles, iPads, book piracy, Google Editions or any of the other several dozen barbarians at the gate.
Perhaps reading and publishing will change forever—it wouldn’t be the first time—and perhaps they won’t. The damnable part is that most of us don’t know which of those possibilities is more desirable, and this fact seems to be the core motivator for much of our contemporary befuddlement. We don’t know what’s going to happen, and, what’s worse, we don’t know anyone who does know.
This state of affairs reminds me of passage by a writer likewise concerned about the direction of literature:
If we make a century our test, and ask how much of the work produced in these days in England will be in existence then, we shall have to answer not merely that we cannot agree upon the same book, but that we are more than doubtful where such a book there is. It is an age of fragments.[…]Can we go to posterity with a sheaf of loose pages, or as the readers of those days, with the whole of literature before them, to sift our enormous rubbish heaps for our tiny pearls?And while the subject matter here is somewhat related to the questions of our day, it is again not just the nature of the question itself that I find resonat, but also the way it is framed and who framed it----Virginia Woolf in 1923.
It would seem the more we think things change, the more we forget that often much stays the same.