08 July 2009

The Comeback of Vanished Fictional Forms

I'm typing this in the San Francisco Bay Area, America's technology heartland, so it makes sense to consider how our new world of digital media might change the forms in which we tell and consume verbal stories. (In other words, what we used to call "books.")

Last month thriller writer J. A. Konrath opined about how one form of digital publishing might change the forms in which we tell verbal stories:

I believe novellas are where e-book self-publishing really has an advantage over print. A 15,000 word book doesn't cost much less than a 70,000 word book to produce, so it has to be priced comparably, and people don't want to pay full price for something so short. But in a digital world, you can lower the price of shorter work.
I agree. In another fifty years literary critics might look back and see a reflowering of the novella in the early 21st century, and wonder about its artistic roots. I suspect the real impetus will be economic.

Looking at the offerings on Scribd, Lulu, or other electronic publishing sites show that already many of their most popular items are shorter works. That's probably fits with how people read digitally, in snatches of time. Konrath is correct that readers want more for a "book price" than a mere novella, but online a novella's relative brevity and cheapness could be a plus.

Another form I think is likely to make a return is the serialized story--again, distributed digitally direct to subscribers (or web visitors) rather than on paper.

In the last half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, this was the dominant form. Only after stories were completely told in popular magazines was the same text put between book covers.

We can still see the effects of that economic model in the novels of such authors as Charles Dickens and E. Nesbit. They laid down their stories in serialized installments, like layers of sedimentary rock. Often those stories work best when one reads from one installment to the next, as the original consumers did.

In the mid-twentieth century, general-interest magazines like The Saturday Evening Post shrank, physically and in number. With them went their serialized stories. Magazine fiction became synonymous with short stories coming out of MFA programs. When Rolling Stone serialized Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities in the 1980s, it seemed like a rare novelty.

Already we've seen one massive bestseller grow out of online "serialization": Diary of a Wimpy Kid. More will come.

1 comment:

Laurean Brooks said...

Interesting. Gives us food for thought. Technology is taking over the world.

But, somehow I don't think the paperback book will ever completely disappear. There is something special about holding a great book in your hand, or placing one you really love on your keepers shelf.