Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
Really enjoying David Byrne’s book, How Music Works — something of a compendium of his thoughts on everything from sound physics to the business of making and selling music. In one early section, he goes into the history of innovation in sound recording, starting with the Edison cylinder and going all the way through the digital revolution, reflecting on how each step changed something fundamental about the way we conceive, record, and listen to music.
This leads me to an obvious comparison with fiction writing, in that there is no comparison whatsoever.
Fascinating that, aside from the mechanical means of getting words onto the page, there has been no innovation in literature that changes the way it is made and understood.
For instance, Byrne thinks that the development of sound recording in and of itself changed the way music was written and performed. Vibrato in the playing of stringed instruments like the violin became more predominant because it hid mistakes that a wax cylinder or early disc only exaggerated. Composers began to think about the length of a record side (78s at first) when structuring pieces: four movements fit two records or four sides. And when the LP came along, albums could become more thematic, long-form storytelling rather than a collection of ten independent songs.
In fiction, or any sort of published writing really, technical innovations have only made it easier to do the writing — they haven’t changed the writing itself. I can remember several times in the past fifteen years or so when speculative wonderers looked forward to the day that the ebook would make possible novels with any number of narrative paths, since the reader would be able to jump from one part to another or construct different endings simply by the path she chose. It hasn’t happened in any game-changing way that I’ve heard of. Now and then you might hear of a novel that tries, but nothing seems to come of it.
In fact, the book I’m aware of that comes closest is on paper and sold in a box: The Unfortunates by English novelist B. S. Johnson. Its several separate parts can be read in any order you like, as long as you read the beginning and end in their assigned spots. It’s a wonderful experience, and you’d have thought it might be emulated in ebooks by now.
Writing appears to be on a much longer evolutionary arc, so that only innovations in form, style, and intellectual approach change the way we read. These take time. They aren’t much affected by developments in computer technology or delivery systems. An ebook is still the same text as its printed counterpart, an audiobook just a different way of taking in that text as well.
On the other hand, maybe we’ve reached a point where the psychology of reading has changed, and writers have to adapt to it or lose their markets entirely. Readers have less time to read, shorter attention spans (thanks to demands on them from the outside), a preference for visual or multimedia presentations, and most of all a dizzying number of options for how to spend their free time.
I’m not sure there’s anything on the horizon innovation-wise that will make it any easier for fiction writers to evolve along with the people we’re writing for. Music keeps adapting, for better or worse, while writers pound out beginning, middle, and end ad nauseam.
Do you know of any innovations that might be game-changers?