How the Internet Has Changed Storytelling & Reading

01.28.2014

When we think about the great storytelling of the pre-Internet era, writers point out that a common plot device was the absence of real-time communication. The telegram, a hand-delivered letter and even the landline phone offered far less connectivity compared with smartphones, e-mail, social media and the many communications pathways broadband provides today. In an interesting series of interviews published in The New York Times, several writers share their perspectives on the changing technological landscape and how it has affected their work.

Marisha Pessl, author of “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” explains it this way: “The writer’s mandate is to dig deeper inside our wired world to find the mystery, the darkness and dislocation. The good news is that the core realities of our world have not changed: People are still impossible and strange. They hide things from others and from themselves. There are and always will be secrets; modern technology is nothing but a layer of noise that buries them even deeper and which the novelist must clear away to get to the dirt — the stuff great stories are made of.”

Tom McCarthy, author of the novel “C,” discusses the interplay of fiction and technology somewhat differently, offering: “The argument that the advent of the Internet somehow marks a Telecom Year Zero after which nothing will ever be the same can be made only by ignoring the actual history of literature. Look at Kafka’s obsession with telephones; or the way the phonograph for Bram Stoker mirrors the vampire as a machine for bringing the dead to life (or, conversely, storing the living in dead form); or at the obsessive attention Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa is forced to pay to ink and desks and messengers. The best writers have always understood that to write is to both grapple with and, to some extent, allegorize the very regime of technological mediation without which writing wouldn’t exist in the first place.”

To this point, Margaret Atwood, author of the acclaimed “The Handmaid’s Tale” and other novels, has said: “Could a landline telephone still ring as suspensefully as it did in “Dial M for Murder”? Not likely. A cellphone playing an annoying bar from the “William Tell” Overture, plaintively, under a shrub, is more like it.”

As writers’ adapt their storytelling to our modern, connected world, the very way readers are consuming stories is changing. Consider the podcast, for instance. According to a Pew Research Center 2013 May survey, 27 percent of Internet users ages 18 and older download or listen to podcasts, compared with 21 percent three years ago (May 2010) and just 7 percent in 2006.

Meanwhile, e-readers have gained a stronghold — but have not replaced print. Another Pew Research Center survey conducted in early January 2014 shows that the percentage of adults who have read an e-book in the past year increased to 28 percent compared with 23 percent at the close of 2012. Moreover, during the same timeframe, approximately seven in 10 Americans reported reading a book in print, and 14 percent of adults listened to an audio book. Overall, 76 percent have read a book in some format the previous 12 months.

Technology will no doubt continue to provide a shifting landscape for writers and readers, but as the literary figures highlighted here indicate, new innovations throughout the ages have provided the impetus for further inspiration.

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