Or, Is the Joy of Subtle Reference an Endangered Species?
I read an interesting blog post yesterday about the differences between blogs and novels. Specifically blogs are dialogues, and blogs are annotated, and therefore blogs simultaneously stimulate more critical thinking and more mindless consumption. In contrast novels are static, and to interact with them as a reader you have to absorb the ideas and ponder them on your own, with nothing to refer back to but the author’s original words.
The question implicit in this post was whether the form of the book that we still know can survive a world where people grow up with the more integrated interactions of blogs–I make a post, and in that post I reference another article so I link to it. I then do not have to explain the article, only my reaction to it, and you can decide if my reaction is interesting enough to stand alone or if you need to read the original. Then we can comment, and perhaps that discussion is more enlightening to us both than either the original post or my original response.
But books, despite being just as electronic and now having digital DNA built into their very forms, aren’t doing that interconnectivity thing…yet.
I was wondering how that might work, if it an author injects it him or herself. Some angles I considered:
* Sound. If a scene is set somewhere like a party or a ball, will ebooks of the future have appropriate music playing over that scene while someone reads it? How long will it play–just one song, or just the songs specifically named by the writer, or will there be a huge playlist for people who read very slowly and/or want to experience the novel in real-time (so–historical fiction example–if a ball typically lasted about five hours, then a five-hour playlist of songs that would have been played at a ball in that year). What if a scene takes place at the theater or an opera? Would you have the performance playing low in the background while your character either absorbs it or ignores it? Would it be edited to include only a few key scenes that the character notices, or would there be a function so that when the reader leaves one scene of the book the scene on stage changes to whatever is going on when the next scene starts (assuming there is a next scene still at the playhouse)? What about basic sounds of the world–the chatter of a restaurant, the crickets chirping in the country night, the absolute and oppressive silence of an isolated mountaintop?
* Images. Might an author prefer to, I dunno, grayscale an image under text so they can avoid excess description AND be sure that their readers understand what the house looks like, or the garden, or the hero, etc.? Is this abandoning the very purpose of writing–to communicate in words–or giving those readers who don’t visualize well a jumping off point?
* Cultural references. Are books at risk of becoming like a blog with its links to other posts, either internal or external, or a website that has Bing on it, where certain keywords are linked to websites that tell you about them–except in this case it would be phrases, quotes, or jokes? I used the post title I did because Francis Crawford of Lymond, hero of that series, makes about three references a page when he is speaking to other characters, everything from Classical allusions to actual lines of poetry that he can remember verbatim. It’s a realistic tick and one that says a great deal about who he is. I do this a lot in real life and have since I was a kid, even though usually I was quoting some obscure novel and no one recognized what I was doing (when I picked it up with movies/commericals/slogans people started catching it). So will we have a character making a sly reference with a link to the source so that even those who don’t know the joke can be in on it? Like a scholarly Nabokov edition, except Nabokov himself put in the links to the jokes so that everyone can see how clever he is instead of readers only realizing the extent of his cleverness if they were equally erudite.
* Research. Will we have annnotations even in fiction to “reliable sources” to explain a particular detail or plot point? Such as a discussion of the fallibility of memory added as a footnote to a scene in which someone misidentifies a person as someone they are not? Or a letter from one historical figure to someone history has forgotten to prove that, in fact, Candy was a name used at least once in Victorian England?
Would we want to read an author who makes their humor/references so self-conscious? Would we think less of an author who shores up their issues of description with images?
Or in 50 years will the current form of the novel seem obsolete and stultifying to the average person?
Personally, I love the internal immersion of someone else’s world–someone else’s rules, someone else’s filters of the world and what is worth noticing, someone else’s imagination overlaying my own. But will that form continue to resonate with future generations, now that the content is no longer limited by the physical format?