Fiction As Art?

For about four years I have been hard at work on a novel, a project that has consumed my thought process for much longer than that. I have attended workshops about fiction writing and taken classes to learn the process of writing, an art form I believe encompasses all other art forms. That is why this morning as I was reading my November/December issue of Poets and Writers magazine, I was disturbed to read an article about the future of books entitled “The Medium Is The Message.” In this article Carrie Neill writes about the changing publishing landscape and interviews Debra Di Blasi about what her press, Jaded Ibis, is doing to publish worthy writers. I think her innovative approach of publishing experimental books, from books meant for reading as an app on an iPad is really cool and interesting, and I love that she is trying to expand the number of writers who otherwise wouldn’t have a chance to be published in a traditional way. But her view of where our culture is headed is disturbing for me as a writer and as an English teacher and lover of the “traditional” written word and all things literary.

Debra Di Blasi sees our “culture moving away from words.” Wait a minute. Moving away from words? Yes, that is what she said. She further elaborates, “There will still be people who read, but I’m not sure that literary fiction—fiction that is art, that is not just craft, not just entertainment—will survive, once the gaming-based novels get better and better.” What she is talking about are books, novels specifically, that are written to imitate video games in their “form, content, or interactive properties.” I don’t know about you, but that depresses me, probably because I am of the generation who doesn’t play video games and because the books I read are literary, fiction that I see as art. I suppose I am something of a Luddite, as opposed to change in the literary world as Ned Ludd’s followers were to change in the weaving industry in the early 1800’s. That certainly was not the image I had of myself, but perhaps it fits.

Although I realize the market for books is changing and has changed over the years, especially with the advent of tablets and e-readers, I still want to publish my book as a traditionally published book in paper format, preferably in a lovely well-designed hardcover, but at least in trade paperback. Am I realistic in that desire? Only time will tell, I suppose. Friends and people I meet who talk about publishing have told me I should forget trying to publish with a major publishing house and self-publish. They say at least that will get my book out to the public, but that process doesn’t appeal to me. After all, my story is a historical one, and the irony of only having it only available on an e-reader or online as a print-on-demand title is not lost on me. Perhaps the number of presses who will be willing to print books for those of us who want that experience will grow.

The press, Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, is one such place. They offer e-books to grow their number of readers, but they also publish hand-made books for those old-fashioned souls who value the tactile reading experience of fine paper sifted through the fingers and cloth covers to be admired as they tuck themselves beneath a throw blanket in an easy chair. Perhaps if I were in the publishing business rather than writing a novel, I would understand the need to figure out where the market is going and where to put my money, but any time I see an art form threatened, which is what I think technology is doing in some respects to books, I hope someone with more business sense than I have will figure out a way to save that art form. Perhaps I just don’t understand all that technology is capable of doing. I hear about the next big think in literature being novels written on Twitter or delivered with audio and visuals to enhance the reading experience. That sounds really cool in one respect but worries me when it comes to young readers.

For years I have heard students complain about not liking to read, and for years I have tried to coax, cajole, and sometimes, yes, even force them to give reading a try. I worry that young people are losing the ability to use their imaginations in a way that brings words to life on the page. After all, that is what I love about reading and is why I seldom like to see the movie of a book I have read. The characters rarely resemble the characters I have envisioned in my head. The setting is not nearly as idyllic, and the action is not nearly as heroic. Does that make me a romantic? I’m sure it does. My father called me a romantic for years, but I see the value of having the ability to visualize a world where life is just as real as the one I inhabit. It helps me to understand my own world a bit better.  Isn’t that one of the reasons we read literature, to learn to empathize with others in predicaments we too might one day face?

Perhaps I’m overreacting to the article by Carrie Neill, “The Medium is the Message.” I can certainly see the merits of books on a computer, the excitement of hearing and seeing an author read the story rather than stumbling over the words myself, but I’m afraid something will be lost in the translation. And that something, I’m afraid, will be the personal experience of reading and creating the fictional world we imagine in our minds, translating the words into images and sounds and feelings. How we interact with art—whether it is a painting, a piece of music, a performance of a play, or the words of a great author on the page—is a personal experience, one that no two people share. Will that interaction with words on the page remain singular—meaning extraordinary, unique, and exceptional but also personal—in the world of technology? I certainly hope it will. I hope always to be able to pick up a book and read fiction to enter the world of my imagination where the world I create comes from the words the writer intended as art.

3 responses to “Fiction As Art?”

  1. A lovely, and poignant article. Thank you. I appreciate your sentiment and your sorrow. The aim of Jaded Ibis Press, however, differs from what you lament. We still publish extraordinarily beautiful print books in black-and-white and full color (illustrated as great books used to be illustrated by fine artists), and we further publish books as fine art objects that manifest as something reflecting the conceptual content. We have no interest in the author narrating her or his book in our multimedia interactive editions but instead view music, video, visual art and other interactions like quizzes, as additional layers of meaning rather than illustrations. That is, they provide the reader/listener/viewer with significantly more information and experience that neither detracts nor distracts from the text. Books published without care of the environment are, in the long run, subtracting rather than adding to the world. The traditional publishing industry contributes to environmental decimation by publishing books that not only will never be purchased, only to be shipped back and forth between sellers and publishers until they are finally shredded, wasting valuable limited resources and energy. I suspect that I am at least as old as you — I am nearing 56 — but I have spent my life trying to save what I consider the highest forms of culture from the most mediocre expectations. Technology has changed the way the majority of people live and will continue into the newest technologies. It will happen with or without us. Therefore, it’s critical that some who truly cares about the value of high culture position herself so that she has some say on what makes it into our braver newer world. Otherwise, we’re left to the software engineers alone. Your passion is admirable and necessary, and I hope you continue to direct it toward salvaging all that is exalted in the arts.

    Debra Di Blasi
    Jaded Ibis Productions / Jaded Ibis Press

    1. Thank you for correcting my impression from the article, and I am thrilled that you still offer print books at Jaded Ibis. I love what you said about your trying to save what you consider “the highest forms of culture from the most mediocre expectations.” I admire both the way you said that and the passion behind your choice. If I offended you in any way with my post, I apologize. I am a tiny bit younger (48) but far less experienced with technology than I’m sure you are, and at times I long for simpler, if less environmentally friendly, times, but like you I have tried to keep culture alive. I try to do that through my own writing and reading and also through teaching students the value of books and reading. Believe me, at times I feel I’m fighting a losing battle, but I will never give up the fight. Thank you for taking the time to read my post and offer your comment. I appreciate it your insight and information about your Jaded Ibis.

  2. In a previous life I was an art director. I switched to editing when technology made it possible for the average PC owner to “design” their own newsletters and business cards. We all thought it was the death of decent design. Yet great design is evident everywhere (the cover of David Levithan’s brilliant novel Every Day comes to mind).
    I prefer to remain equally optimistic about literature. It is now much easier for badly written (and edited!) books to get published, but the good stuff is still coming. It’s hard to stifle true talent.

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