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.