Consider the Digital Disruption

Steve Almond | June 2014

Consider the Digital Disruption by Steve Almond

A few months ago, I had the odd experience of serving on a panel entitled The Digital Disruption, which had been convened to answer a basic question: why are writers of literary fiction not taking advantage of digital innovation as much as their colleagues who write genre fiction?

To answer this question, Boston’s wonderful writing organization, Grub Street, had assembled a kind of all-star lineup of heavy hitters from the world of digital publishing, including representatives from Amazon, Vook, Kobo, Tumblr, and Electric Literature. I was there to represent authors.

My own answer to this question was annoyingly simple. The reason literary authors haven’t embraced digital technology is because they’re not that interested in digital technology. They’re interested in stories and scenes and characters and language. That doesn’t make them better than people who are interested in technology. It just makes them different.

And while it’s certainly true that digital technology offers authors access to exciting new forms of storytelling, such as video and audio, it’s also true that most people who choose to become writers of literary fiction have placed their faith in language and imagination. They like to believe that their sentences alone will be enough to compel the reader.

To be clear: this is not a dig at my fellow panelists. They were all passionate readers, and eloquent speakers. They spent a lot of time talking about how much authors could help themselves if they embraced various new technologies. And while they did tend to use phrases such as “meta data” and “drilling down,” it was clear they were eager to help writers find wider audiences.  

Still, there was a clear disconnect between these folks, who were advocates for the brave new digital world, and the audience, who were mostly writers of literary fiction.  

And it boiled down to this: the creation and consumption of literature is an inconvenient technology. It requires a lot of time and attention and emotion from both the writer and the reader. This is what makes literary writing deeper and more satisfying than most genre work, which tends to be plot-driven, if not formulaic.

The foundational motive of the digital world, by contrast, is to make the world a more convenient place: cheaper, more portable, quicker to gratify.

As an author, I’m certainly happy to have my books available on electronic devices, and to use digital technologies to reach readers who might have no interest in the antiquated world of printed matter.

But to pretend that digital technologies are natural allies with literature is woefully naïve. As Neil Postman observes in his prescient 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, the digital disruption of television didn’t carry on the literary tradition. It served as a direct assault on writers and reading by offering people a more convenient, passive form of storytelling.

I’m not trying to suggest that everyone who has an e-reader is a traitor to the cause of literature. The ultimate goal is to increase the number of people reading, especially literary fiction, and if this means publishing work on-line, or in a digital format, well then, that's what writers should do.

But I also happen to believe that there is something special about the book as a physical object. This is a function of my having been born in 1966, when there was no such thing as a home computer, let alone an iPhone. I'm what the sociologists call a “digital immigrant,” which is a fancy term for old fogey.

I believe that most people use digital technologies in a way that erodes their capacity for sustained attention—I certainly do!—and that most readers pay more careful attention to the words in a book than the words on a screen. I also think books matter as physical objects. They send a message to the world about your belief in a world of sustained attention and imagination. 

For this reason, when I decided to self-publish, I refused to make the books available on-line. This was pretty stupid from a business perspective, but it's been a wonderful human publishing experience.

Serving on this panel was a powerful reminder that I’m woefully out of step with the culture around me. But I think most literary writers already recognize this. This is why we’re okay with shutting ourselves up alone and spending hours wrestling with language.

Again: this doesn’t make us more noble than other people. But it does mean that we’ve chosen a more reflective (and less convenient) way of moving through our lives. We seek to reach fewer people, but hopefully in a deeper way.

That’s the basic deal we’re making as artists. No fancy gizmo, or enhanced platform, is going to change that.


Steve Almond’s new book, Against Football, will be published in September.