To follow or unfollow, that is the question. No, we’re not talking about social media; we’re going old school.
Can a book ever be other than a “master narrative” in which the author is omniscient and the reader is at best an active participant in someone else’s drama? We are already seeing “an aesthetic and narrative fracturing that speaks to the fragmentation of meaning-making in the digital age,” as Cynthia X. Hua describes it in Real Life, in which internet media are steadily replacing the unitary storytelling structures of film and television. Indeed, we are seeing this play out not only in realm of politics and “alternative media” but in the fictional realm as well.
The premium today is not on being entertained, but on creating forms of entertainment. No matter how compelling a linear narrative may be in terms of its storylines and character development, to the extent that it situates the viewer as a voyeur rather than as an actor, it is likely on the road to obsolescence. The well-positioned slogan of the “sharing economy” may not actually be about sharing in the form of economic socialism or radical democracy, but it does capture the essential notion that people want to share, and get a buzz from being shared.
This is part of the liminal gratification pattern of the digital age, where affirmations appear electronically and asynchronously, yielding an element of surprise and titillation with every buzz and beep that lets us know someone out there has noticed us. Even an adverse response still resonates with approval of a sort, and the more channels we have open the more glow we get. In this manner, the tether to our devices is more than mere convenience; it’s about conviviality as well, namely the set of social arrangements that define our desire and ability to live together.
Thus the conundrum with print media in particular, since its offerings are (a) mostly consumed in isolation, and (b) represent a narrative form of intake rather than collaboration. At least, this is how advocates of new media might characterize it; authors and publishers may suggest instead that a good book is actually a highly collaborative endeavor, and that one of its advantages over film and video is precisely that it leaves more room for the reader to actively construct the world(s) that animate its exterior settings and interior domains with equal force.
Yet, the book as an artifact feels like a curiosity akin to the vinyl album (or even the CD). Yes, its quaint texture and retro stylings hold some appeal, even to the digital generation. But that’s more like a museum viewing moment than a real-life appendage: to wit, do you see people carrying around a stack of records when they want to bring their music along somewhere? The convenience and, perhaps more importantly, the inherent capacity to reorder the vast array of selections to fit one’s mood and mode of operation are the hallmarks of the on-demand world.
A book, alas, seems to promise none of this, even in its digital forms. The narrative is set by the author, the assembly by the editor, and the presentation by the publisher. Even imaginative writing and active readership don’t solve the dilemma — unless we rethink the book altogether as something more like one of those “choose your adventure” children’s books in which the reader makes decisions and flips through the book accordingly. This structure provides that essence of choice that is central to the new media era. Can we replicate this in texts more generally? Would doing so eviscerate the book form? Proceed to the next chapter to find out…