Tuesday, March 30, 2010

meet the ipod novel

novelists, especially journalist/novelists, love to cry softly in public about the Death of the Novel. there was an article in the globe & mail about it a couple of weeks ago where the writer wept sadly about Modern People and their short attention spans. who wants to sit down and read a whole book, when you could click the internet?!?!

i say: bah humbug. radio didn't kill books, tv didn't kill radio, and the internet isn't going to destroy all previous forms of media. new modes of communicating ideas - which is at the heart of books, radio, tv and the internet - will change what came before. the thing to do is surf to the front of the class and embrace change instead of drowning in your own tears on the beach.

i've got an article in the current edition of Atlantic Books Today about one way the internet is influencing story telling: the rise of the short-story novel.

the thought came to me after reading ian colford's sublime evidence and then, a few months later, ryan turner's episodic what we're made of, both recent books out of halifax.


The Rise of the Short-Story Novel

As the internet destroys the music album in favour of singles, writers are wondering if it could do the same thing to the novel as readers grow accustomed to the short form of Twitter in our blog new world.

Two recent East Coast short-story novels offer a series of stand-alone tales centering on one protagonist. Readers can start with the first story and go straight through, read it backwards or hit shuffle and read it in whatever order strikes their fancy. Think of it as the iPod meets the novel.

The Toronto Star described Ian Colford’s Evidence as “rootless and thoroughly atomized,” noting that the only link is protagonist Kostandin Bitri.

“What I had in mind was a novel in episodes, not necessarily causally connected,” Colford says. “I gave up on (writing it as a novel) fairly early on. I decided that what I was writing wasn’t really suited to that format.”

So Evidence, which won the Margaret and John Savage First Book award in 2009, flashes a light on a series of events in Bitri’s life and leaves the reader to make sense of it all.

“I could just end with him in one place and then pick up again and he’d be somewhere else and I didn’t have to put in any connective tissue,” the author explains.

Colford opted not to title the stories and their order in the book is random – he pasted the files together to get an idea of his word count and just left it.

Colford, who works at Dalhousie’s Killam library, says young students have responded strongly to the book’s structure.

“I never thought of attributing that to our Twitter society, but I can see that that would have an influence,” he says. “The ability to jump into the book anywhere and take what they want from it and then put it aside, that seems to be something they really enjoy and appreciate.”

The novel-in-pieces captures the “fragmentation of modern experience,” he says.

Ryan Turner started writing a novel before abandoning it after 40 pages in favour of short stories. But Benjamin Wallace, the protagonist from the dead novel, kept popping up and Turner ended up with 11 episodic tales from the 20-something’s life in contemporary Halifax. He called it What We’re Made Of and his debut book hit the shelves last fall.

Turner describes it as 11 small canvases that can be shown together, but in any order the reader chooses. His reflections on novel writing are instructive: “The difficult thing is there are different story lines, so many different places you can go – it’s hard to keep it all in your head at once.”

When done well, it “holds a bunch of time together for us and when everything is so broken down, it gives us some sense of cohesion,” he says.

But perhaps modern readers prefer to find things broken down.

Mark Jarman, who writes short stories and teaches creative writing at the University of New Brunswick, says short stories have ancient roots.

“People sitting around the fire didn’t tell a novel, they told a story,” he says. The old approach may be finding a new audience: Jarman compares the fractured format of the short story novel to the million-channel TV universe. Don’t like a tale? Flip to the next one.

“I’ve always been puzzled why stories aren’t more popular,” he says, conceding his poet friends laugh his problems.

In the 1920s and into the 1950s, many writers made a living out of short stories, including greats like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemmingway and Kurt Vonnegut, but today writers tend to be judged on their novels. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Turner and Colford are both working on traditional novels.

Even Jarman turns his hand to long form. “I find myself pulling excerpts out and selling them as separate stories,” he laughs. The short story novel solves that problem. “You don’t have to fill in everything – ‘For the next five years, I did this’ – you can just make a jump and get into the next story.”

Colford’s and Turner’s works aren’t yet available in digital format, but perhaps in the near future, readers will be able to download single stories from their favourite writer to their iPod.

After all, Hemmingway’s shortest of short stories would easily fit into a Tweet: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
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