The prose fiction we appreciate today from the late 16th century through the early 18th century in Spain, France and England was for the most part episodic, linked episodes in picaresque or epistolary form, such as Gargantua and Pantagruel, Lazarillo de Tormes, Don Quixote, The Princess of Cleves, the letters of Madame de Sévigné, Moll Flanders and Tom Jones. Robinson Crusoe is an exception (and please forgive my forgoing full titles: this is a blog, after all). So our notion of what makes the proper structure for quality prose fiction has changed over these centuries. The dominance of the psychological or social novel refined in the 19th century is recent and a result of the assimilation of the printing press and the rise of the middle class. Novels in the 16th and 17th centuries had perhaps not yet taken advantage of the continuity offered by the printing press and instead relied on the audience's ability to assimilate "linked anecdotes." It took a couple of hundred years for the novel to cohere as we know it today. Let’s use television as an example. Among the most popular shows for its first thirty years were the variety shows that took their lead from vaudeville. Where are they now?
My second point today is what the history of reading tells us about the future of reading (see Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading for a good overview). If so much of “reading” was oral/aural until a couple of hundred years after Gutenberg, which gave it a somewhat social element, and the immersive reading of the past few hundred years is only a stage in reading itself, we are most likely entering an era that will take something from both. For example, immersive reading followed by social assimilation of what is read. Despite the insistence of many, immersive reading never “shut out” the outside world completely. It simply pushed the surrounding environment aside or behind for brief periods of time (see Proust’s On Reading, the reprints of his introductions to John Ruskin, who himself believed that deep and/or systematic observation is type of reading).
So if the technology of participation is changing the way we subscribe to the literary arts, perhaps it will take time to secure its hold, despite the speed at which things move today. Perhaps participatory literature fulfills the promise of the idea that everyone reads a different book, perhaps in the future everyone will re-write a different book they are reading, i.e., the text itself will change, the promise of hypertext fulfilled. Reading will become a social act, and transparently mutable. Literacy and “literariness” as we know them today will have no meaning. The concept of literacy itself will not rely on the accumulated knowledge of fixed texts. Instead it will base itself on individual mutation and personal creativity, as it has always tacitly done. Forget print-on-demand, embrace creativity-in-demand. The next generation will develop the literary mix-tape, an anthology of personally selected short stories to be given to friends as Christmas gifts, complete with music mix to back it up.