Do not take the audience for novels for granted

I’m not personally tempted to play No Man’s Sky, even while I find the phenomenon of its release interesting. Video games died a death for me at around the same time I found meditation. I had played games quite intensely since I was around 7, but then at age 30 or so, while playing a hacked version of Elderscrolls III, it struck me that every single game I’d ever played was just a graphical interface on a database. And I didn’t want to invest any more of life’s limited time on experiences that seemed so shallow. The scope and scale of No Man’s Sky doesn’t change that dynamic for me. It’s a very big database, but that’s still all it is.

I am very much in a minority however. This well written report by Robin Sloan on  the experience of both No Man’s Sky, and the huge community of live-streamers sharing the game’s launch, makes me at least partially interested again in the gaming experience. While the game itself remains little more than a pretty fractal, the community gathered around it is quite fascinating. A modern cultural phenomenon that is clearly deeply engrossing to those immersed in it.

“Once people have bought a few duff books in a row, they find other things to occupy their attention.”

It’s that aspect of community, or social engagement, and of human value, that has always made reading such an engrossing activity for me. Those words on the page come from another human mind. How fascinating to have that gateway into an alternative human experience, especially when that person is skilled at expressing that experience. There will always be people like me who find that experience through novels. But how many of us will there be?

As I’ve noted before, the novel is a very old medium at this point. Centuries old by any measure. And not all that much changed over that time. And it’s proved very resilient. But I suspect anyone who simply assumes the novel will remain quite as widely read doesn’t quite understand just how intense the contest for human attention is, or how many magnitudes greater that contest is becoming.

It’s not just that games – and there will be thousands of such games – that games like No Man’s Sky are INFINITELY large. Or that social networks like Snapchat have 100s of millions of users spending hours every day on their platforms. It’s that these kinds of things – and there are SO MANY of these kinds of things (don’t get me started on Pokemon Go!) – these kinds of things are profoundly changing how we all spend our time. And arguably, what the basic shape of our society is. And there’s really no reason to assume novels will have any significant roll in those new patterns of behaviour.

They might. The solitude of the reading experience might well be what saves it in a very near future we might call Massively Social (in the virtual sense of the word). Huge amounts of “content” are and will be, like No Man’s Sky, machine generated. The humanity of the novel, that it is written by one human mind and read by another, also give it value. And I do not see stories becoming anything other than more and more popular, in any form. But none of that makes the novel’s survival a sure thing.

What will kill the novel, and I believe is already irreparably damaging it, is a catastrophic rush to the bottom to meet the diminishing standards of most “content”. Traditional publishers, and the Amazon Kindle store, are both guilty of flooding a relatively small market with a huge number of novels, most far below any form of professional standard. The Fire-And-Forget model of publishing might turnover a a reasonable profit in the short term, but at big cost. Once people have bought a few duff books in a row, they find other things to occupy their attention. It happens. It is happening.

It’s why publishers are floundering, while individual authors, if they can establish a name, are doing very well. Once readers find you, and trust you to deliver, they are incredibly loyal to the authors they love. I think determined writers of really high quality – great storytellers, or authors with a wonderful voice, or a fascinating mind, are going to continue to do very well. But they might be more and more like islands in a sea of other distractions, rare outcroppings of enlightenment in an infinite galaxy of randomly generated planetoids, luring people to read those odd things called “novels” that otherwise only exist in the history…databases.

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Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.