Amid fear that screens will squander our attention spans and squelch our thirst for books, writers have taken to their laptops to defend the importance of reading. But while the benefits of books, from fostering empathy and inspiring creative thinking, are worth acknowledging, we’re not exactly in danger of losing them. In fact, we’ve been sounding the death knell for literature for decades, only to find that writers continue to write -- and readers continue to read -- great stories.
E.M. Forster, best known for A Passage to India, was as qualified as anyone to comment on the future of the novel. And he did so, briefly, in the conclusion to his 1927 collection of criticism, Aspects of the Novel. As it turns out, pontificating on what lies ahead for storytelling -- a past time we bookish folk engage in today with some maddening frequency -- has a long history.
Forster writes, “Speculations, whether sad or lively, always have a large air about them, they are a convenient way of being helpful or impressive.”
In the '20s, he reflected, “It is tempting to conclude by speculations as to the future of the novel: will it become more or less realistic, will it be killed by the cinema, and so on.” According to Forster, these concerns aren't worth mulling over -- no matter how much the world changes, someone's bound to comment on it, and doing so with a written narrative is our natural inclination.
It’s refreshing, amid Amazon-inflicted doomsday cries, to recall Forster’s words, which remind us that movies once posed a threat to literature, just as the multitudinous distractions of the web supposedly loom over our ability to focus on a single plot for hundreds of pages.
Forster wasn’t alone in wondering whether the bright and whirring distractions of film would end our collective interest in written stories. Many classic authors had fraught relationships with movies too, disparaging them while living on the income they provided. J.D. Salinger, for example, sold the movie rights to a short story he published in The New Yorker before penning The Catcher in the Rye. Dismayed by the discrepancies between the written work and the adaptation, he began criticizing movies, and disallowed the making of silver screen renditions for his later works. It’s somewhat of a trend among authors -- Stephen King didn’t approve of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” and Roald Dahl called “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” “crummy.”
But, in spite of skepticism about film’s ability to capture psychological nuances and interior monologues the way literature does -- that’s a debate for another time -- its arrival as a storytelling medium can be seen as complementary to novel-writing, rather than a scary interference. Obviously, some of America’s most memorable books were written after 1927, and there’s no reason why that should change. It’s arguable, also, that screens capturing our collective gaze haven’t impeded our desire to read. As author Walter Mosley wrote for The Wall Street Journal, readers have always been a small subset of the world's population. The popularization of movies can be seen as running parallel to the popularity of reading books -- over the past several decades, the two seem to have not influenced one another directly.
1927, the year Forster alluded to fear of a cinematic takeover, was also a landmark year for film. The first-ever feature-length "talkie" was released, and grossed $3.9 million at the box office -- around $120 million when adjusted for inflation. Even when considering population growth and easier access to theaters, that's a fraction of the box office earnings for this year's most popular flick, "Jurassic World," which brought in over $600 million. So, movies are undoubtedly becoming more popular -- but so are books.
We calculate book sales by copies sold, not net earnings. Even so, the trend is clear. In 1927, the bestselling book was Sinclair Lewis' Elmer Gantry, a religious satire made popular by the fact that its salaciousness lead to banning in Boston and beyond. The novel sold 175,000 copies in six weeks. This year, Paula Hawkins' The Girl on the Train sold an estimated 1.5 million copies, sought after for its comparisons to the wildly popular book-turned-film Gone Girl. The Daily Beast speculates that its “the fastest-selling adult book in history,” and that includes all of those novels released pre-Internet, and pre-movies.
The uproarious popularity of both thrillers like Hawkins' and Pulitzer-winning sagas runs counter to the End of Fiction narrative touted by worriers long after Forster. Except now, in place of our worry about movies, we’ve angled our complaints at the web. Journalist Karl Taro Greenfeld, who wrote an op-ed for The New York Times about Millennials’ tendency to fake cultural literacy, might be the nosiest critic of the Internet. In an NPR segment, he voiced concern about bookish memes subbing in for reading actual books. But while studies show we do process paper and digital text differently, sales data indicates that the Internet hasn’t weakened our interest in picking up bound-and-printed texts.
Just as blog posts haven’t inhibited readers, blogging hasn’t inhibited the creation of good novels. Instead, writers responded to the Internet by doing what they’ve always done: they write about it. And the public responds as its long responded: they buy, and read, books. Good books, trashy books, short books, long books. Books in a box, books with a fox.
Forster hinted at the durability of great storytelling in his essay. Of the writers of the future, he writes, “The change in their subject matter will be enormous; they will not change." In other words, "We may harness the atom, we may land on the moon, we may abolish or intensify warfare, the mental processes of animals may be understood; but all these are trifles, they belong to history, not art.”
There’s one caveat he admits to, though. For the nature of book-writing and book-reading to change, human nature itself must change. Forster concedes this is a possibility, should “individuals manage to look at themselves in a new way,” be it via their relationship to organized religion, to government, to family. But, on the whole, regardless of technological developments, he concludes, “History develops, art stands still.”
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