Can Salman Rushdie and Substack Revive Serialized Fiction?

From The New Republic:

Salman Rushdie, the Booker Prize–winning novelist, insists that he is not, like so many media members before him, going to Substack—at least not full-time. He won’t be publishing his next book on the newsletter platform. Instead, he’s taken an advance from the company to fool around with “whatever comes into” his head. This will apparently include a serialized novella. “I think that new technology always makes possible new art forms, and I think literature has not found its new form in this digital age,” Rushdie told The Guardian. “Whatever the new thing is that’s going to arise out of this new world, I don’t think we’ve seen it yet.”

“People have been talking about the death of the novel, almost since the birth of the novel,” he continued. “But the actual, old fashioned thing, the hardcopy book, is incredibly, mutinously alive. And here I am having another go, I guess, at killing it.”

Rushdie isn’t wrong. The physical book has, somewhat improbably, maintained its supremacy in the digital age. Unlike the DVD or CD, nothing has truly emerged to threaten the analog; the printed page hasn’t yet had to make a “vinyl comeback.” At the same time, the book has hardly adapted to the internet age at all. Whatever the genre, books are simply not at all different than they were a few years ago, and no one seems particularly bothered about it. Not too long ago, there was a brief push to embrace things like QR codes to unlock digital supplementary material, but readers weren’t interested; the Kindle, meanwhile, is dominant among e-readers in large part because it so eerily replicates the feel of reading a physical book.

Yet it’s highly unlikely that Rushdie—or Substack—will plot the novel’s, let alone the book’s, next act. For years, people have been predicting that the internet would radically upend the future of literature, and yet, stubbornly, literature has refused to change. One reason for the book’s continued relevance is that it remains a surprisingly robust and effective piece of technology in its own right—every effort to find its future only ends up reminding everyone about what it already does better than other mediums.

Less than 10 years ago, the consensus within much of the publishing industry was that the physical book was on its way out. Just as Napster had killed the CD and Netflix the DVD, Amazon’s Kindle, unveiled in late 2007, heralded a seismic change for a medium that had held sway for more than 500 years. The book had been slowly falling in the public’s estimation ever since people ran out of a movie theater, in 1896, thinking that a train was going to kill them.

By the late 2000s, the reasoned thinking was that the book was an inferior communication technology, about to be left behind by the startling array of digital entertainment options.

It didn’t seem like such a bad bet: Digital books would soon outpace physical ones. This change would, in turn, bring about a dramatic change in form. Writers were limiting themselves when thinking only in text: Why not explore audio and video? Why not turn the book into an immersive experience? Why not allow readers to interact with the story itself, turning any book into a Choose Your Own Adventure experience?

There were two big problems with this thinking. The first was that what many of these theorists were describing was not, in fact, a book. In many instances, what they were describing was closer to a video game: an experience in which readers guided a narrative with audiovisual dimensions. The oddest thing about reading many fevered imaginings of the future of the novel was that they had been played out in things like Metal Gear Solid. (My own favorite game series, The Witcher, is a rarity in the game world, as it’s based on a series of Polish short stories, suggesting that the literature-to-game pipeline is being curiously underexploited.) There was, moreover, no evidence that readers truly wanted to be overwhelmed by audio and video while reading: Many, in fact, were turning to books precisely to escape the information overload that defines life in the twenty-first century. As Lincoln Michel argued on his Substack, it turns out that people just like books, and print books in particular.

The second error that these media futurists made was overestimating how vulnerable the book was to digital technology. Many people, when they listen to music, like to jump around between artists: The iPod allowed them to do so seamlessly. Movies are consumed in one two-hour period, and most people don’t know what they want to watch before they sit down on the couch, a problem solved by Netflix. But most people read one book at a time—no one was lugging an entire library to the beach. A Kindle can store thousands of books, but who cares? Having an ocean of literature at your fingertips is neat, but it doesn’t change the time-tested user experience of reading in a dramatic way.

Link to the rest at The New Republic

Needless to say, PG disagrees about ebooks vs. printed books.

As he’s mentioned before, he will occasionally purchase a printed book for one reason or another, but always regrets it later. Even a single not-very-fat printed book is more trouble for him than an ebook. A 600-800 page printed book is a horror to read.

Happily for the overall welfare of humanity not everybody is like PG.

PG himself would not like to live in a world of other PG’s. He cherishes the amazing variety of people he interacts with and is quite happy that they are different, even much different than he is.

Plus, the idea of a female PG makes him shudder.

6 thoughts on “Can Salman Rushdie and Substack Revive Serialized Fiction?”

  1. Ebooks are _wonderful_. Until they came along, we clinically obsessive bibliophiles had accumulated outrageously absurd quantities of books (mostly in storage at the moment). Today, we only buy a physical book if it doesn’t come in ebook form, or if it is uniquely ill-suited to that form (e.g., too many illustrations, too much back-and-forth reference, rare collectables, etc.). And, of course, they cost less, sometimes a lot less. (And let’s not forget physical books cost yet more money to be stored, moved, housed, dusted, etc.)

    I use Calibre to maintain my ebook library. I used to try and keep track of my husband’s ebook purchases on Amazon as well as my own, but it simply took too much time, so I only know the count of my own purchases and those of his I piggyback on, but I can tell via the way I feed Calibre that that subset is about 1000 books/year, plus however many of his I don’t borrow, too. Or, to put it another way, another 4-5 full-sized library bookcases each year (in addition to the 1-2 cases/year of new physical books, almost all his). And, volume aside, it’s a helluva lot easier to find a book I own via Calibre than off the physical shelves.

    It’s all very well to hold a precious bound edition of a beloved classic that smells just right, but, hey, I don’t read sitting curled up on a sofa with a cup of tea in fantasy land or broiling my skin on a beach in full sunlight. I read in bed, eating dinner, waiting in line, during commercials, waiting for a download, in the bathroom, etc., etc. Having 1000+ books on my always-available well-charged weighs-nothing fits in one hand ereader, both new & old favorites, is my idea of heaven.

    Now, if only girl clothes had suitable pockets for ereaders and cellphones, there’d be nothing else to wish for in the way of technical advancements…

    (Yes, we also have a massive CD collection supplementing our older LP one, but the volume on that is much much smaller). We’re too audiophilic to tolerate the subpar audio of the streaming music world, not to mention its network costs, and we don’t care about pop music vogues.)

    • I have a rather large CD collection myself – all of them used just once (at least by me; some I have purchased used).

      A new CD immediately gets ripped, at maximum fidelity, to my computer. Where it is backed up within 24 hours.

    • I mostly agree, but there is nothing unique, or even unusual, about a book being unsuited to the ebook experience. Nearly all novels are suitable. I virtually never buy fiction in paper nowadays. But nonfiction often is another matter. Some are suited to sequential reading: start at the beginning and read through to the end. But much is not. I buy most of my nonfiction in paper, especially books within my own field of early baseball, where I may well want to refer back and forth.

  2. I actually don’t care to read physical books anymore because holding the book hurts my hands. Especially the big ones. I’d much rather read on my Kindle because it is light to hold. That said, I will buy a physical book if I really like it or there’s no other option, but I will more than likely get rid of it after I read it due to lack of space in my apartment.

  3. I most certainly agree with you, PG. Particularly this part:

    “As he’s mentioned before, he will occasionally purchase a printed book for one reason or another, but always regrets it later. Even a single not-very-fat printed book is more trouble for him than an ebook. A 600-800 page printed book is a horror to read.”

    I remember..gosh, over a decade ago, I guess, after having listened to the (amazing!!) novel “1776” by David McCullough, I’d gotten on a founding father’s kick. Which led me to Chernow’s amazing biography on Washington.. I believe I was checking out the CDs at the local library, and went looking for other biographies Chernow had done – and (before the current craze due to the play) he’d written one on Hamilton (which did indeed inspire the play, much like the biography on John Adams by the earlier mentioned McCullough had inspired the mini-series on HBO). The hardcover was less than $7 on Amazon. So, I nabbed it.

    And then it arrived, and it was MASSIVE. And the print was tiny! Goodness, gracious, I couldn’t imagine hefting an 8lb monster every time I wanted to get a bit of late night reading in. (Okay, Amazon says it’s a bit over 2.5lb, but you and I both know it feels like 8 lbs after 45 minutes of having it in bed…!)

    Sorry to say, I never did get around to reading it. Will have to see if I can check it out on Kindle in my local library. I still have a really hard time paying $15 for an e-book though. Bezos was right about that!

    I think the larger argument is less about the medium, when it comes to the written word. There’s no denying that newspapers and magazines have dramatically shrunk in volume and impact. Websites continue to provide information, but even their form has changed dramatically, with sites like Google, Amazon, Facebook, et al, growing in stature before our eyes.

    I don’t think the future is written,by any stretch. There’s really no predicting how things will fall out. (Here, I’ll dip into my science fiction writer mode…)

    The next big change will likely be some type of direct connection between the brain and the machine. Sounds like magic or science fiction now, but it’s already being developed! And when such a thing happens, and you can instantaneously know an entire story in moments – or, drop into virtual reality and see the story in action – from any angle (be it protagonist, or viewer or co-creator/modifier) – that too is not that far into the future. Is it tomorrow? Next year? Next decade? Probably not. But, I wouldn’t be surprised if it came in, say, fifty years. (Assuming we don’t blow ourselves up…)

    What point would a physical book have then? Nostalgia, mostly, I would think.

    • I can see the virtual reality happening – it will eventually become cheap enough, or at least no more than the cost for producing a quality audio book.

      The “instantaneously know an entire story in moments” – unlikely, unless we have some rather massive changes to our brains (or move them entirely into cyberspace). A rather more drastic bit of technological wizardry there. Not impossible, of course, but one development that I actually hope to not see in what remains of my lifetime.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.