Every time there is a seismic shift in taste, technology or time-availability, pundits say the novel is dead. And yet this hefty tome that demands so much attention from its reader has ambled on over the centuries. No one really knows when it began, although everyone claims their favourite to be the first novel (Tom Jones, The Tale of Genji, Pilgrim’s Progress et al – there is a gathering list of contenders on Wikipedia), and no one really knows when it will come to an end, despite this doorstopper having been “killed” by detractors many times over in the past.
I want to narrow my horizon of the novel’s anticipated death to the time after the Internet went public. “Everyone will read content for free online,” they said, “Why pay for a book?” And yet when Internet 1.0 went prime-time in the 1990s, it gave birth to the largest book retailer, Amazon, who is still around and getting bigger, creating demand like a snowball rolling down a mountain. Internet 1.0 also gave birth to the e-book that supplements the paper book and has grown the market, not shrunk it. It spawned websites that authors and publishers used to create a more dynamic and immediate presence than just on the dustjackets of books.
Then Internet 2.0 dawned in the early 2000s, and this didn’t kill that stubborn little cockroach either. In fact, books got a further boost when social media came into being. Authors became self-promoters, opening up Linked-in, Facebook, and Twitter pages, and You Tube channels, creating one-to-one relationships with their audiences instead of through traditional intermediaries. That behemoth, Amazon, and a host of followers, threw publishing open to individual authors who could write, publish, and promote their work from their computers at home. Text-to-voice improved, and the sight-impaired generation, powered with hearing aids, were able to extend their relationships with books further into their sunset years. Existing distribution channels took a beating or died during Internet 2.0, but the book continued to reign supreme.
Now, we are entering the era of Internet 3.0, the Metaverse, and the uncertainty jitters are mounting again – how will a one-dimensional novel, which has only words and relies on the reader’s imagination to give it life, be able to function in this artificial universe, where the reader now has to inhabit the story and talk to its characters, alter it’s plot if desired, and immerse themselves in this creation? How do authors enter this world when they only know how to sprinkle words on a page that draw pictures in the imagination? Will movie or video versions have to be necessary accessories to the printed book in this brave new world? Therefore, would costs be astronomical, affordable only by a few big-name publishers, and only for their headline titles? Or would Artificial Intelligence come to the rescue again like it did with text-to-voice, and create text-to-video to automatically take the printed novel and create a visual equivalent in the Metaverse that we could enter through our avatars?
I did okay in Internet 1.0. In fact, I became a writer during that period, for I saw the power of the individual to reach the masses with this universal, uncensored channel. I thrived during Internet 2.0 when I was able to reach greater and more dispersed audiences, and even became a publisher and cut out all intermediaries. I enjoyed discussing or performing my work and that of my stable of writers on videos that I created, of tweeting stuff about them, and posting short Facebook and Instagram blurbs. Now, a crash landing with Internet 3.0 plays at the back of my mind, if I run out of luck.
“But the Metaverse will make the novel flourish and create even more engagement,” the techies, who are driving us to zombiehood, point out. “Engagement will be via avatar or other proxy, like playing in a video game, so there will be an element of mental stimulation, even if it’s reflexive,” they insist. The techies themselves don’t know much about this Frankenstein monster under development, because the monster could—nay, will—use its own growing intelligence to develop how it sees fit after it has learned to crawl.
As for the novel, the further we drift away from the original, and being a traditionalist, I’m hoping that a strident call will rise out across the world, from those who remember and care, for a return to basics, to a time when the writer merely prompted with words on the page and the reader did the rest in their head to conjure up the story. A call for a return to a time when we exercised our brains, lest those brains turn to mush and we outsource to the robot.
One thing I am certain of, however, Metaverse or not: as long as people want to escape from this dreary world even for brief periods, if only to make that world more liveable and understandable upon re-entry, and as long as writers can continue to engage, entertain, educate and enlighten, the novel will continue to fulfil a need in whichever way it is presented. It will continue to exist, even if populated by a host of avatars.
Now it’s time to pick a name for my avatar…