If we accept that the advent of digital media has changed the way we read (and I don’t, except in the most trivial sense that you obviously read a text message differently than you’d read War and Peace — not that this makes for any fundamental change in your ability to read one way or the other) then it might follow that authors have modified their approach to writing in order to compensate for this “change”. Margaret Atwood is quoted in this Note to Self story from WNYC radio with the implication that she has changed the way she writes; but if you follow up their link you’ll find she was actually referring only to plot not style.
Joe Esposito comes up, at The Scholarly Kitchen, with a suggestion that we need to be publishing (and more importantly, authors need to be writing) books for reading in the five-minute gaps in our lives when we are waiting on the ticket line at Yankee Stadium (if only it were just five minutes) or at the supermarket, say. Now this is a fine idea, which we appear already to have taken care of. I am currently using The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis in this way. Some of her stories are just a couple of lines long. Previously I had worked my way through The Selected Letters of Charles Dickens in this mode. Now Dickens didn’t, not even the greatest advocate of the brave new world of digital media would suggest it, intentionally write this work at the ideal length for someone waiting for a subway with an iPhone, and nor, I’m pretty sure, did Lydia Davis. La Rochfoucauld’s Maxims would be great for such reading. As a student I slogged through them in totally the wrong way. No doubt we could with little effort come up with a queue-friendly reading list.
Let’s not encourage writers to write for inclusion on that list though. I continue to believe that tailoring your writing to a particular medium is not the ideal way of telling your story. Pity those poor novelists forced to pad their copy in order to fill the three volumes which Victorian Britain had come to expect as a signal “This is a novel”. Of course some logorrhoeics had no difficulty filling their quota: clearly we should not ask their descendants to write a Twitter novel. Actually, we shouldn’t ask anyone to write a Twitter novel: it’s been done, and that’s the only point. But there’s no reason why we shouldn’t encourage writers whose muse dictates to them in short bursts. Lyric verse is obviously a medium suited to Espositoian interstitial reading, and thus have I occasionally used it, just not digitally. But we wouldn’t be wise to steer the modern-day Alexander Pope away from the epic form for this reason. Above all writers should write in the way they are moved to write: not in the way that will fit their product to casual reading. That said, of course lots of writers are no doubt already squeezing their chapters into ever shorter span in order to capitalize on this “new” market.