Literature. American modernist poet Ezra Pound once defined the art form as “language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree”. As straightforward as it may sound, our understanding of literature has faced several transformations throughout human history. The most recent of which, digitalisation, is still ongoing and bears chances as well as challenges. For example, it provides the creative and artistic cultivation of language with novel features,expands its coverage, and connects it to digital forms of content production and mediation. Digital products and online tools are enablers for authors, publishers and readers alike, but they can also cause unwanted side effects, for example if online marketing becomes more important than the actual literary work or if book forums pressure us into quantitative instead of qualitative reading. The most important question thus is: how can digital media and tools support literature in a thoughtful, respectable and qualitative way?
Literature and its carriers
The definition of literature by Ezra Pound is a clean, precise statement. His most famous poem, “In a Station of the Metro” (1913), might be the ultimate exemplification of this description — every carefully chosen word is loaded with meaning; changing one term would turn the whole piece of art into an entirely different creation. In his short definition, however, Pound forgets to acknowledge the contextualisation of literature. Language requires a medium, a carrier to live. The carrier can be spoken or written, it can be a book, a letter, a staged performance, a screening, or — in the age of digitalisation — a tweet, an audio recording, or a video game character.
Since the very beginning of human history, carriers have constantly been in the flux. The written idea of literature, the mode to which it has been connected for the past centuries, took a great while to emerge. When the first sign systems were invented, they were predominantly used for economic and administrative bookkeeping. It was not until the third millennium BC that the Sumerian civilisation in Ancient Mesopotamia began to use their clay tablets as carriers of literary constructions, such as poems and myths. Prior to that, literature — mostly in the form of folklore, myths and songs — was limited to the oral tradition. Also, Homer’s epics “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” derive from oral forms.
This excursion into history shows how interwoven the oral form and written literature are. However, the term “literature”, deriving from the Latin “littera” (“a letter of the alphabet”), bears a stronger connection to the written form than to the oral form. Due to the illiteracy of most of the population until the 19th century, literature in its written form was an elitist business for quite a while. The term might have been even used as a tool to emphasise the gap between those who could read and write and those who had to rely on oral forms.
The invention of the printing press in the 15th century contributed to binding the artful use of language to the written medium — at this stage more precisely to the book. It was not until the Beat Generation emerged in the 1950s, with leading figures such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, that the oral presentation of literature experienced a celebrated revival. Today, the spoken word — along with its popular form of poetry slams — fills concert halls with language enthusiasts and brings our understanding of the art form back to its roots in human history. After all, literature – as Pound says – is about language, and language can be spoken and written alike.
Between the written and the spoken mode, there is a lot of space for a wide range of different media. The most prominent literary medium, the book, has already been mentioned. However, the latest developments in our digital age have brought a series of new media upon us. Authors, publishers and readers are slowly — but I believe also surely — coming to terms with new forms of interaction, content creation and distribution, and they are beginning to bend digital tools to their needs.
Examples of relatively recent literary media which do not necessarily replace the good old book but rather add to it are online magazines, podcasts, video games, interactive books and, last but not least, social media platforms. They highlight one important fact: literature is not exclusively about form, but also about content. Especially popular fiction and nonfiction benefit from new opportunities to spread their message. It is therefore not surprising that in face of the shift from a form-driven to a content-driven consumption of literature, the art of storytelling is in the midst of a renaissance.
One of the most discussion-worthy aspects is at which point forms of storytelling can no longer be considered as literature. Is a short and yet poetic post on Twitter a poem? Is a blog entry, making use of distinguishable literary devices, an essay? Is a video game in which characters speak in a precise and artful language and thematise a problem that could also easily be reproduced in the form of a book really still literature?
While the answers to these questions might not be easily found and change with each new platform on the market, one thing is quite obvious: the presence of literature, or literary qualities, on digital media expands its reach substantially. Brian Bilston, for example, began his career on Twitter, with seven unintended yet poetic lines, sticking to the limit of 280 characters. Today, he calls his 70k followers and three published poetry collections his achievements. Through Bilston’s engagement on social media, people who might never have considered buying a poetry collection in a bookstore got exposed to the artistic play with words. Furthermore, they might have also gotten sensibilised with literary devices and interested in art and culture as such — as a result of a platform that, at first sight, was clearly not developed for that purpose.
Everybody talks lit
One of the most outstanding developments connected to digitalisation is online interconnectedness. Every day, millions of forum entries and social media posts are shared, electronic newsletters arrive in our inboxes and countless private messages are sent. Publishers have realised that they can no longer not participate in this online universe and have begun to spread the word about book releases, readings, and their authors on the Internet. Direct engagement with their readers has become a central means for marketing activities. Feedback on books and other literary publications is no longer a one-way street, but virtual face-to-face communication in the form of likes and comments.
Moreover, publishers have lost their mediating role between authors and readers. Now, readers can get in touch with their favorite writers straight away on their social media profiles. One drawback of this development is that online marketing strategies and the author’s performance on social media tend to overshadow the actual work of literature. If the online community of an author is huge, chances are high that they will sell more books and merch. While this is a positive effect for self-published authors — a type of publishing that has also been largely enabled by digital means (in the past eight years, the rate of books that enter the market without being reviewed by professional publishers has been growing constantly, especially in the US, according to the Bowker Report, 2018) —, traditional writers and publishers are struggling to find the right position between selling the literature itself and selling the necessary by-products.
Communication between the different actors involved in book (and content) publishing has become easier and more direct. But also, communication within each group of actors is facilitated. Authors can chat with fellow writers in online groups, in reader forums such as GoodReads, users share their opinions on novels and collections with their fellow readers, and online groups are packed with ambitious bookworms, striving for the incredible reading goals of up to two books per week. While these examples enhance communication about literature, they can also peer pressure book lovers into binge-reading. The more books, the better; the more reviews, the more popular the user is. Drawbacks are that the readers do not take enough time to embrace the author’s carefully chosen language and that the authors are struggling to keep up with producing more and more stories to satisfy their readers. Time for deep breaths between the pages has become a luxury.
Books still matter
While digitalisation – most substantially the Internet – has made literature accessible to more societal groups, facilitated the exchange between all actors, and created various novel forms of literary content, it has also contributed to accelerating the pace at which we deal with literature in an already fast-paced world. The most popular medium to escape bright LED screens and never-ending notifications thus, less surprisingly, remains the printed book. It might be promoted differently, its content might be extended by digital tools, and its author might be an influencer on Instagram — in the end, we can disconnect from all that and treat our nose with the unmistakable scent of a fresh copy’s pages.
One of the most passionately debated threats to the good old rustling of paper is the e-book, or at least it used to be: recent numbers show that the original growth of the e-book market has slowed down since 2014, representing 25% of the US book market and only about 7% of the European book market (Statista and FEP Report). These statistics demonstrate that digital innovations, so far, have mainly been add-ons to the traditional book and can by no means replace it. After all, Brian Bilston chose to publish his poems in books after his success on Twitter — he wanted the same as the majority of authors: to store his creative work in a tangible, durable medium that can be kept on a shelf next to other amazing embodiments of literary ingenuity.
One essence, multiple paths
It is close to impossible to predict in which direction the publishing of literature will move in the next decades. Will books remain the most popular medium? Or will authors turn their back on book production and make themselves dependent on online platforms and user shares? For now, we have to try and find a way for printed works, oral concepts and online tools to support each other and contribute to their shared goal: publishing qualitative poetry, fiction and nonfiction that will shape our understanding of the world. And wherever the path may lead, we have to keep in mind that literature in its very essence cannot be owned by any medium: it is the careful choice of language and meaning that defines it.
“Digital texts are forms of text that constantly flood our everyday life”
Interview with Martin Peichl