The Literary Internet

Literary areaFaber CEO Stephen Page has caused a mini storm by arguing that the web offers a haven for embattled literary publishing in an article written for the Guardian. Much of the fuss seems to be that Faber & Faber, the epitome of high brow, the aristocracy of publishing etc, is now getting involved with the web, something applauded and decried in roughly equal measure. Page is to be applauded, not least because his sentiments echo some recent posts here on the digitalist. He writes: "So publishers must harness the great power of online networks through enriching reader experience. We must provide content that can be searched and browsed, and create extra materials - interviews, podcasts and the like...The key to this is just to make available and to resist too much control". So far so commonsensical, a fair point amounting to no more than what is currently the standard modus operandi of most media organisations. His contention that "Literature can thrive in these [web] places" is more interesting in that Page is arguing that specifically literary fiction, harassed by an indifferent readership, squeezed by the exigencies of economic survival, has not only a role and place on the web, but that the web might be its saviour.

In a fascinating response Sebastian Mary, writing at if:book, argues that in fact the web is antithetical to the whole concept of the literary, that "the ideology of 'literary' is inseparable from print". Key to this are ideas of authorship, originality and publication in the grand, traditional sense, ideas that begin to disintegrate in the participatory, collaborative and imitative forms facilitated by and in web culture. Offering concrete examples like Protagonize as enacting a death of the author beyond those conceived on the Left Bank of Paris the ideals of the literary are undercut and circumvented.

While I agree that there are fundamental differences between literary and web cultures, they are more closely aligned than might first appear. The whole concept of authorship and originality would have been alien to Shakespeare; in the Renaissance plotlines and phrases were freely borrowed while the whole acting company would have had input into the writing of a play. Yet Shakespeare rests at the very acme of what we consider the literary. This suggests that the literary is a malleable construct and in the transition to the web, channeling that unique ability to bring together dispersed, niche groups, we will have to once again redefine our concept of the literary, just as Romanticism gave rise to the cult of genius and in doing so created many of our present notions of authorship. Never immutable, the web is evolving the "ideology of literature" rather than superseding or conflicting with it.

What Page is doing might seem more rearguard, in that he proposes almost using the web as the last redoubt for literary fiction rather than seeking to alter what we mean by literary in the first place, whereas Mary argues that there is no point in transplanting print cultures to the web in any case. Overall though I think Mary and Page are gesturing towards the same conclusion in that they both see the web as a place primarily for the discussion of literature (Mary: "This isn’t to suggest that there’s no room for ‘the literary’ online. Finding new writers; building a community to peer-review drafts; promoting work; pushing out content to draw people back to a publisher’s site to buy books"; Page: "publishers can now build powerful online places to showcase their books through their own and others' websites and build communities around their own areas of particular interest and do so with writer"). Crucially though neither sees the web as the actual locus of distinctively "literary" creation and delivery.

On that the jury is still out; my feelings are that it will. What seems assured is that the web is now the central forum for the discussion of literature (especially given the demise of the review pages in the US), many people already read more on a screen than they do in print, digital delivery can be extremely simple and efficient and that the conjunction of these factors indicate that the web might well be literary in more than the discursive sense, even as it remoulds that sense.