Between the Lines

What’s in a name? For the words we use to describe our structures for fiction, quite a lot, actually. Readers have been taught that a novelette is shorter than a novella, which is shorter than a novel. We know novels typically run from 70,000 words all the way up to those honking doorstoppers people love to aggressively display on their most prominent bookshelves.

But these definitions only hold up when you hold one assumption constant: that all novels (or the novel’s shorter derivatives) are books.

That might sound odd, or even redundant, but stay with us. Let’s first discuss the parameters of a book. We don’t think that many modern readers take time to ask, on a structural or philosophical level, what a book really is. After all, we don’t have to in order to enjoy them. But books, at their very basic level, are bound pieces of paper on which a fixed set of words are printed. That’s it.

So, given that the printing press has existed for almost 600 years, it’s reasonable that we have word limits for our work. After all, there are real, physical limitations that these stories need to work within—if the book is too big or too small, it’s too expensive to produce. And so, all the conventional writing wisdom, like the three-act structure, is meant to keep the reader interested and engaged for a hundred thousand words or so.

But in the past twenty years, the publishing industry has been slowly prising the idea of fiction apart from the idea of a physical book. eBooks make odd-length works more financially viable since none of the copies are printed. One can listen to an audiobook and walk away having consumed the same novel as someone who reads it on paper. Has that person “read” the book, in the truest sense of the term?

The definition of a novel in 2018 is considered to be a fixed work of fiction, usually somewhere from 60K to 110K words, that gives the reader an overarching arc of story that culminates in a climax. That is not a definition that stipulates physical constraints on the text.

This means that it’s worth considering, as we get deeper and deeper into the digital age, what effect will new “reading” technology have on the novels of the future? How will this definition expand? Will a child born in 2018, who grows up reading most of their content on an app, really care about keeping middle-grade fiction under 60,000 words? Or will they, used to reading short posts and fanfiction and playing interactive games, just think a novel is a made-up story where a character has an adventure where they change and grow?

As we are presented with more technological innovations in terms of reading platform, it’s reasonable to assume writers will create with those platforms in mind, as opposed to sticking with an old style that might not make sense anymore. Take the novels written on Wattpad—since successful Wattpad authors release a chapter of a work at a time, the books have taken on a serialized format, which often takes its plot cues from reader responses to the action of the previous week.

This becomes especially true when new technological forms get crossed with new revenue models; take the recently profiled case of romance authors producing ebooks for Kindle Unlimited that are thousands of pages long, not even meant to be read so much as scrolled through at lightning speed with a click.

Expanding technological forms have always changed the art that comes to make use of them. We very well might see our understanding of what a book is change in the near future, to the point that “book” might no longer be the catchall term it currently is. Writers will produce what the publishing landscape allows for. If a writer knows that new publishing tech comes with an accompanying auditory experience with their words, they might change the way they describe the sensory details of a scene; if a digital “book” suddenly allows for more than one possible ending or divergent storylines, who knows what we’ll see happen to our notions of plot structure. Novels could get longer, now that the physical constraints are gone—or they could get shorter, keeping in mind how this same tech has changed all our attention spans as readers.

The point is that, in this time when the publishing industry is more desperate than ever for innovation, new products will mean new writing. If there’s any part of our tech-oriented future that should excite, rather than terrify us, it’s this: artists rising to the new technological occasion, producing work we can’t currently picture, changing the way we view seemingly foundational notions like “books.” There’s plenty to be worried about these days, even within publishing, but the ways that writers will fill new spaces is something that should invigorate us all.

 

Laura Zats is a literary agent in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she specializes in children’s fiction, science fiction and fantasy, and romance. She is also the editorial manager for a Minneapolis-based partner publisher and frequent workshop teacher.

 

Erik Hane is a literary agent, freelance editor, and writer based in Minneapolis. Before moving to the Midwest, he served as an acquisitions editor at The Overlook Press and an assistant editor at Oxford University Press.

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