The Future of the Novel

First published in The Guardian

‘When Steven Spielberg was making Minority Report – have you even seen Minority Report?’

I told Graham that, yes, I’d seen Minority Report, but hadn’t really liked it much. He looked carefully at me and pursed his lips slightly before continuing. ‘Okay, fair enough. Anyway, three years before filming started he invited a team of 16 experts to a secret location in Santa Monica where he asked them to brainstorm out the year 2054 for him. Experts at predicting the future.’

‘Any science fiction writers?’ I asked, and sipped some tea.

‘Almost certainly.’

‘Were you invited?’ I asked, thinking that if he had been, then I’d SO come to the right place with this one.

‘No,’ he responded, incredulous. ‘I wasn’t invited. Don’t you think I’d have told you by now if I’d been involved in the making of a Steven Spielberg film? I mean – I mean don’t you think that small piece of CVness would have crept out by now?’

‘Gray?’ I prompted gently, sensing an episode. ‘Gray? Don’t lose your hair.’ He seemed to calm. I waited a beat. ‘What’s left of it.’

Graham was testy. He’d been like that since I arrived because I’d been commissioned to write this piece in The Guardian about the future of novels, or novel-writing, or whatever, and not him, when I’m the author of slightly satirical black comedies and he’s a science-fiction writer and therefore an ‘explorer of the boundaries of an unwritten future’, or something – whatever it is he quotes me over tea in his kitchen when we should be writing our respective books. Our novels. Me, my slightly satirical black comedies; him, grand, boundary-exploring space operas that don’t sell nearly as well as the ‘Time Doorz’ series he writes for teenagers. Creatively dissatisfied as he is he doesn’t do too badly out of it, just between you and me. He’s full-time, writes from home every day; I’m still at the juggling phase.

He was also pissed off because having been given the gig I’d scooted over to his place asking him what to write. Like, did I have no shame?

‘What is it – the future of the novel, the future of novel-writing, or the future of your novels?’ he asked, haughtily.

I wasn’t quite sure – maybe a bit of everything.

‘And what conclusions have you drawn so far?’ he said. I could tell it was going to go that way – sort of teacherish. He’d opened the door holding a can of Mr Sheen and there was the scent of forest fruits in the house. Now he opened a box of pyramids and emptied them into a jar before boiling the kettle. He screwed the top on to the jar, too tight, I thought. I didn’t think Judith was going to like that.

Anyway, I told him that I didn’t think novels would change; that for all the talk of e-books (I sort of spat the word), and i-books (gobbed it out), at the end of the day people wanted a proper, physical, page-turny book to read (novels I was talking about; a CD-Rom of, say, an encyclopedia doesn’t count). I said that as far as I was concerned novels were, er, ‘future-proof’, and that was what I was going to tell The Guardian. Eight-hundred words saying you can’t mess with perfection.

‘Ah, little padwan,’ he sighed when I had finished. ‘You have much to learn.’

And then he outlined the future of the novel, and he almost changed my mind.

What Graham told me about the future of the novel was this. He said, you know your favourite notebook, the leather-bound one? Yes, I replied. What if you opened it and instead of pages it was a PDA? It feels nice on your fingers, it feels like a book. Only it’s not; it’s a piece of electronic equipment. There’s a screen, of course, about the size of a page of a book. It’s in your favourite colour, something kind and soothing to the eyes, a cream, or relaxing magnolia, and it’s backlit so you have no problems reading it in bed when your partner wants to sleep. Change the cover and it’s waterproof, too, so you can read it in the bath. You can change the size of the type, depending on your eyesight, and even the font if you so wish. That page-turny feeling you love so much? A tactile button in the top right-hand corner. Operating it turns the page and the book emits a pleasing rustle of paper – you see the page being turned. If you’re reading your book in bed it will silently and without fuss save its own place and switch itself off when you fall asleep. Or if you get tired of holding it lay it down and a projector option will project the words on to the wall. Or how about you can download a selection of voices to read the story to you when your peepers are pooped? What about hyper-links to check dictionary definitions or look up sources and gain background information? Finish a book and wonder what the critics said? Find out straight away. Or participate in discussions, discover what to read next.

And best of all, of course, your PDA won’t be just one book, it’ll be hundreds, perhaps even thousands, in print or not. Finish a book and can’t wait for the next in the series, download it straight away. And cheaper, too, without paper expenses. How many times have you soldiered through a book on principle? No longer. People will read more because they’ll be maker wiser, more informed choices; because the act of reading will be just as pleasurable, as relaxing as it’s always been, only more so. And that, little padwan. is the future of the novel.

Like I say, he almost changed my mind. Almost. He’d say, of course, that I have an unreasonable emotional attachment to the idea of a novel, the way some people still do about vinyl, blind to the benefits first of CD then of MP3. Perhaps he’d be right. Maybe one day books will be outdated antiquities that people only like in a slightly patronising, post-modern way (says he, who bought Captain Beaky And His Band from the Cancer Research shop the other day).

When he’d finished I nodded my head in what I hoped was a sage-like fashion before asking, ‘And what about the future of novel writing.’

Graham looked at his watch.  ‘That, Andrew, will have to wait. Judith’ll be home soon, and I haven’t even started supper.’

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