Physical Books, Digital Lives

“On or around December 1910,” Virginia Woolf famously said, “human character changed.” If my memories of December 2010 serve, that’s when social media ...

“On or around December 1910,” Virginia Woolf famously said, “human character changed.” If my memories of December 2010 serve, that’s when social media changed. For six years previously, Facebook, then as now the most popular online platform, had functioned as a vehicle for social voyeurism. Teenagers had used it to monitor their crushes’ relationship statuses, view photos of parties to which they hadn’t been invited, or make public displays of their friendships via wall posts. Sometime around 2010, the site began to feel more like a vast, public commons for media discussion. People signed on to share, view, like, or comment on articles or videos about topics of general interest, like politics and Hollywood.

To a member of the first generation of adolescents to grow up online (AOL instant messenger caught on when I was eight), the change was unmissable. Suddenly, general enthusiasm for an immersive cacophony of chatter about “trending” topics seemed to renew itself each day. The idea that the internet would replace older forms of entertainment, like movies, TV shows, or books, began to feel false. Rather, the internet was giving those forms new life, as fodder for digital debate. This isn’t to say that more, or even many, people were now reading novels. But if they were reading novels before, they were very likely tweeting about them now.

Literary critics, as Simone Murray points out in The Digital Literary Sphere: Reading, Writing, and Selling Books in the Internet Era, have been slow to address the abundance of “book talk”—or, more precisely, “literature talk”—online. To rectify that situation, Murray coins her eponymous term, “the Digital Literary Sphere,” defined as the “hinterland zone of contemporary print-digital literary overlap.” This world’s digital denizens sell, curate, and discuss traditional works of print literature (if sometimes in e-book formats modeled after the codex). The book’s five lucid chapters on online authorship, bookselling, literary festivals, book reviewing, and reading lead Murray to a compelling, if unsurprising, conclusion: that the internet has rendered literary culture at once more democratic and more hierarchical, more immaterial and more material.

The criticism of web 2.0 critics, who take their cues from sociology, can feel bizarrely unliterary.

Murray is one of the first to publish such findings in book form. She joins a number of critics, however, whose shorter articles and conference papers now carry literary scholarship from the web 1.0 into the web 2.0 era. That shift works through style as much as through subject matter. While web 1.0 critics embraced the avant-garde and techno-futurist sensibilities of media theory, writing about the niche worlds of e-lit or hypertext poetry in relatively abstruse or densely theoretical prose, web 2.0 critics take their cues from sociology, writing about the more popular worlds of Goodreads or fan fiction with straightforward clarity. Such critics embrace a new sort of literalism—Murray’s book includes section headings like “Conclusion: Contributions and Challenges.” Their criticism, as a result, can feel bizarrely unliterary.

But what, after all, is the “literary” today? Murray opens her book with Stanley Fish’s claim that “literature” is only what a “community of readers” considers it to be. She then goes on to suggest that in the internet era, that can mean not only high and low works of fiction alike, such as novels by Karl Ove Knausgaard or George R. R. Martin, but also the digital responses that those works inspire, like fan fiction or commentary. Such short forms of writing have always existed and potentially qualified as popular literature. But their increasing abundance online, according to Murray, means that literary scholars must now embrace them as objects of analysis: they prove that literature remains important to the general public.


Feeling like the Internet

By Mark McGurl

Polemical, to be sure. But one wonders why, having gone this far, Murray won’t go all the way. If literature in the digital age refers to something more than the codex form, then why not also something more than online writing about the codex form? If, for example, a piece of Game of Thrones commentary counts, then why not this uproarious film review? Or, if a work of Harry Potter fan fiction qualifies, then why not this PowerPoint, born of an equally fecund obsession? Murray seems right to argue that literary studies can expand its cultural relevance by attending to the types of texts that demonstrate “continued public enthusiasm for matters literary.” But she seems wrong to suggest that those texts are mostly the responses to literary works that she calls “book talk.” A couple of hundred people may attend an online literary festival. But a couple of hundred thousand will daily alight, by way of social media, on the same popular think piece or TED talk transcript.

Web 2.0 critics based in English departments—like, say, Mark McGurl, Jim English, or Ed Finn—are right to begin to analyze online cultures in the orbit of traditional print literary forms. For scholars joining their ranks, Murray’s Digital Literary Sphere functions as an indispensable introductory textbook, capacious and comprehensive rather than narrow and argument-driven. But even as Murray’s book demarcates a new scholarly subfield, it also suggests that subfield’s potential limitations. Gone may be the days of literary studies’ web 1.0 concerns with the death of the novel or the rise of avant-garde e-literature. To fully enter the web 2.0 era, the discipline may have to learn to look, in a new way, beyond the printed book.


This article was commissioned by Leah Price. icon

Featured image: Scalde (2016). Atelier Irradié