Friday, November 05, 2004

Literature in the Internet Age, Part 1

Rational Technology column for November 7, 2004

In this age of woefully-short attention spans and broadband-driven razzle-dazzle multimedia, it's a wonder that literature is still alive. Far from supplanting the written word, however, it looks like Internet and other forms of mobile communication have in fact served to enhance it. One only needs to take a quick stroll to the bookstore or magazine stand to see the burgeoning choices available to the casual reader.

Does literature still matter? I think it does. People will continue to read and write. Literature is the hallmark of the common identity of a group of people, whether defined by nation, interest, or age. But literature is also continually evolving, molded to suit the needs and tastes of writers and readers; and apparently, too, by the medium of delivery.

How do I mean this? Well, examine your reading habits. How much of what you read is printed on paper, and how much of it isn't? I'd hazard a fair guess that majority of what you read is actually from a computer monitor (email and web), cellphone (text messages), television (the tickertape headlines beneath newscasts), and billboards.

These methods of delivery give rise to subtle shifts in reading patterns and thought processes. We now tend towards short articles and short words, paring away as much incidental content and retaining only the essential meaning. If possible, we want to capture everything in a glance.

Take a look at the latest bestsellers. These are characterized by short, episodic chapters, some less than a page long; the longest chapters clock in at around five pages.

A year ago, local publisher Anvil came out with a short story collection called "Fast Food Fiction." The contributors all aimed to write stories at a maximum of 500 words. Many exceeded that mark, but almost all stories averaged only a page and a half.

You might think it extreme, but fast food fiction hardly pushes the envelope. A more extreme form is called "flash fiction", which aims to tell a story in 50 words or less. Under this restriction, it's almost impossible to write a plot, let alone develop a character, but it does have a beauty all its own, not unlike a haiku. See for more details.

Possibly the most extreme form of short literature is cellphone literature. Last year, the Institute of Creative Writing sponsored Textanaga, revolving around tanaga, a form of short Tagalog poetry consisting of four rhyming lines of seven syllables each.

And if you think cellphone literature is limited to poetry, well, you have another think coming. Cellphone novels first appeared in Japan in March this year; the most successful one has been turned into an actual book and has been optioned as a film. Last July, Chinese author Qian Fuchang of the Guangdong Literature Academy published a novel divided into 70-word chapters.


  1. I must be bucking the trend; the last few books I've read can double as doorstops. If you have time, read Stephenson's Baroque Cycle trilogy.

  2. Well, there are bound to be exceptions. Despite the length of the book, I think Stephenson is still very much typical of Internet-age writing. Short, stacatto sentences, gist of the page caught in a single glance, and the urgency suggested by the present tense.