The Modern Voice: Keeping Literature Alive

The written word is changing. As technology improves and computers shrink ever smaller each year, people will continue to find quicker and easier ways to access various types of reading materials. Some have predicted that this threatens future literature, as readers may demand stories with lighter themes so they can feel enlightened on the bus ride home—but not too enlightened. This has become a popular concern for literature enthusiasts, but I don’t believe it. The 316,480 published books in 2010 shows that people still want to read. While I believe we are entering an age of shorter attention spans and portable libraries, I see no reason to believe good writers will go out of style. Instead, they merely face a few challenges. If writers follow a few stylistic rules and use technology to their advantage, they can speak to the modern crowd with the power of our most revered authors—and maybe earn a living in the process.

Years ago, authors could get away with stringing fifty or more words together in a single sentence. They could craft a narration in which Sir Honesty laments his plight and considers the ethical implications of his family’s tragic circumstances in which Lady Chastity, upon her death by a broken heart, bequeaths her inherited fortune to Mr. Sniveling, Lady Chastity’s secret lover from the lower class. This will not work. Aside from old school literature fans, many readers do not want this kind of convoluted writing. To reach a modern audience, writers should write concisely. While people will still dive headfirst into a 700-page novel, they will demand shorter sentences and briefly stated ideas.

Authors of this new generation must be concise, write with true force, and speak louder than the 300,000 other authors trying to do the same. Consider this as a guideline: it should take little time and effort for the reader to follow the author’s train of thought. You can find this idea swarming websites like Tumblr and Twitter. Aphorisms—short, memorable phrases—have exploded in popularity. Many have quoted John Green’s book The Fault in Our Stars, in which Augustus Waters, a sick and frustrated teenage writer, says “my thoughts are stars I cannot fathom into constellations.” To quote a classic aphorism, Akira Kurosawa once said, “In a mad world, only the mad are sane.” Just a few words can thrust our imaginations into the great unknown. Use those few words wisely.

The Elements of Style -- A Book for WritersAll it takes is the mastery of essential stylistic rules. Writers should own and read (thoroughly) The Elements of Style, and always heed the words of William Strunk Jr.: “Use definite, specific, concrete language.” They should know how to say in one page the thoughts of two; they should know how to condense two paragraphs, two sentences, or two words, into one. Students learn of this in school already, but it takes effort to master the skill; even then, some are too impressed with their vocabulary to ever write briefly. But they must write briefly. Remember, while we have greats like Les Misérables and War and Peace, we also have The Old Man and the Sea and The Catcher in the Rye. If they can say it right, they can say it briefly, and their voices will travel for generations.

If they follow the rules set in William Strunk Jr.’s short book, writers will have little problem maintaining their clarity and word count. To establish an impressionable voice, however, writers should also study the works of various short story and essay writers. I would recommend starting with Ernest Hemingway’s work and habits. Hemingway routinely cut large portions out of his stories, believing that saying less tells the reader more. For example, he cut about 100,000 words from his book To Have and Have Not. This habit improved much of Hemingway’s work. In fact, his editor Maxwell Perkins had trouble revising the manuscripts, because Hemingway himself took great pains to keep his stories brief and powerful. He understood that the English language has very clear rules, and he wrote looking for the best way—objectively—to phrase every single sentence. “It wasn’t by accident that The Gettysburg Address was so short,” he said in a letter to Mr. Perkins. “The laws of prose writing are as immutable as those of flight, of mathematics, of physics.”

Hemingway prided himself on his book The Old Man and the Sea. He claimed to have avoided using any symbolism or metaphor when writing the story. “What goes beyond,” he said, “is what you see beyond when you know.” He did not force any responses with reflective narration; instead, he gave his readers the marlin, the sharks, and the old man’s struggle, and then allowed his readers to react on their own. In less than 100 pages, The Old Man and the Sea won Hemingway the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953 and helped earn his Nobel Prize the following year. Nearly anyone who has gone to school knows Hemingway has permeated all of American literature; his work shows up in many English courses and has inspired countless writers. Obviously, short does not imply shallow. If a writer can grasp this concept and master the style, he or she may one day influence a culture with a solitary page.

However, if an author must write a 1,000-page literary epic for digital readers, then he or she should divide that work into smaller, easily-digestible chapters, or release a series of novellas. No more Don Quixote or Jack Kerouac scrolls for the next generation. Modern writers will speak to 15-minute audiences, competing for their time and attention, no matter the intended narrative. All new work may be abridged editions. Later, when they have written enough to warrant a physical publication, authors may decide to release an unabridged compilation for those readers who still like disappearing into a story for several hours.

Sedaris Reading CropAside from style, the revising process may also change slightly. David Sedaris, satirist and author of Me Talk Pretty One Day and Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, has demoed his works-in-progress with live audiences. At live readings, he reads new essays to his audiences and makes notes where his jokes fail or when his endings do not trigger the expected response. After several tests and revisions, David settles on a definitive version and submits it for publication. Any author can do this with the internet. Writers can still revise alone, should they choose, but now they have more options. Websites like FictionPress allow readers to post their work online (for free) to receive feedback. Criticism is the greatest boon to an author, and plenty of uninhibited critics roam the internet. Why not take advantage of this free feedback?

Authors looking for an income face a new publishing scenario. An author would typically finish a work entirely alone before submitting it to publishers. The author would then wait for an acceptance letter as he or she tacked rejection slips to the wall, displaying these failures like battle scars. Today, online networking can spread a piece of writing as efficiently as a virus. Writers can post their work on WordPress, advertise on Tumblr, and notify their readers of new posts through Twitter. Devoted fans can even fund the writer’s young career through PayPal. With enough fans, the writer may begin receiving requests from interested companies to write an article, write a book, or appear on an interview.

Image links to John Green's website.

Image links to John Green’s website.

Author John Green has taken full advantage of this digital-age business model. Early in his writing career, John and his brother Hank communicated to each other across the country by posting videos to each other on YouTube. Viewers loved it. To build popularity, John advertised his books on his YouTube videos, making readers out of his viewers. In the back of his books John advertised his YouTube page, making viewers out of his readers. John’s popularity grew so quickly that he and Hank decided to expand their online presence into something completely different. John (and, to a lesser extent, his brother) has now established himself as an online cultural phenomenon. Calling his fans “Nerdfighters,” John Green has formed an international community of devoted readers who celebrate science, unconventional characters, and a hearty dose of memes. The website nerdfighters.ning.com serves as a hub for all things Nerdfighter, whether it’s browsing fan blogs, linking to the store at dftba.com, or joining the community yourself.

Some may assume that this interactive online business would weaken an author’s focus or talent. However, in the midst of his success, John has written some very insightful books. The Fault in Our Stars, for example, explores how teenagers deal with cancer. Having worked with sick children before, John knew how to write this story with sharp, sometimes brutal honesty. However, John keeps the characters light and humorous, reminding us that we can still smile in the worst of times. This humor keeps us engaged in the story, though it never detracts from the characters’ horrible circumstances. John Green understands that, although we should take literature seriously, we should never take it too seriously. If we do, we may lose the joy literature can bring, and consequently smother it all with stuffiness. John obviously does not let his online presence weaken his craft. Indeed, no serious writer should make any excuse for lacking excellence.

Samsung Flex Screen GreenI have no doubt that John will take advantage of new technology, continuing to release his books on whatever new Kindle Amazon develops next. With Samsung’s new flexible touchscreens, fans may soon hold their entire libraries in their wallets, allowing them to read a new John Green book on a whim. Google has provided the entire town of Mountain View, California with free wi-fi. If all our major cities follow Google’s example, John Green and his fans could reach each other anywhere, and at any time. The future of the American author is wholly interactive.

As long as people can reason, literature will not fade into obscurity. The next generation may use far less paper than ours, but they can still enjoy the greats like Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas. Writers should concern themselves not with how we print the written word, but with the voices behind those words. Technology will change, and cultures will change, but the rules of language will only ever nudge an inch at a time. As our cultural paradigm shifts, writers too will shift their perspectives—but only to speak their minds to a different audience. Writers can still stand on the shoulders of Homer and Cormac McCarthy, or else sit beside them in greatness. They just have to follow the rules, follow the times, and say something timeless.