Were novels a side effect of being published in paper?
I love novels.
Let’s get that out of the way first, because what I am going to write next is not intended to degrade their value in any way.
It’s just that…I’ve read a couple of things lately that sparked me thinking about the development of the novel as a form, and whether it would have happened without paperbooks (p-books) being the primary method of distribution.
Let’s start before paper distribution.
Clearly, when people were orally telling stories, they didn’t do anything like the length of a current novel. Certainly, there were long oral poems, but we didn’t have this chapter-chapter-chapter structure, leading to 50,00 words or so!
When we first started writing down narratives, they were short. It was painstaking work to copy anything (and I presume that people at first traveled to where something was written, rather than vice versa…think about a carved stone or a cave wall).
When we got to the point of mechanical printing (which made it relatively easy), why wasn’t the standard length ten “pages”, or a million “pages”?
Why books that are roughly the same size?
My guess is that a lot of it had to do with logistics. Sure, there were short pieces available (pamphlets and such), but my thinking is that it was difficult to go to where you would get a book, very often, and getting a short book might not be worth the trip.
On the other hand, getting books to market (or to individuals) argued against very long books. If you had a million page book, how would you get it somewhere? For that matter, who could afford to buy it and store it?
Paperbacks, of course, standardized the format even more. In the USA, we can look at 1939 and forward as the real marketization of paperbacks, with originals coming in the 1950s or so.
With that format as cheap as it was (perhaps a tenth the consumer price of a hardback), traditional bookstores didn’t want to have them taking up the space in the store (as a former brick and mortar bookstore manager, I can tell you that you are always fighting the rent). That meant they had to find other places to sell them, like drugstores. One thing that made that possible? Spinner racks…stand alone racks that held several paperbacks. The books, though, had to fit in the little holders, so they had to be a particular size.
I haven’t gone back and researched all this, and I’m sure my readers will help me with the timeline and specifics if I am off above. I also don’t want to ignore the impact of serialized literature in magazines.
The key thing in this post, though, is this curious question: would we have novels if, say, digital existed before paper?
A novel feels right to me, but why should it? Is it just tradition that I want to read a story of that length? A tradition brought on through physical limitations of distribution, rather than esoteric influences of artistry?
If digital was first, would we ever download something that is 50,000 words all at once? Perhaps, instead, we would read the story in dribs and drabs, just going into read it as we wanted. Maybe you read a thousand words in a day…maybe you read ten thousand one day.
I think that would have led to much more open-ended situations, where we wouldn’t find these definitive endings (happy and otherwise) that we have come to expect from a traditional paperbook. If getting to “page” ten thousand was as easy as getting to “page” two hundred (although it would take longer), would we be upset if it just stopped?
I can think of a few equivalents to this.
One is comic books. I never liked “to be continued” stories, but stand alones didn’t really stand alone. You read comic book after comic book in one title. Suppose the first ten issues of Batman (after the hero had gotten a separate title) had all been published in one volume, and then you had to wait a year before the next one? I don’t think we would feel the same way about the character.
Television and radio are similar. Yes, we have TV movies and seasons, but we generally watch television (or listened to radio characters) on an open-ended, ongoing basis.
The other big thing I’d say is when I played role-playing games. We played a lot of them, but we were partial to Rolemaster. We played the same characters (unless they got killed) for years, I think, just visiting them every weekend. There was no end in sight, although there were clear “adventures” that had a start and finish.
So, I wonder: now that words have been freed of the need to be printed, trucked, centralized, and sold in person, will we still want novel length books? Will we begin to integrate open-ended stories into our reading lives, consuming them at our own pace, starting and stopping where we want? Will books change consistently, so that someone who read a book in 2016 gets a different story from someone reading the same book in 2017?
Was the novel a side effect of the distribution method?
I’ll be interested to hear what you have to say about this “thoughtabout”.
Update: thanks to reader Joe Bowers for improving this post.
This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.