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NPR's Lynn Neary takes a look at how technology may be transforming how people write.
LYNN NEARY: Nicholas Carr is a writer who has thought of himself as a serious reader of books all his life.
NICHOLAS CARR: Over just the last couple of years, I've really noticed that if I sit down with a book, after a few paragraphs, I'll say, where's the links? Where's the email? Where's all the stuff going on? And it's kind of sad.
NEARY: In an Atlantic article, Carr argued that the Internet is training us to read in a distracted and disjointed way. But does that mean writers will have to change the way they write to capture the attention of a different kind of reader? Carr thinks yes, and he looks to the past to make his point.
CARR: When printed books first became popular, thanks to Gutenberg's press, you saw this great expansion of eloquence and experimentation, and all of which came out of the fact that here was a technology that encouraged people to read deeply and read with great concentration and focus. And I think as we move to the new technology of the screen, it has a very different effect, almost the opposite effect. And you'll see a retreat from the kind of sophistication and eloquence that characterized the printed page.
NEARY: As digital platforms proliferate, writers are trying to figure out how to use them. Novelist Rick Moody recently wrote a story on the social networking site Twitter. Moody says he got intrigued by the idea of writing in Twitter's 140-character shorthand.
RICK MOODY: And I began to see that trying to work within this tiny little frame, 140 characters, was very like trying to write haiku. It's very poetical in its compaction, and it kind of got under my skin. And I kept thinking, wouldn't it be exciting to try to work with this?
NEARY: Moody's flirtation with Twitter was not entirely successful, mainly because the delivery of the story went awry, and some industry insiders were bombarded with repetitive tweets. Still, Moody doesn't regret the experiment. But he does have doubts about Twitter's literary potential.
MOODY: It forced me to try to imply more narrative than I could actually include in the piece, because I was so stuck in this little box. You know, it's hard to have a dialogue between characters in the confines of the Twitter box, and so on. That was all really fun. Whether I think Twitter is ultimately going to be a great vehicle for fiction, I'd say no.
NEARY: A lot of writers are trying their hand at Twitter books, but Time magazine book reviewer Lev Grossman thinks it's a passing fad. What might have some staying power, says Grossman, is the cell phone novel. Written on cell phones and meant to be read on them, many of these books are best-sellers in Japan. The authors are usually young women, and romance is the main theme.
LEV GROSSMAN: They tend to be, narratively, very propulsive, not very interested in style and beautiful language. There tends to be, well, a lot of drama and melodrama, sex and violence. They grab your attention, and they don't really let it go.
NEARY: Apart from Twitter books and cell phone novels, Grossman, who is also a novelist, says the real challenge for writers is electronic-book readers like the Kindle. They're increasingly popular, and he says the way people read books on these electronic devices is really different.
GROSSMAN: They scroll and scroll and scroll. You don't have this business of handling pages and turning them and sort of savoring them. And I think that lends itself to a certain kind of reading and a certain kind of writing, which is a very forward moving, very fast narrative writing. And likewise, you don't tend to linger on the language. When you're seeing a word on a screen or a sentence on the screen, you tend to go through it, you extract the data, and you move on.
NEARY: Grossman thinks that tendency not to linger on the language also affects the way people react to a book when they're deciding whether to buy it.
GROSSMAN: You'll buy it based on an excerpt, and it will be incumbent on novelists to hook readers right away. You won't be allowed to do a kind of tone poem sort of overture. You're going to want to have blood on the wall by the end of the second paragraph. And I think that's something that writers will have to adapt to. And the challenge will be using, you know, this powerfully narrative form, this very pulpy kind of mode, to say important things.
NEARY: Grossman, Moody and Carr all believe that traditional books will still be around for a long time, and that some of the changes that may occur in writing will be more evolutionary than revolutionary. But it's hard to know, says Carr, whether traditional books and the people who read and write them will have much influence on the culture in the future.
CARR: The real question is, is that segment of the population going to just dwindle and become kind of on the periphery of the culture rather than the center of culture, which is really where printed works have stood for a few centuries now?
NEARY: Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
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