Books and reading as we know it are changing and I think most contemporary readers can feel it. With the advent of eBooks, podcasts, the omnipresence of the Internet, the decline of bookstores, and, hell, even books themselves, there is a seismic shift occurring in what we’ve known as reading and literature. I believe as information and entertainment has become more and more immediate (hulu, reddit, google, facebook, netflix) readers have been less inclined to work through monster pieces of literature like War and Peace, Moby Dick, or Gravity’s Rainbow. And I’m among them; it took me almost a whole semester to get through Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree even though I obsessed and loved it. Alongside the decline of readership and reader’s attention span, or what Douglas Glover calls the rise of the “Post-Literate Age”, there has been a surge of a new form of media: the episodic television show. These shows—like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Wire, The Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy, and even way back to The Sopranos—are television programs unlike all which have come before. The shows largely act as long, serialized movies that can be watched stripped of each other but work better when watched chronologically. And these are great programs, acclaimed by both critics and viewers, and have risen in popularity as streaming content from the Internet has become almost effortless.
So what do these shows mean for reading and books? First of all, people will always love reading and that will likely never go away, while the form and classic structure of the books and novels might change. It’s my belief that has readers’ attention spans shorten and the demand for intense, segmented narratives rises in popular, novels will become more episodic in scope. Or should I say, will once again be episodic, as fragmented novels are no strangers in American literature. Sherwood Anderson’s classic Winesburg, Ohio is one of the most lauded novels of the early twentieth century and is essentially a collection of self-contained, linked stories about a character named George Willard as he grows up, gets a job, falls in love a few times, then eventually leaves the fictional Winesberg. Subsequently, the stories collected in the book read like a segmented narrative of George Willard’s upbringing rather than a linear, rising action based narrative. And Winesberg, Ohio is not alone in the cannon, as William Faulkner’s Light In August, John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, and, again, Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree are all composed of tense, short narratives that build on each other for a final effect.
With Junot Díaz receiving the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship and a Nation Book Award nod for his most recent story collection This Is How You Lose Her, it could be said that the reemergence of the episodic novel is already upon us. When I purchased Díaz’s new book, I honestly had no idea it was even a short story collection, as it wasn’t indicated on the cover. Before buying the book, I had only briefly glanced over some reviews and figured I’d give the book a try, considering the acclaim. Maybe I read too passively, but it wasn’t until I reached the midpoint of the book that I realized the book was indeed a short story collection and not a novel. I had no idea. Each story flowed so well and chronologically into the next that I thought the novel was just experimental and nonlinear, as almost all the stories are based on the same family and the upbringing of their two sons. Now, after having read the whole thing, I am still not convinced that Díaz didn’t intend it to be a novel. The pieces are obviously linked and each story adds an aspect to the ongoing narrative and the eventual ending that reading the stories apart wouldn’t make much sense and might seem half full. It be like trying to jump into Sons of Anarchy half way through season two, it just wouldn’t work as the viewer might be able to infer what’s incurring in a scene, but has no idea why any of the action is occurring. With all that said, I think This Is How You Lose Her is an amazing book, but am still bent on the idea that it’s more of a novel than story collection.
Some writers might balk at the idea of conforming their art for their readership, but I think the episodic novel would be a cool form to come into popularity, as the writer must appeal to the reader in both the short and long forms. Instead of idealizing the past, maybe we as readers should think that maybe we’re just now doing this whole novel thing correctly and that in fact Moby Dick and Pride and Prejudice are too long and cumbersome. I am in full favor of writers making the fewest amount of words go the furthest and trying to make each scene powerful and concise, as the episodic novel often demands.