Lev Grossman has seen the future of fiction in the digital age and has come back to tell us about it:
Like fan fiction, it will be ravenously referential and intertextual in ways that will strain copyright law to the breaking point. Novels will get longer--electronic books aren't bound by physical constraints--and they'll be patchable and updatable, like software. We'll see more novels doled out episodically, on the model of TV series or, for that matter, the serial novels of the 19th century. We can expect a literary culture of pleasure and immediate gratification. Reading on a screen speeds you up: you don't linger on the language; you just click through. We'll see less modernist-style difficulty and more romance-novel-style sentiment and high-speed-narrative throughput. Novels will compete to hook you in the first paragraph and then hang on for dear life.
None of this is good or bad; it just is. The books of the future may not meet all the conventional criteria for literary value that we have today, or any of them. But if that sounds alarming or tragic, go back and sample the righteous zeal with which people despised novels when they first arose. They thought novels were vulgar and immoral. And in a way they were, and that was what was great about them: they shocked and seduced people into new ways of thinking. These books will too. Somewhere out there is the self-publishing world's answer to Defoe, and he's probably selling books out of his trunk. But he won't be for long.
There's much about Grossman's analysis that is self-contradictory: If reading quickly will be encouraged by electronic reading, why would novels get longer? If online "readers" are so averse to language, why won't they just eventually gravitate entirely to purely visual communication or entertainment, as has happened already in the transferal of interest from books to film and television? What's a more "high-speeed" narrative than one without words at all? And unless Grossman sees a new form emerging from the electronic maelstrom--not prose fiction but something else--then no Daniel Defoe will appear, since Defore helped create prose fiction itself, did much more than just call attention to himself. What Grossman describes is simply a continuation of "fiction" as we know it, only stupider. It isn't a new genre of literature, only the same one published in different ways.
Lev Grossman's abilities as seer aside, however, something like the transformed publishing environment he evokes is likely to obtain in the not-too-distant future. "Old-school" publishing will continue to fade from relevance, perhaps disappear altogether, to be replaced by less heirarchy-driven modes of publication. Most of the current gatekeepers will find their gates disassembled. The current of choices already confronting the reader of fiction will become a torrent.This new dispensation is likely to strike many of us as chaotic--Grossman is being disingenuous when he writes that "None of this is good or bad," since he surely knows most of his readers judge it to be bad indeed--especially those of us who want some of those "conventional criteria for literary value" to survive.
What Grossman apparently didn't take away from his glimpse into the future (perhaps because he fears his own place as a print-based critic will simply be washed away) is any sense of the role literary criticism might play in counteracting the New Chaos. I think it will have signficant influence on the development of democratized "literary culture," arguably even more influence than criticism now has on print-centered literary culture, since an infrastucture of critblogs already exists and already focuses its attention more widely on marginalized books and presses than print book reviews ever did. Cybercriticism will probably go a long way toward meliorating the chaos lurking beneath Lev Grossman's account, even if such criticism doesn't exactly duplicate the practices of newspaper book reviews, magazines, and the few remaining print journals. There will necessarily be a less uniform focus on the same few new titles, fewer exercises in biographical speculation masquerading as criticism, fewer critical essays that are more about the critic than the work ostensibly at issue. But otherwise there's no reason why web criticism can't carry out the sorting process in which criticism has always been engaged. The worthwhile will be separated from the worthless, the most challenging work will be identified while the jejune and the formula-riven will be duly ignored. Maybe there will be more books to keep track of, but most of them will be dispensable, anyway, and many more blogs and websites will be around to do the sorting than ever was the case with print criticism.
If I'm being overoptimistic and literary criticism fails to adapt itself effectively to these changed circumstances, the disarray implied in Grossman's speculations won't really register much, since fiction itself will no longer matter to anyone.