Literature is a lively and complex negotiation of text, author, reader and society. Literature as we know it today – in its various genres: the fictional novel, poetry, theatre plays, literary journalism, and life writing - developed in the 18thand 19thcenturies, in the context of Romanticism and the upcoming bourgeois society. The author was considered to be a unique, talented person. The readers were merely middle-class citizens, who had leisure time for enjoying the arts (reading books, go to exhibitions, museums and so on).
Today literature seems to be devaluated by hard science, technology, and by visual and musical culture, moving images, televised narratives, and luring private stories on the internet. Literature is definitely embedded in a dynamic digital and global media environment, and we have to rethink the potential meaning of the text, and related to that, the position of author and reader.
The novel is part of a cultural system that is evolving from bourgeois to popular culture, a process that started already at the beginning of the 20thcentury but that is rapidly proceeding today, due to new infrastructures of technologies, mediatisation and globalisation. A novel can become a bestseller, a film, or an item on a fan-fiction blog. An author can become a character outside of the text (see: Michel Houellebecq singing a chanson.)
In the context of massive cultural changes, we have to redefine what literary reading entails, introducing new sets of players, locations, intertaxtual connections, and use values.
Not only the reading has changed, but also the position of the author. Authors, defending a reputation, are more visible than before. While obeying the market, they have to present themselves consciously on stages, on screens, in newspaper interviews, and so on. In consequence, they are aware of the marketing effects of their performances, and most of them will even create a persona or posture in order to maximize this performance to its best. Authors such as Karl Ove Knåusgard or Zadie Smith are very much aware of their position as an artist and the effect this has on the afterlives of their literary texts.
Literature as the fictional novel invites the reader to concentrate, focus on details and narrative composition, and affectively engage with the characters. Some scholars argue that critical reading in the digital age has become surface reading (with attention to the formal text and not to what is hidden in the text), or distant reading (focussing on keywords in order to examine huge texts corpora). Other scholars claim that the current practice of the novel demonstrates that literary texts are more than ever related to a certain worldly context and that we still need a conscious, meticulous close readingin order to explore the intellectual ideas relating the text to society. Reading then is dialoguing with the author of the text.
Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus (2009), Surface Reading, An Introduction, in: Representations,vol. 108, no. 1 (Fall 2009), p. 1-21.
Franco Moretti (2013), Distant Reading, London: Verso books.
James Wood (2009), How Fiction works, London: Vintage books.