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Literature in the electric age
chapterposted on 12.04.2021, 15:34 by Lise Jaillant
In 1894, Scribner’s Magazine published an essay on “The End of Books,” by Octave Uzanne, a French writer and bibliophile. Uzanne imagined a world where print has been replaced by audio. Writers have morphed into “tellers,” and readers have become hearers who listen to recordings using portable devices that look like Walkmans. “Hearers will not regret the time when they were readers,” Uzanne wrote. “With eyes unwearied, with countenances refreshed, their air of careless freedom will witness to the benefits of the contemplative life.” Many American readers found Uzanne’s vision exciting. The obsolescence of print would completely change the rules of the literary world. Women would no longer admire charming writers, turning instead to famous tellers. “All shuddering with emotion, they will sigh, ‘Ah, how this Teller’s voice thrills you, charms you, moves you! What adorable low tones, what heart-rending accents of love! . . . There is no ravisher of the ear like him!’”
New technologies do not necessary replace older ones, as media scholars have shown. At the roots of the “myth of the disappearing medium” is a good story: “it is a striking tale about the transformative power of technology, easy to remember and to spread,” as Andrea Ballatore and Simone Natale point out. Uzanne was of course proven wrong, and print did not disappear at the turn of the twentieth century. Yet, he rightly anticipated a world where print was no longer the dominant medium and had to compete against cheap, attention-grabbing entertainment. The rise of radio, cinema, and later television transformed literature, publishing and the reading experience – a transformation at the heart of this chapter. The first section focuses on the rise of a celebrity culture associated with book publishing. In the 1920s and 1930s, a younger generation of publishers started using techniques inspired by the movie industry to market writers as literary stars. The second section shows that these innovative marketing techniques targeted a changing readership, including “middlebrow” readers. The final part turns to the anxieties of cultural degeneracy that new formats and media (paperbacks, television) generated in the 1940s and 1950s. This chapter mentions technological advances, such as the new machines and processes used in the mass production of books. However, its main focus is on the cultural impact of technological change, with the appearance of new cultural forms that would have been unthinkable in earlier periods.
- Social Sciences and Humanities
- Communication and Media