Open question: the interplay of narrative and the physical text

In any story, there is a tension between its content, the narrative flow on one hand, and the actual object by which it is conveyed on the other. The ‘immaterial’ informational content has a medium of material conveyance (to such an extent that calling information immaterial is moot to my eyes). A tale may appear to be coming to its resolution, but the thickness you hold in your right hand, the individual pages combined together to make up ‘the-rest-of-the-book’, belies this sense of an ending. It is a curious feedback, manifested in physical form, between the world of fiction, and the real world of the reader.

Which has the greater claim on us? Do we extend the suspension of disbelief into reality? Do we temporarily dissociate ourselves? My question is whether anybody else has written of this or engaged with this question at greater length? Of course, the McLuhans spring to mind in terms of a medium/message tension, but even in the Laws of Media I couldn’t find anything on this. Likewise, I assumed that in literary theory and criticism, the ‘reader response‘ theorists might have something on this, and ought to have discussed it. All I could really find of use was from Wolfgang Iser‘s The Act of Reading, when he discusses that literary texts do not ‘serve merely to denote empirically existing objects.’:

Even though they may select objects from the empirical world – as we have seen in our discussion of the repertoire – they depragmatize them, for these objects are not to be denoted, but are to be transformed. […] The literary text, however, takes its selected objects out of their pragmatic context and so shatters their original frame of reference; the result is to reveal aspects (e.g., of social norms) which had remained hidden as long as the frame of reference remained intact. (p.109)

This is an approach to my question, but it remains in the realm of the literary text, or the text as literary, rather than the text as literary and as material. Theory and thought may have been considering itself as immaterial for rather too long, if there is no repertoire of ideas through which we might confront this. I am sure, however, that this question has been addressed by somebody out there, given the new status of the narrative in the time of Kindle and Kobo e-readers, as well as tablets on the whole. There the status of the narrative vector is to be found in the “X of Y pages”, or the sliding bar indicators of one’s reading progress. Indeed the fact that to display reading progress in this matter is simply a choice, a merely technological decision, would have interesting implications if an author decided to do away with this “40 of 200 pages read” option for their works. In that manner the reader would be engaging with the narrative in a rather different manner than those reading it as a physical, paper book. There are also analogies to be made with the previous model (such as with Dickens) whereby a novel was serialized. Anyway, all comments and suggestions of people to be read are most welcome! Just put them in the comments below.


2 thoughts on “Open question: the interplay of narrative and the physical text

  1. This is such an interesting question, particularly, it seems to me, in the Kindle age. I can’t think of any theory I’ve read that talks about it specifically, but you’ve identified a gap for sure and it’s really interesting to hear your thoughts on it. Incidentally, since you mentioned Dickens, I’m reading Our Mutual Friend at the moment and when you’re holding an 800 page book in your hands, you can’t help but think of the difference between your reading experience and that of his contemporaries, who would have had a cliffhanger at the end of each part and a month’s wait before the next part came out!

    • Precisely! The only experience of really not knowing what is about to happen next comes for me from an author’s collected short stories or an anthology of a few authors, when I can manage to resist reading the contents pages to monitor how far I have come. I applaud your reading of Dickens in the summer. He is strictly Winter reading for me now. Associate reading him with being in my grandmother’s house in Connemara over the holidays, and working through her father-in-law’s collected Chaz…ah, grand…

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