Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The New Future of Nonfiction (What Fiction Doesn’t Know)

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The New Future of Nonfiction (What Fiction Doesn’t Know)

Ten years ago I wrote an article describing how the internet was gradually re-shaping and transforming nonfiction writing (not such a leap considering Marshall McLuhan’s work from the 60s and 70s). “The New Future of Nonfiction (What Fiction Doesn’t Know)” examined how everyday use of the personal computer, search engines, and a growing access to an ever-widening web of information through the internet revolution, were re-shaping the nature and methodologies of research, and that these were in turn having a profound and far-reaching effect on the form, content, style and function of nonfiction writing as a whole.

If search engines were like endless mazes, websites, on the other hand, seemed to act more like labyrinths, having various paths to follow that lead us through the centres of their subject matter, and then back out again. In tandem with the effects of search engines and access to the internet’s broadening scope, the ways in which we read, research, and write nonfiction also were being subtly changed and shaped through the design and metaphoric learning experience of websites.

A decade ago, nonfiction had a more traditional shape and content that was only just beginning to be challenged by a refreshing and potent mix of genres coupled with strong, literate storytelling. The content range of nonfiction was expanding in exciting new directions with books like Henry Petroski’s The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance; the digital culture musings of Neil Postman’s Technopoly; the curious Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit; and the brilliant London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd.

What ten years ago was a somewhat modest, forward thinking article is today manifestly obvious to anyone who cares to look. We’ve even progressed into a range of like-minded books describing the effects of this digital revolution, such as David Shield’s Reality Hunger, Farhad Manjoo’s True Enough or Jaron Lanier’s You are Not a Gadget, all three of which also harken back to Jonathan Lethem’s 2007 essay “The Ecstasy of Influence”.

More and more these digital tools of the computer-internet revolution, and the limitless information to which they give us access, are bringing us to think and imagine and create in very different ways. Through them, we are being immersed in the very art and structural engines of metaphor.

The expanding topology of the internet, in search engines, on websites, now is moving so close to the very functioning essence of creativity that we can envision a day when we will hardly be able to tell them apart. But we will see these effects at their best and most engaging in the new nonfiction writing responding to the expanding horizons, reach and experiences offered by and changed through the internet.

Hard at work transforming the more traditional content and limits of writing, nonfiction writers are a new leading edge pushing against the very boundaries of form and function.

Today, the shape of nonfiction turns out to have no shape at all. Nonfiction now is an art more premeditated than fiction.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Edward Carson

Edward Carson is twice winner of the E. J. Pratt Poetry Award in Canada and is the author of three books of poetry — Scenes, Taking Shape and Birds Flock Fish School.

Go to Edward Carson’s Author Page