With the advent of the Internet and its applications (blogs, tweets, Facebook) more people have more ability to speak out than ever before, resulting in the greatest diversity of expression in history. But I’m still not convinced that we’re being heard any more efficiently despite having that louder, more expansive voice.
The two most obvious examples are religion and politics (itself a sort of burned over district of religion), where the use of mass communication is to deliver a message, not to receive (or revise) one. The ability to testify (and be seen doing so) of one’s own standing relative to an essentially fixed (orthodox) position is designed to reinforce that core message as it is.
In other words, the conclusion has already been reached, and the goal is to express that conclusion as clearly and forcefully as possible. The fundamental intent is to implant that conclusion in the mind of the recipient and replace whatever is there now through a combination of repetition (political talking points) and expressive power (rhetoric).
A story (or a blog post) necessarily testifies of an already well-conceived viewpoint. Though the plot may take the form of an argument (try/fail cycles accompanied by a shifting understanding of the nature of the problem), it’s a functional strawman to the author’s narrative intent—the character will move as his strings are pulled.
So it’s to the author’s advantage to pull all available levers to make that rhetorical point as loudly and clearly as possible. This can (and arguably should) lead to increased shrillness, greater pyrotechnics, and more distinct polarization between hero and villain. To deliver the conceptual payload, one must first get the attention of the reader, then drive the key points home as forcefully (and starkly) as possible.
But in literature we like to speak of subtlety, variable interpretation, and individual meaning. We want to engage a discussion rather than push a specific conclusion. We want to convince (convert) rather than merely indoctrinate. We want to see a body of work (or at least a collection of stories) as a larger argument in an expansive dialogue that helps all of us discover greater truth (and perhaps even unity). The story is a point of discussion, not the whole argument.
This tension between the rhetorical (one-shot testifying) and the dialectic (extended argument intended to discover new conclusions) is at least as old as the ancient Greeks and has been a staple of academic consideration from the beginning.
The problem is that market forces are not conducive to extended conversations. If your last book sells you get a shot at the next one; otherwise, you’re out of luck and looking for a new publisher. The mechanics of markets tend to push more toward the rhetorical extreme—you have to make the biggest splash you can and deliver the entire conceptual payload in a single go.
In other words, the market requires that you testify rather than argue to maximize short term return on investment and allow publishers to bring out the next book.
Except that strong testimonies are built line upon line, precept on precept; here a little and there a little until we reach a fullness of understanding. We are converted bit by bit, point by point, until we reach a critical mass that carries us forward in a rush. The Spirit testifies to the truth of a conclusion won through reasoned argument far more often than the Spirit delivers that truth in a single massive bestowal.
Which is why alternative media (and ebook publishing in particular) is so critical to realizing the greater power of literature. Where an author has time to develop an argument over multiple works, the conversation itself has a chance to become deeper and more considered, and readers have more entry points to that conversation. When a story gains greater shelf-life and future availability to readers, it can afford to carry a smaller (but more fully realized) conceptual payload that informs future stories.
By bypassing the logistical and capital overhead of traditional publishing, distribution, and warehousing, ebooks have the potential to restore dialogue to literature and integrate both the power of rhetoric and the depth of dialectic in ways not seen since the famous five-foot bookshelf.
And if we’re lucky, we can tone down some of the shrillness of speaking out so that we can actually be heard as we reason together to discover greater truth.