After pretending to know what will happen in the next 20 years or so of literature, let us look at the long term impact of the Internet on literature. No, as far as I am concerned, 20 years is not that long. When I say long term, I mean a really long time.
First off, the United States is in danger of actually having a literature. Yes, yes, I know, "There are many great American novelists." Sure you may think that, but I have something to tell you:
After working through a great many of the so-called Great Works by American authors and I have determined that I never want to read another one again. American authors are, by and large, retards. They have as much style as a wallpaper paste, their prose is awful, their poetry is inane, their characters are pulled out of the bottom of the Stock Character bin at Odd Lots, and they don't so much enjoy the English language as much as they fight against it in order to bring across some aimless "message" that they think is embedded in yet another pointless story.
Let me tell you something about American short stories that will ruin all of them for you. I want you to read almost any modern American short story, then think this thought, "What was the point of the ending?" I want you to really think about it. It's that bit right about three-fourths of the way through when the author made a jarring transition to some barely related portion of the story that doesn't really join with the rest of the damned thing. Did it advance the plot? Did it really affect the characters? Couldn't much of the ending be put earlier in the story in order to actually use a literary technique known as "foreshadowing"? No. Instead, the ending was tacked on because one more shitty American writer wrote a story and realized, "Fuck! I forgot to put in all the symbolism!"
Now let's take a look at American novels and the constant pursuit of the Great American Novel. It's like the Holy Grail of American literature. Every American above the age of 23 wants to write it, but none of them are going to. Do you know why? Because there are barely any Good American Novels. In the admittedly short, 200+ year history of this country, the United States has turned out very few competent novelists. Mark Twain comes first to mind, Isaac Asimov comes second that there is not much after that. While I will grant that To Kill a Mockingbird is among the most brilliant novels I've ever read, I don't consider Harper Lee a novelist simply because she wrote one novel. Novelists write novels, not novel. Just because a band turned out one great song, it does not make them a great band. I expect more from my writers and my bands, fine thanks. Perhaps I will regret that statement later in life, but considering I cannot even turn out one novel anybody wants to read, I am pretty safe. However, any American who wants to write a novel should have the shit beat out of them daily until they finally decide, "Maybe I'll stick with selling used cars."
Compare this dearth of talent with British literature, which has luminaries such as J.R.R Tolkien, Charles Dickens and, in my own humble opinion, Douglas Adams. J.K. Rowling has had a heck of a lot more effect on readers than Herman Melville. You may not agree with that statement, but think to yourself, "Who is being read?" Then think to yourself, "Shakespeare and Dickens were once considered to be crap." The only writers the United States has turned out that even compare with the influence of the aforementioned Brits are Tom Watterson, Gary Larson, Berkeley Breathed, and Theodore Geisel -- AKA Dr. Suess. That's right, cartoonists. They are one whole hell of a lot more important than all of those American novelists we claim to appreciate, but never read.
Now let me ruin all those so-called Great Novels for you. Let us take, for instance, The Grapes of Wrath. Great book, isn't it? Now I want you to read it again with this thought in mind, "Poor people are poor because they're stupid." Now do the same thing with As I Lay Dying. And The Last Picture Show. And any other American novel that I can think of.
As Kurt Vonnegut noted in Slaughterhouse Five, there are no good examples of poor people in American literature. They are all either dumb as a brick or so morally corrupt that their actions would make even a Satan worshipper say, "Now that's just wrong." The simple fact of the matter is, books are about fantasy and the books that are generally considered great by American standards are those about stupid poor people. Who decides that these books are great? Rich (pseudo-) intellectuals. They want to feel like they are the Elect and they want their literature to prove it to them. Thus, they want poor people in books to be too stupid to be rich.
Quite honestly, there is not a single American writer currently working who is nearly as important as Maddox. That's right, the man who wrote, "What has a whale ever done for you?", "Christopher Reeve is an asshole", and "Love your children? Prove it by beating them." The man has more clout than any American writing today. Don't believe me? He celebrated his 100,000,000th visitor not too long ago. Do you know any other modern, American writer who has that kind of readership? He is single-handedly working to bankrupt Orbitz.com and he may very well probably succeed. The man is, whether you like it or not, damned important in the history of American letters. Maybe not as a great writer, but he is certainly a great humorist. And American literature must, eventually, deal with him on those terms.
Anyway, enough of my bitching about the fact that American writing is shitty. Well, except for Philip K. Dick. Everyone who reads him says that he has great concepts, but his prose is like vomit on the page. That's nice. That only makes him an author, not a writer. Writers actually care about writing.
Okay, now I'm done with American writing. On to the next point:
Let us examine the changes in literature further, as there are more changes on the way than just books. After all, books will be, in the long run, somewhat irrelevant.
The unfortunate fact of the matter is that authors still need a way to make money if they want to survive as writers. Unfortunately, the Internet is rendering most copyright laws de facto irrelevant. With free access to content and the ease of sharing files, copyrights are almost impossible to enforce. Once again, look at the music industry to see proof. However, that does not mean that writers cannot make some dough.
Were I a betting man, I would wager that the Internet and Internet literature will produce a return to the patronage system. For those who are not familiar, the patronage system consisted of various nobles paying people to create art. Shakespeare and Mozart, for instance, lived under the patronage system. They were paid by certain nobleman to do their thing and, often, noblemen would commission works from them. They got their check and almost no credit and they went on and did their business. This system will probably return in the not entirely distant future.
Howsomever, the patronage system will not exist in the realm of nobles. No, no. It will be run by the thing that I like to think of as the new nobility: corporations.
As you may or may not be aware, I wrote an essay some time ago describing my particular view of progress. Progress, as I described it, was a reversal of things while nothing actually changes. The upshots of this, as I described it, were the grease monkey as computer dork and Asian mail-order husbands. Thus, we come to the new nobility.
When the merchant classes began in the cities, they were still under the thumbs of noblemen. However, the merchant classes began making more money than noblemen and, eventually, made the nobleman obsolete. In fact, the merchants became more powerful than noblemen. The end result, currently, of this rise of the merchant classes is the modern corporation. However, instead of trashing the system, they merely altered it slightly.
Corporations are politically powerful. They control vast numbers of people and land. They are blamed for everything, even the stuff they don't do. Thus, to my thinking, nothing has really changed, but the world has reversed on the noble/merchant axis. This, once again, is progress and it will affect the growth of Internet literature, because, of course, corporations are the largest patrons of the arts in America.
Furthermore, I'm assuming that you are familiar with pop-up windows and banner ads. They show up everywhere now and they are really annoying. However, these are the key to Internet literature. A popular Internet writer can sell advertising space on his website if he so chooses, and he will be able to make some nice corn off of it. Hell, Maddox could, but he chooses not to. While this certainly gives him some serious bonus points for cojones, it gives him several minuses for lack of vision.
Someday in the not-too-distant future, popular Internet writers will be able to sell ad space for their popularity. Their works will bring people in, people will see the banner ads, and brotha be gettin' paid. Thus, patronage will be the next step in the growth of literature on the Internet. If you don't believe me, go to The Onion and wait for half an hour as the opening ad loads. They know how to get the dough and they know where it is coming from.
To move back to another topic, let us talk about fiction and nonfiction and the reasons why things are changing there. The big change is, also, a return to the past.
Since people will not want to read some miserable, unexciting piece of bull puckies for days on end just to try to figure out what the hell the point is going to be on some endless novel-like turd, there will be a need for interesting writing that keeps people reading. That, of course, means the return of the serial.
Charles Dickens did not really write books. No, he wrote serials. People would line up weekly for the next installment of A Tale of Two Cities or A Christmas Carol or Little Dorrit. There was an excitement when another piece of the puzzle was coming out and everyone waited anxiously to see what would happen next. There would be rioting at the newsstand if Dickens wrote something as monumentally stupid as, "My mother is a fish," as the entirety of one of his installments. People were actively engaged in the writing of Dickens and it moved them. They wanted more and he delivered. Dear Lord, did he deliver more. You could purchase his books by the ton if you wanted to.
Compare this with such websites as The Onion or Homestar Runner. People look forward to next week's installment of these websites and they want to see what will come out next. God know I'm at Homestar Runner every Monday afternoon, anxious to see what Strong Bad will have to say in response to some email or another. The world wonders what The Onion will have to say about events in the world this week. It's a new age of literature and the old forms are returning.
Admittedly, the websites I describe are not really serials. However, someone will, someday return the serial to a place of prominence. And then, ladies and gentlemen, literature may actually be worth reading again.
Those are my opinions on the Internet and literature. Will these things come to pass? Who knows. But things are changing, we do know that. And the changes will be, after all, surprising.