Choose Your Own Adventure

Yesterday Don DeLillo was awarded the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, and to mark the occasion he answered a few questions from PEN. Discussing the future of the book, he said this:

The question is whether the enormous force of technology, and its insistence on speeding up time and compacting space, will reduce the human need for narrative—narrative in the traditional sense. Novels will become user-generated. An individual will not only tap a button that gives him a novel designed to his particular tastes, needs, and moods, but he’ll also be able to design his own novel, very possibly with him as main character. The world is becoming increasingly customized, altered to individual specifications. This shrinking context will necessarily change the language that people speak, write, and read.

As it happens, I came across this just as I finished Gary Shteyngart‘s Super Sad True Love Story, a funny and mordant novel that voices some of the same concerns about books that DeLillo does. In Shteyngart’s world—set either 15 years from now or in 2011, depending on when you think America’s debtpocalypse arrives—everybody is genially enslaved by handheld devices, which stream all manner of data points about one’s financial status, health, and sexual attractiveness. Shteyngart’s grim joke is that the devices are brimming with information but contain little to no actual news; the world is literally collapsing all around them, but, on the evidence of their tiny solipsism machines, Priority A is their potential for getting laid that night. So neither the devices nor most of the people who use them can quite process the concept of old-fashioned books. When hero Lenny Abramov scans his personal history, it shows the purchase of some “bound, printed, nonstreaming Media artifacts.” “You’ve got to stop buying books, Nee-gro,” a friend tells him. “All those doorstops are going to drag down your Personality rankings.”

Not that Lenny doesn’t know it. Fully aware of what a drag those books are, early on he proudly tells his diary that “I’ve spent an entire week without reading any books or talking about them too loudly. I’m learning to worship my new apparat’s screen, the colorful pulsing mosaic of it, the fact that it knows every last stinking detail about the world, whereas my books only know the minds of their authors.”

It’s hard to discuss how Shteyngart resolves the fate of the book in such a culture without giving away the ending, but suffice it to say that Shteyngart doesn’t think that novelists will be entirely out of a job—novels may change, but he doesn’t share DeLillo’s concern that technology will “reduce the human need for narrative.” And at any rate, I don’t think that either DeLillo or Shteyngart are especially concerned with the death of the novel per se. What they’re mourning is the death of reading novels as an aspirational activity—as something that people did in order to feel like an informed citizen, a part of the culture. (Part of the reason why the chatter over Freedom evokes so much high emotion is that it’s an “event” novel that hasn’t existed in decades, and we’re no longer sure what to do with “event” novels. Must we read them? We no longer live in a culture where we can tolerate being told to rally around one particular book or movie or film—a point Jessa Crispin smartly made in her essay about why she doesn’t want to read the damn thing.)

It may be that the literary world that DeLillo and Shteyngart are concerned about losing entirely has just found its level—it’s preserved all the people who love reading for its own sake, and lost all the people who read out of duty or obligation. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that the novel itself will become as corrupted and egocentric as DeLillo fears. I suspect even he would agree that the minds of other people will still be interesting 20 years from now—and if you’re so eager to customize another person’s mind, a novel probably isn’t what you want anyway.

4 thoughts on “Choose Your Own Adventure

  1. It seems to me that the “event-y-ness” of Franzen’s novel comes down to the media’s treatment of it and especially the fact that there was a big (as some might say) hullabaloo when Oprah picked “The Corrections” for her book club. Since I was too young to be aware of the whole thing when “The Corrections” came out, I can only go by the impressions I’ve gotten in the meantime, but it sure seems that Oprah “made” Franzen, in a sense (just like she “made” Cormac McCarthy and that other guy who embellished his memoir, his name escapes me right now), which is to say — into a media sensation.

    Meanwhile, it seems that when Joshua Cohen’s “Witz” came out, I could not click two hyperlinks directing me to another website without seeing a review or other mention of his novel (which I admit is true as well of “Freedom”). Certainly not mainstream, no, but it got a lot of buzz and if you spend a lot of time on the internet (especially the more literary-minded spots), then it sure seemed like an event to me. Which I must admit, caused me to buy it. I guess it all just depends on where you hang out. If you do actually spend your time reading, erm, “Time” and watching Oprah, then Franzen’s book is indeed an event. An event with more momentum than Cohen’s book, indeed. Without a doubt, I will read Cohen’s book eventually (likely in the near future, but I have a lot of books on the to-read list); but how many people will buy “Freedom” on the recommendation of “Time” and Oprah and never read it?

    So, I suppose you’re right when you say, “it’s preserved all the people who love reading for its own sake, and lost all the people who read out of duty or obligation.” But don’t you suppose there’s a danger of that subset of people who love reading for its own sake dwindling down to simply writers reading other writers?

  2. The end of fiction? What if.. there were no need to have fiction because one’s own life was so full and absorbing? What if, as one evolved, one would not want drama, heartache and conflict because one’s subconscious was actually clear of issues to expel or relive in cathartic ways? What if one could create one’s world by manifesting it per “The Secret” and not need to dwell vicariously on the ego’s need for anguish, excitement, and unrequited love? Then I feel our fiction writers would be out of a job… but so far I do not see much sign of this.

  3. As always, even handed and right on, Mark.

    Perhaps new media indeed allows us new ways to consume print, gives us different expectations and will ultimately alter our attention span; it nonetheless gives us greater international connectivity, and the possibility of new kinds of community. Perhaps it will eventually give rise to new forms, though for me, as a novelist and short story writer and essayist, I can imagine no form I cherish more, that can accomplish more at saying something that matters. Regardless, I see little evidence of the novel’s decline– reports of its unprominence, let alone its imminent cultural irrelevance, are greatly overstated. Why, even consider the modest short story, that much-maligned form that commercial publishers have long refused to publish collections of. A great deal of attention and buzz has been paid to Electric Literature for their new delivery model and methods, their cost effectiveness. But the fiction that they publish is more than anything else classically (and finely, even brilliantly, I might add) crafted, and represents mostly the most celebrated and established fiction writers of our day. Delivery of an old form in ways you can interact with differently and consume differently is not a paradigmatic shift, let alone an evolution of mankind or of our culture. It is an affirmation of the old form’s significance, a quicker, easier, glossier access, a reassertion of form’s merit.

    1. Shortly after I posted this, I came across this passage from a 1952 Roald Dahl story (mentioned in Joyce Carol Oates’ new essay collection) imagining the book of the future:

      First, by depressing one of a series of master buttons, the writer made his primary decision: historical, satirical, philosophical, political, romantic, erotic, humorous, or straight. Then, from the second row (the basic buttons), he chose his theme: army life, pioneer days, civil war, world war, racial problem, wild west, country life, childhood memories…. The third row of buttons gave a choice of literary style: classical, whimsical, racy, Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce, feminine, etc. The fourth row was for character, the fifth for wordage…ten long rows of pre-selector buttons.

      So clearly the paranoia about fiction somehow being reduced and simplified by technology has been around for a while…

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