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.