E-books’ Dreaming

The title wheels a corpse into the room: The Late American Novel. And the first two epigraphs to the essay collection sound like eulogies. Steve Jobs, asked if he felt competitive about the Kindle: “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore.” Don DeLillo, in a letter to Jonathan Franzen: “If serious reading dwindles to near nothingness, it will probably mean that the thing we’re talking about when we use the word ‘identity’ has reached an end.”

But all that front matter mischaracterizes the book’s contents. The authors assembled by editors Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee don’t share uniform reasons for feeling hopeful about the future of books, but the feeling itself is largely uniform. Joe Meno: “[T]he idea of the book is more important than the actual form it takes.” Nancy Jo Sales: “I don’t think books will ever disappear for this reason: We need them too much.” Elizabeth Crane: “[T]he role of the writer will always be to write.” Owen King: “I still don’t expect the book as an object, or the art form of the novel, to disappear anytime soon.”

And so on: The majority of the essays are structured by the writer’s taking notice of the alarms—e-books, tablets, an ever-destabilizing economy for writers, readers’ decreased attention spans, the novelist’s loss of centricity in the culture—and then choosing to ignore them. We’re wired for story; story will never die; writing is worthy labor; there will always be readers who appreciate it; and hey, didn’t Choose Your Own Adventure books prove the physical book can play with form well before the iPad? The arguments’ shape, along with their homily-like brevity, reminded me of a line from Roger Lambert, the bitter, pervy divinity-school teacher at the heart of John Updike‘s Roger’s Version: “Raise the doubts, then do the reassurances. People have no idea what they’re hearing, they just want a certain kind of verbal music. The major, the minor, and back to the major, then Bless you and keep you, and out the door to the luncheon party.”

Two exceptions, though. Despite its sheen of condescension, Benjamin Kunkel‘s “Goodbye to the Graphosphere” is admirable for never letting go of its sense of doubt. Though the internet has been a boon for writing in general, he argues, in general it works to erode it as a vehicle for considered thought, with “the role of writing as a whole resembling viewers’ comments on YouTube.” As much as I bristle at Kunkel’s characterization of novel-writing as being inherently amateurish, I get his point that if there’s something inexpert about novels—that it’s just a smart person taking a stab at explaining human nature without performing a clinical study—then the internet’s role as an enormous narcissism engine will erase a need for them.

Kunkel is right so long as we read novels only to validate the feelings we have in our daily, non-reading lives—if we do it only to meet people we can relate to. But that’s the main reason people read, yes? We could name other reasons—to challenge ourselves, to learn something about a place/culture/time we wouldn’t know about otherwise—but those still circle around the idea that novels exist for us to bounce our emotions off of. Critical remove is nice and all, but it’s impossible, or at least churlish, to read books full of people we can’t relate to, and any book with human beings in it is meant to be, at some level, relatable. At any rate, unrelatable-ness a hard thing upon which to build a literary culture. And if a sense of fellow-feeling is as easy as tweaking your Twitter stream, who needs novels?

At least, that’s the question Kunkel leaves me working through. The only voice of optimism that convinces me in The Late American Novel comes from Ander Monson (a writer I very much admire): In “Finallyfast.com and Playing the Book,” he breaks open a lot of presumptions writers reflexively make about the structure of books and writing, from the syntax of sentences to the shape of the page. The writer’s role, then, is to test those limitations: “[I]f we think our only job as writers is to write nice sentences and hand them off to someone else, we risk obsolescence or, at the least, irrelevance.”

If I hadn’t seen how Monson himself does it, I wouldn’t trust his call to arms more than anybody else’s. And his challenge to writers to test the boundaries of writing will probably get executed hamfistedly a lot; I suspect we’re in for a lot more Choose Your Own Adventure-type books. (The questions the people who point to Choose Your Own Adventure as the future never seem to answer: Why was the series conceived for children? And why do you think the concept is so easily transferable to adult readers?) Per Monson, the future is full of plenty of interesting stories; we’ll just have to accept, per Kunkel, that fewer people will want to read them.

Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V

Writing at the Poetry Foundation blog Harriet, Kenneth Goldsmith points out that the recent spate of books that aggressively “borrow” from other texts may have less to do with the death of the novel, the death of the author, or any other such nonsense. It’s just that today it’s a lot easier to copy and paste:

The previous forms of borrowing in literature, collage and pastiche—taking a word from here, a sentence from there—were developed based on the amount of labor involved. Having to manually retype or hand-copy an entire book on a typewriter is one thing; cutting and pasting an entire book with three keystrokes—select all / copy / paste—is another.

From there, Goldsmith recalls a conversation with a creative writing student who was flummoxed by an assignment in which she had to write a passage in the style of a particular author—in her case, Jack Kerouac. Goldsmith suggests she might have learned more about writing if she had copied out a passage of On the Road, or, better still, the entire book. “Wouldn’t she have really understood Kerouac’s style in a profound way that was bound to stick with her?” he asks. Probably. But understanding style isn’t really the end goal of the copy-and-paste set—David ShieldsReality Hunger or Ander Monson‘s Vanishing Point are more interested in questioning the identity of the author than the quality of writing. (In a way, they’re actually somewhat against the quality of writing, or at least defiantly disinterested in it—Monson’s “assembloirs,” built from snippets of other memoirs, are designed to call out the same-ness in tone that afflicts such books, stripping away whatever pathos or individuality they might have.) That’s not to say that copying and pasting can’t make for some interesting commentary—just that the commentary will inevitably be about authors, not writing.

The Sway of Forward Progress

David ShieldsReality Hunger: A Manifesto is an inspirational book, the kind of extended piece of criticism that is so passionate about its argument and so clever in its execution that it’s hard to resist letting your feelings rise up to match his. Yes, yes, up with mashups! Down with traditional novelistic structures! Away with the notion that fiction can create a reality that substantially differs from the reality of the author who created the fiction in the first place! “The real overwhelms the fictional, is incomparably more compelling than an invented drama,” Shields writes in one of the 600-odd paragraphs that is in fact his and not repurposed from another source*. His argument is that the clearest, most intriguing literary works foreground the author and the things from which he stole—and that the author is now compelled to do this foregrounding thanks to the upheavals in other forms of culture. There’s no better proof that the strategy can succeed than the existence of Reality Hunger itself. After all that talk about the death of the author, it’s nice to see somebody argue for the life of it.

But—and there’s always a but, because if history teaches us anything it’s that it’s best not to reflexively embrace everything with the word “manifesto” in the title—one problem with Reality Hunger is that Shields is better at venting his exasperation with traditional narrative structures than he is at showing why, exactly, they fail. “If I’m reading a book and it seems truly interesting,” he writes, “I tend to start reading back to front in order not to be too deeply under the sway of forward progress.” Even if I resist my instinct to write this behavior as poseurish nonsense, Shields doesn’t address what benefits he might derive from such a backwards reading. And though twice he voices his enthusiasm for Renata Adler’s 1976 novel Speedboat as an example of the kind of anti-narrative, anti-“realistic” novel he aches for, he dwells little on what in its structure (or lack of it) inspires him so.

Of course, spending time discussing rules for successful anti-fiction would be programmatic and thus run counter to his intentions—it’s going to have to be enough to say that what works is anything that helps the reader avoid that “sway of forward progress.” Shields knows that this kind of writing is nothing new—his inspirations go back to Borges and encompasses Spalding Gray, Art Spiegelman, Lydia Davis, and more. Wherever memoir and fiction merge is where he wants to be, and whatever rejects the traditional satisfactions of storytelling is where the author can truly be found. “You don’t need a story,” he writes. “The question is How long do you not need a story?

Well, apparently you can’t go on too long before a story is what you want. Speedboat (which I haven’t read) is less than 200 pages long. Davis’ “French Lesson I: La Meurtre,” to pick one of many great stories of hers that dismantle narrative expectations, would wear out its welcome at more than seven pages. Gilbert Sorrentino’s beguiling A Strange Commonplace, works primarily because it bounces brief chapter against brief chapter—were it longer, the reader would be less compelled to do follow that bouncing. Chicago: City on the Make, Nelson Algren’s slim prose poem on his native city is an impressionistic, personalized, mashed-up snapshot that captures a lot of the city but gets in and out quickly—certainly much faster than Mike Royko’s Boss (untrustworthy reportage by Sheilds’ thinking) or, say, Adam Langer’s Crossing California (unlikable formal novelistic narrative that’s chock-full of forward progress.)

The mash-up, the collage, the remix—this is the stuff of the future, and this is the stuff that Shields’ great fiction of the future must embrace. More Davis and Sorrentino, less Langer and Franzen. It will be brief, it won’t pretend to hide the author, and in its formal invention it will resist all efforts to assimiliate it. Yesterday, thinking of a good shorthand for Shields’ preferences, I thought, “Anything that repels parody,” because something needs to have a structure, or at least some obvious working parts, to be parodied. But then last night I was watching America’s Funniest Home Videos**, and one of the segments featured a series of “mash-ups”—embarrassing moments over which the same footage of wailing wedding attendees is superimposed. Somebody trips and falls, here come the wailing ladies; a minor picnic mishap, and the wailing ladies return again. If a cultural movement has grown so powerful that the least intellectually challenging show on network television can make something simple of it, it may not be an especially powerful method of experimentation.

That’s not to say that Shields is wrong—better there be more interesting fiction experiments than more hackneyed novels with stale plots. Just that people have a powerful capacity to turn yesterday’s innovations into today’s bad habits, which is something Shields never quite addresses. And as more artists break “larger and larger chunks of ‘reality’ into their work,” producing more and more of the kind of fiction Shields is agitating for, that kind of fiction might very well become its own cliche.***

* I think he wrote this. An appendix to the book lists all the cases where Shields repurposed text from other sources, but the footnotes seem slightly out of order. At any rate, because one of the tentpoles of the book’s structure is that somebody else’s statements can stand in for your own, it’s not really a problem if I make an attribution error, at least by Shields’ way of thinking.

** Look, my home Internet access is down, OK?

*** The process may be hastening. In April essayist Ander Monson will publish Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir, an entertaining essay collection that uses strategies similar to Reality Hunger to study memoir at a time when the genre’s factual integrity is increasingly called into question. “Maybe what memoirs offer us is another fiction: that of understanding,” he writes. “By reading memoir we can pretend to comprehend a life.” To show how closely the narrative tools of memoir and fiction merge, Monson fills the book with sections called “assembloirs,” mini-narratives built out of snippets of a few dozen memoirs. In showing how alleged “truth” has an artifice behind it, he ends up constructing small stories that hold together, albeit in oblique ways. Monson and Shields are both skeptical of the Great American Novel (or Memoir), but I don’t think that either would disagree that whatever replaces it is going to have to work very hard to figure out how much or how little it wants to address storytelling’s familiar satisfactions.