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.

Links: Comment Thread

“Book reviews as extensions of the book: a review = a room with a door leading to the book. Perhaps some book reviews have multiple doors, one leading to the book, another leading to another review or to an interview with the author, a blog post about the book, an advertisement on a website or in a magazine, a phone conversation, a gchat, a video. The point is their interconnectivity.”

Andrew Seal adds his thoughts on Benjamin Kunkel‘s essay on the past decade in American fiction. Seal calls out a few blind spots in Kunkel’s argument, particularly the growing “internationalism or transnationalism of the American novel.”

Jane Smiley: “I know there are writers who don’t find their work easy or pleasant, but I do.”

Wendy Lesser, who’s written an excellent book on rereading, on rereading The Bostonians.

Lydia Davis is working on a new collection of stories, inspired in part by her recent work translating Madame Bovary.

What Mark Twain ate in the Northwest.

The World Socialist Web Site posits that Tobias Wolff‘s stories admirably connect personal lives and the larger social degradations of the Cold War era—unlike, I suppose, dirty realists and other contemporary American fiction writers, who just make up characters who get drunk and fight in motels.

Couples is a funny thing, a bodice-ripper with a sense of entitlement.”

Benjamin Percy hasn’t been to central Oregon since he graduated from high school there in 1997, but he’s committed to setting his fiction there.

Was Herman Melville‘s poem “Monody” an elegy for Nathaniel Hawthorne or not?

How giving away 150,000 copies of The Great Gatsby to soldiers during World War II may have cemented its reputation. (via)

Rosencrans Baldwin on his freelance writing gig for an upscale lifestyle magazine: “I did a back page humor column, and they wanted ‘luxury humor.’ I’m like, ‘What is luxury humor?’ They said, you know, jokes about chateaus and wineries and Greek islands. But it paid really well. I just thought: If I have to make knock-knock jokes about Merlot, I can do that.”

Stuck in the Middle(brow)

If we must endure essays that make broad generalizations about the state of American literature—and if David Shields and the Huffington Post have their way, we must, we must—I’d sooner it take it in the form of Benjamin Kunkel‘s “Letter to Norway.” Asked by the Norwegian literary magazine Bokvennen to deliver some thoughts about American fiction since 2000, Kunkel argues that the stuff has been defined by a kind of slackening of postmodern gamesmanship, replaced by a resurgence of a more formal kind of realism that’s interested in acquiring elements of other genres while not actually becoming genre fiction.

In other words, so long to the “hysterical realism” that James Wood criticized in 2000, and hello to way-we-live-now novels like Jonathan Franzen‘s The Corrections (and the forthcoming Freedom, which is no departure from that sensibility); the “neuronovel” that the n+1 set is trying to get some traction on, in which mental disorders are stand-ins for way-we-live-now ruminations (let’s say Richard PowersThe Echo Maker); and a postmodernism-lite that’s subsumed by old-fashioned plotting (let’s say The Echo Maker again). Kunkel at least twists the knife slowly: “[I]n spite of some postmodern or genre-bending refurbishing, we have witnessed at once a practical and an ideological return to ‘realism.’ … The disappearance of the term ‘middlebrow’ over the last decades only confirms the triumph of the thing itself: enjoyable books, not too trashy, not too hard, sentimental and well-plotted but not so much so as to totally traduce the world.”

Resistance to such statements is futile, since it’s forever true that people, in general, gravitate toward things that are more comforting than not, and that trends are created by the stuff that large numbers gravitate toward. If you want to argue that a decade’s tastes are largely middlebrow, you’ll pretty much by definition be right. (Only the authors’ names will change; two decades ago there was probably a similiar essay arguing that American literature was infected with male novelists like John Updike and Richard Ford who suffered from an overabundance of masculinity, instead of “moral and sexual innocence” male writers allegedly suffer from today.) So, point taken, though Kunkel’s critique does seem to ignore the notion that last decade was in some ways a heyday for the hysterical realists, if only thanks to Dave Eggers, who was able to publish and support all manner of arch, effortful, occasionally successful fiction; if not him, then David Foster Wallace‘s inheritors, Rick Moody and Jonathan Lethem. Love it or hate it, the path to the success of book like Junot Diaz‘s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Lydia Davis‘ recent collections was paved by that work earlier in the decade. Kunkel may be right that realism is winning the day, but it hasn’t all been easygoing sentimentality.