Old-Time Confusion

The latest issue of the Believer includes an exchange between novelists Maureen Howard and Joanna Scott (full interview subscription-only), and the conversation eventually turns to the various ways storytelling attracts interest and creates tension—and whether technology can make storytelling more engaging. Howard suggests that the old-fashioned printed page today lends itself to “careful, or do I mean conservative, fiction,” to which Scott responds:

Are you saying that here that a story that charges toward the end is necessarily conservative? You’re arguing in favor of a narrative made up of digressions? But I wonder if those sidebars can be deceptive. I think of the footnotes in Nabokov’s Pale Fire—these end up moving the plot forward in sneaky ways. … Suspense can come in many flavors. it isn’t just generated by a sequence of actions. There might be a suspense in the delays of a meandering narrative, or in the invention of competing voices. As a reader, I love to get caught up in paragraphs that are full of vivacious details. Confusion can be very suspenseful, if we’re able to move through the murk. I’m convinced that the most essential suspense in fiction is generated within each sentence.

Before the two drifted onto the subject of words on the page—it’s a drifting interview—they discussed a 2002 New York Times feature on a virtual-reality reading project at Brown University that Robert Coover is involved in. In the “Cave Writing” project, words were projected onto to the walls, and could be “peeled” away to float by themselves and discussed; animated images and music were included too. All of this, Coover said, was designed to elude “the dogmatic solidity of the printed text.” But he noted that there was a downside to all the bells and whistles: “[W]hen you ask afterward, ‘What were the stories about?,’ not many people noticed.” The work continues, though without access to the actual virtual reality presentations, they appear to be more like interesting art pieces than any replacement for conventional printed-page narrative.