Wednesday, October 11, 2006

2.1 Futures of the Novel

Slate has declared this week Fall Fiction Week, and I'm all for that. Fiction week involves, among other things, a high-minded discussion between Walter Kirn and Gary Shteyngart about the future of the novel in the age of the Internet, by which the editors at Slate "mean not just the web itself but also the notion of constant connectivity. " They set the terms of Kirn and Shteyngart's conversation as follows:
Today, in this age of the virtual network, the concept of being "out of reach" has begun to seem quaint, and our experience of the world has become more fluid—with, perhaps, less room for solitude and concentration. So, we've asked our critics to address the following questions: Does the new age of connectivity have any ramifications for the novel? Has human experience been altered? Have the conventions of storytelling begun to change—and if not, should they?

Slate's editorial heart is understandably set on the idea that The Internet Is Changing Everything, and that Video Will Kill the Radio Star. To some extent, of course, they're right. There's no use pretending that new technologies don't change anything, and still less use trying to pretend that on your blog. But the questions in Slate's ante are artfully phrased to work both as undeniable inquiries about the self-evident and as cues for breathless utterances about our new post-human existence. Have things changed? You bet. Has Everything Changed in some fundamental, epochal way? The jury's still out on that one.

Kirn and Shteyngart's perspectives suit the preferred slant well. Both seem to agree, as Shteyngart puts it, that novelists have to keep up with "this fragmented, distracted, levitating new world" of text-messaging and roll out some form of Novel 2.0 or lose their "relevancy." But what to do? Kirn proposes one strategy, and I can think of at least one other, for the novel's survival in the Internet Age:

1) Back to the Epistolary Roots

Kirn gestures at dealing with the fragmented world of the hyper-connected by a return to the 18th century epistolary tradition:
I have a suspicion—that's all it is now—that the answer lies in the form's origins. I'm thinking of epistolary novels such as Richardson's Clarissa. That was the revolutionary mode once, when novels broke out of being mere prose "romances" and started to grapple with subjectivity. It's also when they discovered the modern fact that we communicate in stylized bursts and through specific technologies. That's truer than ever now. E-mails, phone calls, Web sites, videos. They're still all letters, basically, and they've come to outnumber old-fashioned conversations. They are the conversation now.

This is a very reasonable suggestion, so reasonable that it's already being done. I think novelists of all stripes, whether aspiring to money or popularity or artistic renown, have been incorporating e-mails and text messages and voicemail into their works almost as fast as those new technologies have appeared, just as novelists have used letters and diaries and newspaper accounts and telegraphs and newsreels and every other form they could get their hands on. Isn't a book like Nicholson Baker's Vox (published in January of 1992), consisting entirely of phone conversations (and phone sex) between its two protagonists, already a "21st-century" novel about telecommunications and absent presence? Isn't including a few imitation e-mails or text messages already a standard ploy in chick lit?

Novels have always incoporated other genres and other media into their narratives, as fast as those rivals have arisen. You could look at Richardson and Fielding, transforming the standard collections of sample letters for young girls into something enitrely different. You could look at the changes Joyce rings on magazine fiction in Ulysses or the collage of texts Dos Passos mimics in U.S.A. If those last examples seem too highbrow, you can open Bram Stoker's Dracula, and find Dr. Seward keeping his diary on the new, high-tech phonograph cylinders. There's the emerging technology being absorbed right away. This, famously, is what novels do: take over other genres and put them to new uses. If we're going to go back to "the form's origins" we should go all the way back, to Don Quixote hijacking those old "prose 'romances'" and turning them into something radically new.

Is the novel going to change in our new era? Sure. But when has it stopped changing? It's a famously protean form, so gifted at mutation and mimickry that literary critics don't even have a real definition for it. The novel has famously been defined by its adaptability and its lack of boundaries, for its generic ingenuity. The novel is going to change in our next new era, too, whether we count new eras in centuries or in fashion seasons.

The novel may die in a future where no one reads, but it won't die because it can't keep up with changing times.

2) Focus on the Things That Only Novels Can Do

Of course, one strategy is to adopt and adapt the new forms. But there are things those new forms can't do, weaknesses that happen to include some of the novel's strengths.

We are creatures of five senses, but most of our media only appeal to sight and hearing. Mediocre novels go along on rival media's terms and attempt to depict a world of sights and sounds. This reduces the book to a cinema manque, a glorified treatment for some future screenplay. But prose, and only prose, can capture taste and touch and smell, senses that can only be rendered through art but without which the human experience is drastically incomplete. No matter how interconnected and high-tech we become, we remain animals, living in our bodies here in the physical world. Smell and touch and taste are, in fact, connected to our emotions in a more direct and powerful way than sight and hearing are; recalling an old lover's scent is more powerful than remembering an old lover's face. Proust knew what he was doing when he started his odyssey of memory with the taste of that madeleine; he knew the emotional power of that sense. What novels can do that text messages (and voice mail and movies and video clips on YouTube) can never do is speak to that primitive and powerful aspect of our being, our physical self in all its complicated, passionate sensuality. The world of the novel is a world where wine has its own taste, where the rain gets in our shoes or runs down our collar, where we can itch and ache and tickle and feel calluses growing on our hands. It is a world where two characters can actually have sex with the lights out. No other art form can make a claim on that territory, and there's no reason to cede an inch of it.

2.1) If All Else Fails ...

If, despite these strategies, fiction writers still feel intimidated by the new media around them, we can always quote the first great novel about the Internet, written back in 1984 and still available in a 20th Anniversary Edition:

"Don't let them generation-gap you."

And that, my friends, is timeless advice.

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