THE ENDURANCE OF LITERATURE: on “The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books” (edited by Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee)

Here, with minor edits, is a piece written originally for the first iteration of the Glasgow Review of Books. It appeared online in April 2011, and as that version of the site has not been archived, I am re-posting it here. 

screen-shot-2017-01-08-at-14-23-39In an entry on The Millions literature blog at the start of 2011, C. Max Magee, one of the editors of The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, ended a notice about the book’s release by appealing to both sides of an increasingly crucial line: “All you technophiles: Consider making this the last physical book you ever buy. All you technophobes: This might be a good candidate for the first ebook you ever own.” The introduction to the book rewords it thus: “if you’re reading these words on a device that requires batteries, charge it up before you get too deep. If you’re staring at a dog-eared paperback, now’s the time to get yourself a cup of coffee.” This is the line – real or imagined – on which this book teeters, the moment of the uneasy cohabitation of print and digital books. Whilst its title and subtitle are concerned with times beyond our own, what The Late American Novel really captures is a snapshot of early 2011, as e-reader sales get bigger and bigger and bricks and mortar bookshops close left, right and centre. As such, this snapshot is kaleidoscopic and partial, and all the better for it. In this sense, Lauren Groff’s contribution, “Modes of Imagining the Writer of the Future” acts as a representative for the entire collection: she imagines the future writer alternatively as elitist, robot, outcast and beggar, a celebrity or a kind of rockstar-monarch, a pawn of governments, a fashion accessory and conjurer. Each piece in this book seems like a place-holder, a compendium of thoughts set out on the page so as to be observable and reworked at a later date. What becomes evident is that no-one really has any idea what will happen. Will paper die a quick and miserable death? Who knows. 

If the analogue/digital line represents the context of the book, the question the essays mull over is the age-old literary problem of form and content, given a technological twist. In future-book territory, this problem aligns itself thus: either the human impulse to tell stories, to create narrative, is one that will survive any change in medium. Joe Meno puts it like this: “the idea of the book is more important than the actual form it takes – the message, the content being more vital than the medium – and that throughout the history of narrative arts, storytelling has always adapted to these changing forms and technologies, and has managed to not only survive, but begin anew each time, introducing a whole other generation to the possibilities of reading.”
Alternatively, the very change books are undergoing will fundamentally alter what we mean when we talk about literature, the construction of meaning, and reading. What is particularly interesting about The Late American Novel is how the former is often articulated with a mixture of optimism, confident assertion and a kind of fearful bemusement at the rapidly changing nature of the creation, distribution and consumption of books. Throughout, there are those like Meno who retain faith in the importance of storytelling to our fundamental humanity. Occasionally one feels the writer is willing his or herself to believe this narrative; if they only say it loudly and repeatedly, it will be true, storytelling will remain untouched by the technological revolution. This reviewer confesses to a certain amount of sympathy with these accounts, and is equally guilty of any charge of self-delusion levelled at them.
Other accounts, like Ander Monson’s, accept that our very definitions of narrative and how we interact with it are changing (and will continue to, at even faster rates), championing this as a glorious postmodern collapse of authority, expertise and discipline. The essay immediately after Meno’s is Michael Paul Mason’s “The Future of Writing is in My Jacket”, and he articulates this sense clearer than anyone: “Writing, for me, has become a production beyond sentences and paragraphs.” He goes on to list the array of technological “goodies” he carries about with him – a digital camera, a voice recorder, a laptop – which he uses not only to gather research material for his books but to establish a way of “sharing and connecting” with readers through posting samples on his blog, which, he confesses, “doesn’t take much effort”. He describes a familiar world, one where everyone can express themselves in their own individual way thanks to the miracle of cheap and easy-to-use technology, and where “the traditional roles of artists are eroding, [where] the lines distinguishing filmmakers and visual artists and musicians and writers are fading so that any single person can effectively pull off a serious project in any medium.”
While Mason frames the question of who makes good art not as one of talent, study and dedication but one of buying power, the flipside to this is Marco Roth’s fear that “soon people may stop writing altogether, becoming curators, montage artists, tasteful arrangers, cutting and pasting and linking to the online archive of all past writing.” Of course there are benefits to the democratisation of materials writers like Mason describes, but one feels required to point out that the discriminations of the canon have not entirely been down to the lack of pens and paper. The possibility of the amount of masterpieces decreasing, replaced by a flood of average writing by a wider range of people, is just as likely as its opposite. If our culture is to resist this flood, greater access to technology and its products’ distribution puts more onus on talent, study and dedication rather than less.
The language used to describe a world in which “we are all writers, contributors, content-creators, storytellers,” as Monson puts it, is eerily similar to that of the market-place. Banks tell us they are “here for you”, mobile phones, laptops, and cameras are sold by appealing to “your” ability to “express yourself” through personalising “your” gadgets with mass-marketed add-ons. This critique is familiar but it is difficult to see how the vision of the consumer as creator will be beneficial to writers and readers without taking into account the way it echoes the language of buying and selling. Owen King’s piece is more attuned to the complexity of the situation, noting that in providing far more “immediate diversions … on the same portable device,” the gadgets Mason adores threaten to crowd out comparatively lo-fi literature.  He reminds us that “while it’s sort of exciting in the abstract to imagine Jonathan Franzen rubbing shoulders in a tight electronic space with your favorite Beck songs, a few choice episodes of The Wire and ZombieSmash, in reality that’s an awful lot of potential distraction when you’re in the trenches of the difficult first hundred or so pages of The Corrections.” King’s language echoes what David Foster Wallace was saying in the 1990s about the one-to-one relationship fiction cultivates, and in The Late American Novel Benjamin Kunkel makes a similar point: “in the contest for our attention, literature previously had rivals in film, TV, radio, and more ephemeral writing; the difference today lies in the availability of all these other things all the time.” But while King remains undecided about the effect this will have, Kunkel sees an “inexorable eclipse of literary culture” where these devices directly effect what literature is, turning it into “commentary [which has] a sort of secondary status to whatever primary object [it] comment[s] on.” In this vision, the newly created work gets edged out by its captioning, summarising parasite, “the role of writing as a whole resembling viewers’ comments on YouTube.”
Given these uncertain times, it is unsurprising to see a significant amount of nostalgia in The Late American Novel. Many pieces detail formative moments in the writer’s career, usually involving some sort of meaningful interaction not just with literature but also with the very physicality of the book. Nancy Jo Sales describes how “I can’t pass by a bookstore without breaking into jitters of anticipation.” Sometimes this nostalgia merges with the optimism described above. Sales’ piece is exemplary in this regard: “there’s something about the physicality of a book, the way it looks and feels and even smells – the notes written in the margins – that makes it a living, breathing companion (who, like yourself, is actually dying). I don’t think books will ever disappear for this reason: We need them too much.” I love the smell and touch of books as much as anyone, but this doesn’t seem enough to maintain their place in our culture.
Pieces by Reif Larsen, Victoria Patterson and Elizabeth Crane exhibit a similar nostalgia. Larsen thinks back to his childhood obsession with Christopher Manson’s Maze: Solve The World’s Most Challenging Puzzle, while Patterson takes comfort in the “affirming process” of “creativity”, calling for writers “to sustain that unreasonable, almost supernatural faith [in writing].” For her the real question, regardless of medium, one that she can’t help but “brood over”, is the work itself. Crane finds hope in knowing “that I have not yet read all those brilliant sentences” that already exist in books already written. Movingly, she asserts that “I have not yet grown bored of beauty, or uninterested in learning … I don’t see fiction as needing the literary equivalent of 3-D to make it better … I have no choice but to keep doing what I do.”
Perhaps the issue is, suitably, both more and less complicated than it at first seems. For all the innovation of technology and the internet, books remain words grouped together to construct meaning. That the Gutenberg press changed everything is inarguable. It changed the very nature of what a book could be, including the content. It remains to be seen whether the e-book will have the same effect. So far it appears to simply transfer the format of the book as-is from one physical object (bound paper) to another (tablet computer), the content remaining the same. The writer Lance Olsen has said that the novel will and should survive because it alone can investigate another consciousness, what Kyle Beachy (who like King channels the spirit of David Foster Wallace) calls “communion” and what Jonathan Lethem in this book calls “subjectivity, language, eccentric unsupported supposition, deep expressionist lying.” Neither film nor music, nor visual or conceptual art can do that as thoroughly as the novel, and this is the source of many writers’ hopes as to its continuation. I too remain sceptical that the e-book will adversely effect this fundamental ability, at least at first, although that is not to say that this ability will be enough to prevent profound changes to how we read, which in turn may change what gets written. Just because it is possible to do something, it doesn’t mean it will be.
Most of the writing I have seen elsewhere on the e-book focuses on the buying, selling and economic consumption of books, and how business models will adapt, as Larsen notes in his piece. When the bookstore chain Borders went bankrupt, pages and pages were dedicated to what this meant for the book business. By comparison, there is relatively little on the reading experience. And for good reason – it is both a lot harder to describe and a lot harder to predict how it will change. But disentangling business from the reading experience risks surrendering even more control over its change to those who already power it. While many essays in The Late American Novel are concerned with the reading (and writing) experience and how it will change, occasionally the focus shifts too much in this direction and risks underestimating quite how much business effects what appears to be a personal one-to-one experience. It is a difficult yet essential balance to get right, and in this collection the conversation between David Gates and Jonathan Lethem, as well as Marco Roth’s contribution, in their awareness of the interrelations of technology, the market and the writer’s imagination, are real successes.
So if the e-reader’s memory becomes as seemingly infinite as that of the MP3 player, what tangible difference will having our entire libraries on one device make to our reading experience? No-one knows of course, though this reviewer, unlike Sonya Chung, who is confident of a “pendulum swing” back to a slower, stiller, “Corporeal Age”, finds it hard to shake off a nagging sense of the terminal decline in the patience required for the best literature. The world seems simply and inexorably to be getting faster, our attention spans shorter. I remember reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Age of Reason on holiday and nearly giving up on numerous occasions, but because I didn’t have another book with me I persevered. My persistence paid off, and I became more and more engrossed in the book as I read. Likewise with Don Quixote and The Magus. If I had had an e-reader, no doubt I would have flicked to the next book in my library and started that. The idea of working hard for something, and the pleasure derived at the end of that work being more rewarding because of the expenditure of effort, seems increasingly to be a casualty of our age. As Joshua Gaylord writes in “Enduring Literature” in The Late American Novel, “the evolution and popularity of … technology seem[s] contingent upon one notion: that literature should be easier to experience … Here’s the thing: I don’t think I want reading to be easy.”
Maybe this is too alarmist; there have certainly been anecdotal reports of people’s book-buying sky-rocketing after the purchase of an e-reader. But buying and reading are different things. But then again, perhaps that’s not the issue. Perhaps it is a question of staking a claim, of affirming what we as readers want. Even if, as Deb Olin Unferth suggests, “other things suck” more than the decline of the book, that doesn’t mean the book is of no importance. And yes, the e-reader means one doesn’t have to lug loads of heavy hardbacks on holiday, and yes it makes moving house a hell of a lot easier, but is that really what we want reading and writing, literature to be about – ease of use? Even in my poorest moments, when money has been so tight that the cheese on top of beans on toast becomes a luxury, books have been exempt from budgetary cut-backs, because they are supposed to be something more than a product. They are supposed to nourish us just as food does, and when we shop for food, we don’t pick up the lightest thing because it’s easier to carry home. I’m risking what Larsen calls “the moralist hand-wringing routine” here, but books are supposed to require more consideration than mere efficiency, and if those of us that cherish reading and writing let the debate about the future of books be simplified into questions of economy (in both senses of the word), then the debate will already have been lost. The problem is that we do need to attend to questions of economics, but they need not be separated from what I am tempted to call the spiritual aspect of reading and writing. We need to find a way of discussing the future of the book that understands that there are business imperatives that drive new technology while at the same time arguing for our own vision of that future that sees beyond economy. The usefulness, and importance, of The Late American Novel is that it manages not merely to represent the debates about the future of the book, but to instantiate them, and in so-doing remind us how crucial it is that we actively decide what that future looks like.

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