Writing and Reading in the Age of the Thrilling Unknown

December 16, 2011

Jeff Martin & C. Max Magee (eds.) The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, Berkeley: Soft Skull Press, 2011

Reviewed by Jennifer Mitchell

The really interesting thing about the changing nature of books is to witness the corresponding changes in the ways people are writing. These are exciting times for writers, as new opportunities for publishing in many different formats open up. But not everyone is excited about the changes technology is bringing to writing and publishing. Anguished commentaries abound, including one recent complaint by author Graham Swift that the proliferation of e-reading devices would erode royalties for writers, leading to a decline in both the number and quality of published novels. The most negative commentary I’ve read recently comes from Australian writer Ali Alizadeh who comes to the worrying conclusion that there is a risk of the “e-reader becoming a subject capable of depriving people of the pleasure of reading”. Alizadeh fears that the limitless potential of devices to contain one’s library, and to add to it with such ease, may in fact divest the reader of his or her agency as reader:

The thing’s owner, compelled by the fantasy of limitless electronic interactivity offered by the object, is likely to transfer her desire, for passive satisfaction (that is, the simple pleasure of reading) onto the inanimate thing that is now no longer just an electronic device but an infinitely erudite subject which, in the words of one e-reader enthusiast, ‘allows you to carry a library in your pocket’; the e-reader becomes, in the true sense of the word, the reader.

I’m not sure that there isn’t an effort here to transfer the fear of loss of control brought by a new fluidity around publishing to the inanimate consumable. It’s easier to identify an object as an emblem of subversion, than to more deeply consider how to engage in a changing culture and turn it to your advantage. There are some positive stories emerging from these changing times too, such as a vibrant and fast growing online publishing model in China known as Freemium, which serialises literary fiction from contributors, the best of whom are moved to a pay for access level.

Alizadeh’s fears are highly theorised, but also political – he quotes both the Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek and Jacques Lacan, and ultimately I feel his critique is one about commercialism, or more simply capitalism, and its impact on literary aesthetics. William Wordsworth had similar fears for his beloved Lake District when in the nineteenth century the reach of the railways made it possible for urban working class families to make day trips. Has the e-reader really killed the novel, or is it more likely that there are actually new forms of writing that will attract new kinds of readers? This is the rather positive question underlying the collection of essays that comprise The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books. The introduction describes the impact that the invention of the book, and the printing press, had on society:

Never before has shared knowledge been so accessible to so many. So alien and threatening to the established monopolies of knowledge, power and morality were these insidious new devices that they set off a struggle that has raged on and on and on…

So to undertake the reading for my review of The Late American Novel, I naturally had to get the Kindle edition – the very insidious device that is being credited, along with Steve Jobs, with bringing down the novel. What I found was the same content I would get from the printed version, but with the added feature of taking notes and making highlights to facilitate this review – (and no – I wouldn’t highlight a paperback book, because, well, I just wouldn’t.)

The truly pleasurable thing about this book is that these essays are produced by great writers. It’s impossible to escape the simple fact that even if – as the opening essay by novelist Rivka Galchen on ‘The Future of Paper’ surmises that paper itself is dying (but in fact the writer finds she doesn’t care) – brilliant writers will continue to be a permanent part of the world. In his short and beautiful contribution ‘A Book is a Place,’ Joe Meno sums up my own feelings, that

The idea of the book is more important than the actual form it takes – the message, the content, being more vital than the medium … The Kindle, the iPad, these are just variations of a need we have as a civilisation, as a species, to use our imagination, and this need is as important in this time as any other.

I really began to enjoy this book when I got to the essay by philosophy professor Clancy Martin: ‘I miss books like I miss my bicycle (or riding a horse with hay fever)’. After a youthful romance with the notion of consuming all the greatest novels in the “canon” (with the exception of Finnegan’s Wake, of course) Martin found himself burdened with the self-imposed task of reading for both pleasure and duty. “Then, hallelujah, they decided to stop books.” The pretence could end. What he says about being a university professor resonated most with me, although I recognise his tongue in cheek prose:

My day job – I’m a professor – involved books in theory, but very little in practice. It was more an exercise in pretending about books. The students pretended to have read the books, and I pretended to have something illuminating to say about them. I pretended to be an expert in the books – books that I had in many cases read only once, and a long time ago, or sometimes only a handful of paragraphs in, or someone else’s synopsis of, or even not at all.

The first less-enamoured account in this collection comes from Owen King, who despite really trying to take to electronic texts, still harbours an aversion to reading on a screen. But more significant than the aesthetics of textual delivery for King is the fact that along with a library of novels, an e-reader like an iPad means a plethora of other distractions – games, email, movies, music – are right there, infringing on the literary space. This seems to echo Alizadeh’s fears too.

While it’s sort of exciting in the abstract to imagine Jonathan Franzen rubbing shoulders 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 pages or so of The Corrections.

In other words, as Alizadeh fears, it may just be easier to not read the book at all – as for the owner of an e-reader there is always the maybe forever deferred potential that you might read the book – after checking your email, your Twitter feed, your Facebook page, etc, etc. So changes in the ways people are reading are increasingly viewed as threats to the future of books – and the deep immersion that has characterised reading novels. Yet, there’s something quite pleasurable about reading this particular book – partly the short length of each essay which makes reading in bite sized chunks of time very easy, excellent for the e-reader who feels the lure of connectivity, and need not wait too long to see what else is happening.

But what about the writers of the future? Lauren Groff’s contribution is made up of short reflective questions in the form of present tense observations and futuristic predictions, mostly fearful and bleak: “A writer of the future sits in her office in the present, trying very hard not to panic.” The future writer might dictate his or her novel to an omnipotent electronic scribe, yet still find the resultant prose hard to sell on the mean streets of literary indifference. I like one of her final predictions, though, as it reflects the underlying positivity in this collection.

Of the many predictions that one can make about the writer of the future, there is only one that holds a whiff of the indisputable: that the writer of the future is the writer who writes. He is the one drawing word after word, pushing his sentences outward, into the darkness, into the thrilling unknown.

Yet the sum of views in this collection indicate that the writer of the future will be writing much more for love than money – but – hasn’t this always been the case? Poetry might sustain the soul but not the body, etc … The difference is that now so much writing is available for free, and e-readers make accessing that free content so much easier. Quality writing can still be accessed for a premium, but there is usually a selection of articles from the top publications available to tempt readers into taking out a subscription. In her essay in the collection Sonya Chung appears to echo the fears expressed by Graham Swift, above, that “the writer … will be the first to be edged out from whatever minuscule monetary rewards he managed to eke out in the first place.” But later in her piece she suddenly becomes more optimistic – reflecting the pendulum swing from the immaterial back towards the tangible which she feels might characterise the future of books, reading and writing. Isn’t it highly likely, Chung ponders, that a trajectory that seems inescapable might just turn back on itself as the consequences result in corporeal alienation, impoverishment of spirit, and “shallow pools of generalism”? In other words, the digital age might just be a phase which humanity will likely get over.

Perhaps she’s right – still, it depends on one’s perspective, as for most things. This collection of essays contains quality writing from quality writers, yet it comes in small bytes and is as easy to consume on a Kindle as it is to fold back the smooth pages of a paperback. The extremes of the pendulum to which Chung refers will be with us for a while – on the one side the panicked, nostalgic and alarmist rhetoric of the death of the book (and its victim writers,) and on the other, the voices of invention, expansion, and evolution. There’s no guarantee that this evolution, if it proceeds, will lead to a bright future for writers – but no age of humanity has ever promised writers a bright future. The only thing which writers really need to succeed is readers, and after reading the essays in The Late American Novel one comes away with a profound sense that there are more readers than ever before, looking for quality writing they can both read and respond to – consume and produce. Should the literary world remain an elite bastion of taste and style, or should it allow itself to be immersed in a growing culture of mash-ups and hyperlinks? This collection confirms that the pendulum will continue to swing over that either bleak or exciting prospect for some years to come.


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