Last week in Part III Sam Byers talked about how the novel is in fact the best medium for our hyper-mediated world. Read here for Part I and Part II of his series setting out the state of technology and the novel.
ONE WAY IN WHICH the internet and, more specifically, the age of social media, may in fact change the way we read and write novels doesn’t have anything to do with distraction at all. Rather, it has to do with the opposite: a surfeit of attention.
Many years ago I remember reading in a men’s magazine a brief article, with accompanying eye-scorching photograph, about a man who had, after slightly misjudging his tolerance for angel dust (oh come on, we’ve all been there), fed parts of his face to his dogs. As you can imagine, this image stuck in my mind somewhat, and, clearly, not just mine, because some years later I came across it in Thomas Harris’s Hannibal, in which the central villain is horribly disfigured following a jolly evening with Hannibal Lecter during which Lecter plies him with PCP and then talks him through exactly the same face-shredding, dog-feeding episode described above.
It is, in the context of the novel, perfect, and it is testament to Harris’s unerring instinct for the unnerving that it is his own personal added twist that makes the image not just visually horrifying but psychologically unthinkable. It’s bad enough to think of a man high as a kite making doggie-chews of his features, but the idea of Lecter standing beside him, whispering in his ear, urging him on, is brilliant in its horror.
Nonetheless, I remember feeling slightly disappointed, not in Harris, for drawing on the incident but, if this makes sense, in myself, for knowing about it. If I hadn’t seen the article in the magazine, I would have assumed, quite naturally, that the incident arrived straight from the beautifully twisted mind of Thomas Harris. As it was, I could see what he had borrowed, and the extent to which reality had done the work of his fiction for him, and as a result a small part of the fragile clothing of the novel seemed torn, revealing the slightly less appealing body beneath.
In the age of social media, this is going to become a pretty common occurrence. Want to know what I’ve read which may or may not find its way into the next novel? Exactly what you’ve read, that’s what. Want to know how I found it? Because you tweeted it, that’s how, and then someone else did too. By the time it found it’s way into my timeline, everyone I know had read it, and several thousand people I don’t know. Worse, an awful lot of people who might go on to read my book will have ended up reading the inspiration because I, like everyone else, retweeted it after I read it.
In this echo-chamber world, where we’ve all read the same things, and where those things often have a surprisingly long half life – circulating and reappearing and lodging themselves quite firmly in the collective consciousness, there is a danger that novels, written as they are by people who spend a great deal of time at home, tinkering with the wiki-web, will become agglomerations of large chunks of infomational debris with which we are already familiar, and that, in doing so, a degree of their mystique, their, if you will, “magic,” will be lost.
But there is, of course, another way of looking at this. One of the most common arguments about the way the internet has changed our attitude to knowledge is that, increasingly, creativity is prized over basic data recall. Where before the benchmark of intelligence was being able to quote dates and chunks of classical literature verbatim (literally “knowing things”), now the emphasis is on application. Who needs facts when we all have Google on our phones? The past belonged to those who remembered; the present belongs to those who make connections, who take freely-available knowledge and apply it in ways no-one else has thought of, just as some of the most successful websites currently operating generate no actual content of their own but simply gather scraps from far-flung corners of the internet and, by gathering them, lend them a coherence they previously lacked. The future, people seem to agree, belongs to curators.
Novelists have long been the curators of culture. The novel is a greedy, absorptive form. It sucks up that which is around it; reconfigures it; spits it back out. And nor is it restricted to absorbing that which is rendered in its own form. Keith Ridgway’s recent Hawthorn and Child, notable for pushing the envelope of the novel in so many new directions, contains detailed descriptions of Youtube videos which can be searched for and verified. But we do not just “watch” Youtube videos in the book. We watch them through the narrator, and as such the videos (of fatal Formula One accidents) are translated, reframed, and pressed into the service of what Zadie Smith, in a recent podcast, termed “a new kind of realism.” Now, characters in novels do not merely walk the same streets as us; eat the same food; share the same experiences. They google what we google. They stay up late into the night watching the same random shit on the web.
Looked at this way, the notion that novels will come to contain chunks of material with which we are already familiar doesn’t look quite as new as it might at first appear. After all, characters in novels have always lived in our towns, driven along our roads and, as Don Delillo would have it, spoken in our voice. Perhaps what is “new” is merely our sense of what constitutes originality in the novel. Just as the internet has given rise to a new sort of “intelligence” in life, so perhaps it has also given rise to a new sort of “creativity” in the novel. Perhaps, in time, we will come to see novels not as original songs, but as remixes: creations in which familiar elements are reorganized and re-deployed to create something tonally unique. Perhaps, indeed, that is what the novel has always done, it’s just that now, finally, we are able to recognize it.
Of course, we can spend the rest of our lives setting up oft-repeated arguments and then knocking them down, but in the end, one fact triumphs above all the others, and that is the fact that for all the fear-mongering and hysterics, and for all the talk of how ill-adapted the novel is to embrace the technological shifts we find ourselves living through, novelists have, in fact, been dealing quite adequately with technology since almost forever. William Gibson, who gave us the term cyberspace, has shifted from writing about possible futures to creating a kind of augmented alternative present. Don Delillo wrote White Noise in order to interrogate our changing relationship with technology and in many ways has continued that interrogation through much of his subsequent work. Joshua Cohen’s recent, brilliant, collection Four New Messages offers a remarkably detailed analysis of the ways in which the internet has changed our notions of privacy and desire, even our language. And then there’s the brilliantly funny, howlingly sad work of Tao Lin, who in this single opening passage to his novel Richard Yates does more to reflect the techno-anomie and affectless stasis of a generation than almost anyone before him:
“ ‘I’ve only had the opportunity to hold a hamster once,’ said Dakota Fanning on Gmail chat. ‘Its paws were so tiny I think I cried a little.’ ”
Given that it’s so easy to find examples that put the lie to this notion that the novel is unable to cope with our not-that-new-any-more technological existence, we probably ought to pause here and ask ourselves why such an obvious myth has been allowed to proliferate with so little opposition. Do all these frothing-at-the-mouth hacks and scribes really believe in the inadequacy of their chosen medium, and indeed in the inadequacy of their readership? My suspicion is that the defensiveness and negativity inherent in these essentially self-pitying positions is a convenient mask for a much deeper, rather less noble fear.
Remember when blogs first became popular? Remember the standard critical position in broadsheets and magazines? Criticism, said the critics, was not for everyone. It was not an amateur sport. Blogs, they said, would destroy criticism, because, they implied, criticism depends on the enlightened few telling the unenlightened masses how to read, how to listen, how to think. This is not an argument that has gone away. If anything, it has become dogma. The most recent chair of judges for the Booker Prize, Sir Peter Stothard, felt moved to warn us that blogging not only threatens criticism, but indeed threatens literature, because literature depends on able criticism for its evolution. For Sir Peter (and yes, that title does rather illuminate his perspective), the proliferation of freely-available opinion on the web creates a situation in which we are no longer able to distinguish for ourselves which works of art are worthwhile and which are not. We would all like to believe that each opinion is as valuable as the next, he said, but unfortunately “not everyone’s opinion is worth the same.”
Oh. Well. There you go. Perhaps, dear reader, we should recap. You are not someone any novelist would want to write about. Your job is boring. Your hobbies are boring. You are boring. You can’t read. If you can read, you can’t have an opinion. We don’t want to write about you or hear from you. Sorry.
My suspicion is this: that much of the critical and novelistic hand-wringing we have been picking around in here has less to do with a fear that the internet will destroy reading and rather more to do with the fear that it will, as it has, proliferate writing. The real nightmare isn’t that everyone stops reading, it’s that everyone starts writing, because, ultimately, the only imaginable world in which the novelist is irrelevant is a world in which everyone is a novelist.
In the end, perhaps the answer here isn’t limited to the novel at all. Perhaps what we really need to do is just abandon, once and for all, our ridiculous conflation of change and death. Television didn’t, in the end, kill radio. Photography didn’t kill painting. Electronic music didn’t kill acoustic music. Mass production didn’t kill craft. All of these things brought change. They interrupted our patterns. But new patterns have emerged alongside new forms and new uses for forms we once thought might be growing old. Just as we mistake change for death, so too we mistake absorption for being absorbed. There is a very human fear, expressed through defensiveness and mistrust, of being subsumed, erased. Our imaginations are intimate with loss yet struggle with expansion. In art, as in life, we find it hard to embrace.
Perhaps the most corny and downright risible way of lending weight to an argument is to announce, conveniently, that there is an ancient Chinese saying that illuminates what is being discussed. I hate it when people do it in conversation, and I loathe the implication that some sort of un-verified “wisdom of the ancients” can be used to add muscle to wooly contemporary debates. But you know what? I’m going to do it anyway. There’s an ancient Chinese proverb that asks: which is larger – a door, a world, or a mouth? Or something like that, anyway. The point is the mouth is the largest thing of all, because it can contain each of the others in the form of words. Language, you see, is limitless, and because we have fashioned an existence from language, we are as limitless as the language we fashion to express ourselves, and limited only when we allow that language to be fashioned on our behalf.
Limitation serves, and has always served, the fearful few; the, if you like, aristocrats of words, who feel their grip on the future weakening, but their language is not one the rest of us readers and writers should feel obliged to speak, just as their future is not one we should feel moved to accept. We can, if we wish, make our own language, and construct from it a future in which the novel isn’t destroyed by technology; in which the readers of the future are not swallowed up by a storm-surge of echo-chamber self-indulgence and ruined attention spans. To do so, we must accept that the novel will be changed, just as everything will be changed, just as everything has always changed, even before technology came along to conveniently take the blame for changing everything. And if we don’t yet know precisely what these altered novels of the future look like it is simply because we haven’t written them yet. Only by writing them will we know what they are, and only by reading them will we learn who we have become.