Literature can accommodate nostalgia, but only as a houseguest; if nostalgia becomes the landlord, architect and psychoanalyst, literature will have to evict itself.
Clean Bill of Health: The Novel’s Myriad Roads to Recovery
As the luminaries raced to diagnose Literature as if they were doctors on the season finale of House, 21st-century Literature was going viral on the Internet and in the little magazines. You lived through it, so I’ll spare you the details, but please tolerate 10 quick bullet points (in no special order) illustrating how vigorously literature and publishing were shaken during the 10 years since Franzen’s essay appeared:
- Oprah’s Book Club went supernova.
- Entire forests breathed sighs of relief as dozens of print book review sections went the way of the Dodo.
- Online venues like this one have replaced or at least supplemented the literary supplements.
- Millions of devoted bibliophiles reluctantly began e-reading.
- Instead of disappearing, print became more democratized, insofar as anyone with access to word processing software and a few hundred dollars can publish their own book in seven to 10 business days.
- Tiny presses and lit mags are sprouting like tulips or dandelions, depending on your worldview.
- Those tiny presses are now winning Pulitzers and National Book Awards and National Book Critics Circle Awards, and those tiny lit mags are landing more stories and essays in the Best anthologies.
- “Literary” genre novels are A-OK!
- The mainstream pop entertainment complex regularly taps literary novelists like Franzen, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Safran Foer, Richard Price, David Benioff, Jennifer Egan, and others to provide rich source material for big-budget dramas.
- A writer like Ben Marcus, whose sublimely weird The Age of Wire and String originally appeared with Dalkey Archive, is now published by Knopf, complete with prominent coverage in major outlets, a swell tour, and a trippy trailer.
Now I’m neither a doctor nor an esteemed literary critic, but it seems that either the literary culture has made a miraculous recovery, or it wasn’t that sick in the first place.
I find it hard to understand why the technologically sophisticated is necessarily more visceral. The viscera are visceral, the old primitive gut: this pain, this pleasure, now. At the same time, I share Shields’s weariness with novels that, however elegant and intelligent, appear merely to be going through the motions, to be aimed above all at creating the package that will lead to prominence on the world stage, or at least commercial success (the two are almost the same thing).
If there is a problem with the novel, and I’m agreed with Shields that there is, it is not because it doesn’t participate in modern technology, can’t talk about it or isn’t involved with it; I can download in seconds on my Kindle a novel made up entirely of emails or text messages. Perhaps the problem is rather a slow weakening of our sense of being inside a society with related and competing visions of the world to which we make our own urgent narrative contributions; this being replaced by the author who takes courses to learn how to create a product with universal appeal, something that can float in the world mix, rather than feed into the immediate experience of people in his own culture.
Tim Park both agrees and argues with David Shields in “Writing Adrift in the World.”