The Digital Dragon and Death of the Novel

For a long time I would employ any old reason to put off writing: I need to read more first; I don’t have anything original to say; it’s too frustrating when the words on the page don’t match the magic in my mind; it’s all been said before; no one will read what I hope to write anyway. With a bit of reflection, one could place the reasons for not writing into two main categories: 1. something is wrong with me, and 2. something is wrong with the world.

Having struggled with variations of 1 and 2 for about twenty years, I am a bit more skeptical now when a new variation comes along. Imagine having always wanted be an Auto Explorer, meaning one who explores via cars and road trips, not someone who snoops around a particular automobile. In this analogy, getting a car is as easy as getting pen and paper. But as you tentatively set out on your journey with no real destination in mind you turn the ignition and there is silence. Or the tires are flat. Or choose your metaphor. Then, after many years you get the thing in some semblance of working order and set off on the road. Ah the wind in your hair! Suddenly, the sign posts appear: Death of the Novel Ahead; Beware of Broadband; Low Maintenance Road; Dead End!

Such was the case when I read yet another article from the Literary Establishment on the Death of the Novel. The main reason cited in that essay by Will Self is the negative effects of the digital revolution on the literary arts. In other words, it’s a new variation on category 2 mentioned above. Is Digital Media the new great dragon about to lay waste our fertile countryside?

Take the case of digital media and that novel by Nabokov, Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle. There happens to be a great website dedicated to fully annotating all the twists, motifs, themes, and allusions in that novel. I believe Brian Boyd started it but my understanding is that it’s kind of crowdsourced now. Anyway, what a great ability to read a passage and be able to see an actual photo of some kind of early 20th century device mentioned in the novel. Or to be able to google a song mentioned and hear it and read the lyrics and “get” why the author puts it into the narrative.

So Will Self feels tempted to shop online for oven gloves while using a computer with a broadband connection. Some poor slobs will be tempted to surf obsessively for internet porn even while they know they are missing out on higher pursuits. That’s their problem.

What I feel really needs to happen, culture wide on a massive social scale, is readers need to be educated on what good literature is, how it works, to note the fit between form and content, and then allow people to find what is great according to their own developing tastes. From an early age in school, encourage the readers of the future to be thoughtful, reflective, and open-minded about the works they engage in. As far as age goes, you’re never too old to be exposed to true beauty.

All too often such a conversation about literary value, practically before it has even begun, ends with “to each his own.” Or, in Self’s own words, “Nor do I mean to suggest that in our culture perennial John Bull-headed philistinism wasn’t alive and snorting: “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.” However, what didn’t obtain is the current dispensation, wherein those who reject the high arts feel not merely entitled to their opinion, but wholly justified in it.”

He doesn’t really give an example here. What “high art” is being rejected on what grounds? Maybe it’s second-rate trash masquerading as “high art” and people are justified in rejecting it!

Value is always a matter of argument, and its an argument that should be made. Otherwise we stay closed, sealed off, and isolated in our own private universe of preferences. For example, a person who loves Nabokov and another reader who champions William Burroughs have a discussion. They both argue that their favorite exhibits literary quality. Others are looking on and listening to them (obviously this might happen through blogs, online discussion, or various other media) and at the end of the day, consensus is formed. Armed with a sense of taste, people seek out like-minded others (skilled writers, perceptive critics, etc.) and over time the cream comes to the top.

Given the pleasures of reading, I don’t see why that’s not a possible future. It takes effort and engagement. Otherwise people could possibly revert to a mindset of gobbling up digital M&M’s online.

My last point on the Will Self article. If reading Ulysses is your thing, really make it your thing. It took Joyce 10 years to write it and yet the reader expects, what? to get a meaningful experience by reading it once? I don’t think so. Read the critics who have read it and studied it and who are steeped in a literary culture. Then reread Ulysses again and again and again, really know it. Take it apart and put it back together again. I’m only saying this to those people who claim to find value in it but who likely don’t even know it that well. To those who really come to know it after all that labor (a process mix of satisfactions and frustrations), it will be more rewarding than watching all those multi-season TV shows that some people rave about. And they will be able to say why reading Ulysses is more valuable than watching Mad Men.

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  1. Andrew Oberg
    Posted May 18, 2014 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    Re: Teaching reading, I think that this is probably more necessary now than ever. In a recent article on Burroughs’ centenary in the London Review of Books it is pointed out that both his staccato writing style and the ideas about which he wrote predicted the flitting attention spans we’ve developed to such a large degree. The Twittering of our minds, if you will. As such, people find less value in extended texts that require a sustained effort, and unless we simply want to give up it seems essential to start instructing young children about both the pleasures of reading itself and how the skills you gain from that can be applied elsewhere.

  2. Nick Cody
    Posted May 19, 2014 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    The instruction could start with school-age children or adolescents but I don’t see why it wouldn’t also apply to adults. Without being disparaging at all, I can say quite confidently that I learned more about “how to read a novel” outside of school than I ever did inside one. To know that something is beautiful or great AND have an idea what makes it so can be profound and life-affirming, no matter what the age of the reader.

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