Friday, October 13, 2006

The Future of the Future of Fiction

I wonder if someone should write a book of criticisim on the plethora of articles that have appeared in the last few years on the future of fiction (Slate has published the latest piece). The future of fiction just might rely on these future-of-fiction pieces, which usually combine doses of eschatological alarmism with breathy eulogies and condescension of anything truly new.

It's too bad that all of the good writing out there has to suffer from the ongoing simmer of editors trying to create an inferno of the novel's demise--or trying to raise the novel from its supposed ashes.

Consider this snippet of Walter Kirn's "correspondence" (well-paid, faux correspondence, that is) to Gary Shteyngart in Slate:

"Can written narratives represent this world? Can they convey what it feels like to inhabit it? The movies, of course, have given up trying. The best they can do in order to travel the hidden channels through which fate conducts itself these days is cut back and forth between shots of people on phones or show someone typing on a keyboard and then display what's appearing on the monitor. Novelists, with their access to the invisible, ought to be positioned to do better. How, though? I have a suspicion—that's all it is now—that the answer lies in the form's origins. I'm thinking of epistolary novels such as Richardson's Clarissa. That was the revolutionary mode once, when novels broke out of being mere prose 'romances' and started to grapple with subjectivity. It's also when they discovered the modern fact that we communicate in stylized bursts and through specific technologies. That's truer than ever now. E-mails, phone calls, Web sites, videos. They're still all letters, basically, and they've come to outnumber old-fashioned conversations. They are the conversation now."

Let me see what I think of that? Um, duh. How to represent a world dominated by email, text messaging, and Internet connections? Through text itself! Just like an epistolary novel!! Ta da!

Walter has a way of writing over-the-top, self-important prose. It's a good trait to have if you're going to write articles like this.

I must note that this series is wittily called "The Novel, 2.0" to riff smartly on the phrase Web 2.0. The problem is that Web 2.0 actually means something in terms of new spaces created by new technologies. This is only a headline meant to make readers think that the novel is also being transported into new terrains that are beyond the page.

As Kirn's observation reveals, however, the novel isn't 2.0. It goes back and forth between a variety of techniques (e.g., the epistolary novel becomes new again). The elements of a story stay somewhat the same even as the world around us changes.

That's what is quite beautiful about the novel, and human existence itself. Despite the hype of technology, we still live and love and die in ways that are similar to our distant ancestors. Shakespeare could just as easily write a good tragedy about George Bush or Bill Clinton as he did Macbeth or Richard II. Hubris happens now, even if it happens on Rep. Mark Foley's cell phone screen.

I do take comfort that magazines will pay big $ for this sort of debate for all of eternity. I can't wait until Web 3.0--hence Novel 3.0--with the hope that Slate will come looking for my sorry ass.

That said, it is nice to know that Slate cares about fiction to dedicate a week of commentary to it. It's always nice to know that somebody cares.

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