On Writing Fiction These Days

Bret Easton Ellis gives an informative interview on what it means to write books these days over at Bigthink.com.

I think that Ellis is right, that portable formats such as the Kindle are not yet fully developed as reading devices (the lack of page numbers makes them unsuitable for academics and Amazon's strange delivery pricing means that publishers are loathe to include illustrations), but suggests they are already changing readership and not necessarily for the worse.

Most interesting to me, however, was Ellis's discussion of how word processing allowed authors like David Foster Wallace to achieve lengthy, extensively footnoted works more easily. 

Ellis writes: 

… when I look at a lot of fiction now and how dreary a lot of it is—and also not only how dreary a lot of it is but also I think our collective impatience with fiction, like just holding a book that's just full of words about a made-up situation, made-up characters. I mean, I think we now live in a society where we want more of that, what you're talking about.  More of an interactive experience.  We want to see images.  We want to see a lot more of a lights show or something.  That makes sense to me and I think that can be incredibly exciting.  So once that really does start happening I don't know, that could even possibly reenergize my faith in fiction.

I've argued before that fiction lost a tremendous amount of steam in the last two decades and I think that to some degree he's right. Still, this smacks of the age-old indictment of the visual and the spectacular. To me, the Internet is largely a textual experience, punctuated by imagery but far from the largely textless world of television. My sense is that the connections the Internet provides, both to people we know and to people who we don't know but with whom we share taste cultures, are more of the culprit. Why indulge in another fantasy life when you can indulge in your own? In that sense, network culture encourages an interest in what I call "immediated reality," and fiction pays the price.   

Moreover, as I argue in the Network Culture project, subjectivity is changing, away from a model of interiority toward a more modulated, schizophrenic existence in which we are composed by flows. If the centered subject emerged with the novel, then we shouldn't be surprised that the novel proves less compelling as that centered subject dissipates.  

I suspect that the Internet is also changing fiction writing in terms of research. On the one hand, the easy of retrieving information about virtually anything today can produce the sort of intensity we see in William Gibson's Zero History trilogy. On the other hand, it means that such books are subject to collective increased scrutiny as readers band together to uncover the sources of such knowledge.

I'm working on material like this in the Network Culture book and once this crazy month is over hope to have a chance to return to it with renewed energy.


Yes, against all odds, I'm trying to post more, but I should probably not acknowledge that since I'm so likely to fail.   

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death of the novel, revisited

Yesterday, my colleague Ben Vershbow at the Institute for the Future of the Book posted an excerpt from an interview with Gore Vidal in which the author suggested that the age of the novel was coming to an end. A debate on the site about Vidal's position ensued. I enter in with my argument reproduced below, but read more in the original context.

Vidal isn't the only advocate of the novel to make such an observation (John Barth famously did some time ago). Nor is he off base. Take the transformation of the New Yorker, for instance. It was once known primarily for its fiction. Shirley Jackson's the Lottery drew more mail than any story in the magazine's history and writers like Philip Roth and John Updike graced the pages. Who writes the stories for the New Yorker today? I routinely skip over the fiction and don't know anybody who reads it. Malcolm Gladwell, Adam Gopnik, and Seymour Hersch are the names I follow. In a world of insanely rapid change and daily threats to our existence (read: the Bush administration), reality is more compelling than fiction.

What surprised me is the simplicity of Vidal's argument: novelists aren't famous anymore because they don't command media attention. This is something of a tautology. We have to ask why novelists aren't famous anymore, why novels aren't such a focal point for society anymore.

Fiction is a form of virtual reality, a way of getting into someone else's head. We have new ways of doing that now. But more than that, the novel is losing its central role in society as the subject is becoming thoroughly fragmented. As Ian Watt pointed out in his Rise of the Novel, modern fiction is an 18th century product, the purest art form of the bourgeoisie, the place in which the bourgeois subject is constituted. Already 40 years ago, Roland Barthes was suggesting that the death of the author was nigh, the result of the birth of the reader. Our age of participatory media is a fulfillment of his prophecies. If we increasingly understand ourselves as nodes in a network (or multiple networks) rather than as Jeffersonian individuals, then a medium constituted by the latter model of subjectivity is obsolete. This is not to say that there won't be any great novels in the future, but remember that there was a time when poetry was a popular form. I know that some of you will consider me a philistine for saying so, but who reads poetry anymore? Fiction will slowly move in the same direction.


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