Lazarus in Print: Notes on The Late American Novel

Posted on | May 6, 2011 | 2 Comments play olg slots online

There are two narratives about the “future of fiction” that refuse, not without reason, to die.  The first is practical: how will the novel survive in a media landscape increasingly hostile to long-form reading, also known as “the book”?  Of these there is no shortage, though by now we’ve moved from articles about the death of the book to articles about articles about the death of the book.  The literary world is fond of cataloguing the conditions of its own demise.  (The whole discourse brings to mind nothing so much as the Monty Python scene where the plague victim gets thrown onto the wagon of corpses.  “I’m not dead!” he protests.  “I’m getting better!”)  The second question is aesthetic: what should the novel of the future be?  What tack should literature take? Articles in this camp tend to be a little less frequent, though no less anxious.  Recent entries include Tao Lin’s parodic rehashing of thirty years worth of realism/postmodernism skirmishes and, more obliquely, Garth Risk Hallberg’s heady rejoinder to Zadie Smith’s now-famous essay “Two Paths for the Novel.”

My hope, in picking up The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, was that it would address both questions, ideally together.  The book is a collection of short essays on, well, exactly what it sounds like, that comes with an impressive pedigree: it’s co-edited by C. Max Magee of The Millions and includes among its contributors Jonathan Lethem, David Gates, and Rivka Galchen, to name just a few.  The admirable goal of the book, it seems, is to get these questions out of the hands of the commentariat and into those of the writers themselves—in most instances novelists.  “We wanted to hear from some of today’s most promising literary voices, to find out if they are optimistic, apathetic, or just scared shitless,” the editors explain.  But what do we actually hear?  The schism begins with the title: are we talking about novels or books more broadly?  About contemporary American fiction or the technology that delivers it?

The collection follows through on the apathy and fear the editors promise; optimism is harder to come by.  Among the highlights: Owen King on old people playing video games, Marco Roth on the decline of industry, Rudolph Delson on imagining Portnoy’s Complaint in 1910.  (You’ll have to trust me that these things do have to do the future of the book.)  But what’s really striking is that, while there’s a smattering of smart, concerned pieces, many of the contributors seem remarkably uninvolved with the premise of the collection, whatever it may be.  The reigning sentiment seems to be, in the tautological formulation of Lauren Groff, that “Of all the many predictions that one can make about the writer of the future, there is only one that holds a whiff of the indisputable: that the writer of the future is the writer who writes.”  One must only muster the will to keep pattering at the keyboard—email and Twitter don’t count—and everything else will take care of itself.  Victoria Patterson is more straightforward: “I brood over my work rather than the fate of the book industry.”  Rivka Galchen has a cloyingly whimsical entry on…paper getting the avian flu? play online blackjack ipad

Maybe it’s admirable, this faith in the durability of writing—I have more than a touch of it myself—but in The Late American Novel, it mostly comes off as evasive.  Is that really all it takes?


2 Responses to “Lazarus in Print: Notes on The Late American Novel

  1. Lisa Ahn
    May 7th, 2011 @ 1:28 pm

    I haven’t read the collection, but I get a similar vibe from the broader discussion of the same questions on social media platforms. The feeling seems to be that writers just need to keep on writing, keep on trucking. The offshoots of that discussion tend to focus on branding or marketing — making sure that authors have a virtual presence, encouraging authors to develop apps to go with their novels, fan pages, email lists.
    While I appreciate all of those tips from a marketing standpoint, I’m also interested in where the stories are going, so to speak. What may or may not change in the way we string words together, in our metaphors, our sentence structures?
    As always, you raise these questions succinctly and eloquently. Thanks for the conversation.

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  2. Morgan
    May 8th, 2011 @ 10:31 am

    Your comments remind me of the running perception in the arts world more broadly that artists are those who feel compelled to make art. This premise assumes that the industry surrounding the artists, in this case publishing, can find an audience for the work. But, what is less explored, is both how much artists are willing or interested in taking feedback and how much that input from the industry changes their work and thus the artform (as Lisa raises in her post).
    Interesting questions. I will definitely add this to my to-read pile.

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