Thursday, November 08, 2007

Exploding a trend piece

Equal parts on-the-nose and highly arguable; overall a very worthwhile read. On the nose:
The “death of print,” the “death of literature,” the “death of books,” and the death of reading culture — the death of irony, and now the death of the short story — nothing dies more quickly than the “death of” article...

Great novels and short stories separate us from our fellow human beings, temporarily. They might leave us better equipped to imagine their suffering upon our return. But during the experience, we’re disengaged, sometimes mute. In that sense, serious fiction seems diametrically opposed to the kinds of imaginary communities, games, interactions, and buzzing, surfing, and chatting experiences available online. “Only connect,” E. M. Forster once wrote, but the how and why of connecting online seems categorically different from how fiction works. That quality of all-consuming solitary readerly absorption — what Birkerts champions as “depth” — is essentially humane and its evaporation is alarming. For many the plug-in required to run serious fiction gets disused or was never installed at the factory to begin with because the developers considered it a fancy and unnecessary optional extra. But the real question is whether the Internet and other new digital platforms are more of the same assault begun by movies, television, cable, and computer games, or whether, after serious fiction writing reaches its nadir, it can re-infiltrate the culture using a combination of books, the Web, and wireless screens. Call me, Ishmael — or, better yet, text me — when the answer emerges, because I don’t pretend to know.
Highly arguable:
No pessimism of any sort can be admitted in the cheerful propaganda dispensed by the Glee Club of technology boosters who claim they’re going to save literature using Web sites, blogs, POD publishing, National Novel Writing Month, podcasts, iPhones, e-books, and the like. According to the gurus of the interweb, the cultural changeover from print to digital is supposed to usher in a golden tomorrow of universal democratic access. Sony, Amazon, and Google are the latest contenders in new e-book schemes that most people thought died a whimpering backroom death in the 1990s. HarperCollins is touting browsable free samples of books for the iPhone, starting with Ray Bradbury. Amazon is starting a fiction contest with Penguin, featuring online submissions to be judged by Amazon’s top citizen-soldier book reviewers. And from this day forward until the last instant of recorded time, every Harlequin Romance — hundreds of titles a year — will be downloadable from the privacy of one’s home.

The short fiction writer’s reaction to most of this stuff is probably “Ugh.” Students and business travelers, who can ditch armloads of books and read from a palm-sized device, will probably rejoice over the new e-books. These devices make the skin of most writers crawl. Many if not most serious fiction writers still think of digital media as a threat rather than an opportunity. The online world, especially for the older crowd, is still conventionally depicted as a kind of South Bank of London filled with the literary equivalent of bear-baiting.
A big leap, methinks, hence the "probably" in the first sentence of paragraph #2 to soften the claim. Somehow I doubt "serious" fiction writers look at e-books as a threat; I think what Tyree refers to elsewhere in his essay as "the human need for a story and a storyteller" will supersede any quibbles about how it's delivered. People seek out stories to make sense of the world, in whatever form, and all these various forms of new media are just new wrinkles, new ways to bring clarity to all the madness. Reading, for some, is like faith is for others; it doesn't matter how you do it, just that you're doing it. Anything beyond that is to your own benefit. Probably.

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