Laura Miller, writing in The Guardian, examines the uneasy relationship between literary fiction and the internet. Citing a spate of recent works incorporating the emergence of our digital lives, Miller suggests that "the situation has begun, tentatively, to change."
Her readings of Chronic City, Super Sad True Love Story, A Visit from the Goon Squad, Freedom and other novels from the past few years is more of catalog of examples than it is analysis, but the essential question she asks at the outset is an interesting one: is it the province of literary fiction to show us our lives as they are now?
The problem, as Miller sees it, is this:
the American novelist is buffeted by two increasingly contradictory imperatives. The first comes as the directive to depict "The Way We Live Now" – a phrase whose origins in the title of a Trollope novel have been almost entirely obscured by countless deployments in reviews and publisher's blurbs….Which brings us to the other designated special province of the literary novelist: museum-quality depth. The further literature is driven to the outskirts of the culture, the more it is cherished as a sanctuary from everything coarse, shallow and meretricious in that culture.
In her estimation, the balancing of the “contemporary life” imperative is “incompatible” with “depth”: tweets, likes, views, LOLcats and the like being too insubstantial to sustain the gaze of a serious writer:
Literature is where you retreat when you're sick of celebrity divorces, political mudslinging, office intrigues, trials of the century, new Apple products, internet flame wars, sexting and X Factor contestants – in short, everything that everybody else spends most of their time thinking and talking about.
The main logical error, here, is the assumption that the Internet has ushered in a new era of frivolity. It seems to me equally likely that the Internet has not created this fascination with the frivolous but merely spectacularly exposed it. That we make manifold snap, public judgments now does not mean that we didn't used to make snap private ones. That we are served a buffet of voyeuristic dishes now does not mean we didn't have the appetite before. Of course, this frivolity may turn out not to be worth expending literary energy on, this will be for the writers themselves to decide, but that there isn’t yet a robust corpus of work about it doesn’t mean there cannot be one.
Some historical perspective might be illuminative, if only to show that literary treatments of “frivolity” do have the ability to become, paradoxically, Timeless. In Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf plumbed the artifice and hand-wringing of a woman about the party she was throwing. Wharton’s most celebrated works portrayed the comings and goings of polite society. I suspect that our digital age is but the most recent, and perhaps most radically altered, manifestation of social manners. That reply cards and the complex social signification of flowers have been replaced by Facebook friends and Twitter followers doesn’t mean that the undergirding desire to be seen, heard, and taken seriously is all that different.
As is the case in human life, the surfaces of our existence are not surfaces only, but entry points into the lower depths of our condition. Miller herself seems to have committed a digital-age error by noticing the absence of something and positing its impossibility, of mistaking the slowness of consideration for vexed consternation. As much as we have a hard time waiting for it these days, time will tell.