Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Internet Fiction: Too Soon to Tell

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. 


  1. Very interesting point and I love the way you point out that these human conditions aren't necessarily new but exposed. Thanks for the food for thought.

  2. Great post. I agree that the frivolous hobbies of people aren't new but the internet certainly makes them easier to see.

  3. And I'm the third to agree. It seems a little too simplistic to say the "contemporary life" and "depth" are mutually exclusive. Is this truly what she's saying? While the perspective of time may make it a bit easier to achieve depth I really can't see that it's a necessary precursor. In fact isn't our literature stronger for having a range of perspectives from very contemporary ones to those written with some benefit of hindsight? Or, have I missed something?

  4. Amy-
    I should have made clear that is possible that they are new, but it's quite difficult to know that, certainly more difficult that most people who say things about the internet realize.

    And perhaps if they are easier to see, then they are more readily indulged; if I see that my friends spend most of their time making snap judgement, then perhaps my own predilection for snap judgments is heightened and authorized.

    She says they are "incompatible."

    It's not a necessary condition, someone could nail the ethos of today immediately, but I think history has shown that we have a better sense of these things in hindsight. I think one development might be the maturation of a generation of writers who didn't know a world without web, so their writing will have digital culture built into it; it won't be something they have to wedge into their writing, it will be a natural byproduct of writing about life as they know it.

  5. When Miller points out the fundamental contradiction between the imperative to depict contemporary existence and the perceived banality of that existence, I can't help but think that it's a novelist's job to try to make sense of contradictions such as these. It's their role to tease some insights from the shallowness of the internet and to expound on how the general state of humanity as been affected by it. As a non-novelist, I would think that this is be an incredibly rich vein to mine and, as you mentioned in your last comment, a generation of novelists who were raised in this culture will undoubtedly and unavoidably do so. Great post!

  6. Pete-
    Yes. And to Miller's credit, she does note how a few authors are trying such a reconciliation. Shytengart is particularly adept at taking the contemporary mood and extending it ad absurdum. I think this is a case of starting with a too strong premise without considering fully its implications.

  7. I think "incompatible" is a little too strong, though I do think in general "time" is a useful thing. I tend to react to categorical statements - but perhaps to her "incompatible" isn't quite as categorical as it comes across to me.

  8. Frankly, I think her argument is ridiculous. If there is a dearth of literature that truly shows how we live now, then I think the problem is that the change (internet, cellphones etc) has barely spanned more than a decade, at this point.  As such, it's not abundantly clear to established writers, much less ordinary folk, in which ways our lives have been most profoundly changed by these technologies. This "problem" will resolve itself because new generations of writers will not feel obligated to say something profound about the ways in which human societies have been forever changed in recent years. They will have lived the change, never having known anything different.  Thus, the profound ways in which we have changed will be spontaneously and naturally reflected in their writing. The first of these generations is only now just approaching the age at which some of them will begin careers as professional writers, unencumbered by the second-guessing that a seasoned writer might face while trying to figure out "what to say,"  about who we are today as opposed to who we were fifteen years ago. That is a daunting task for someone standing on the cusp of the paradigm shift.  But, for people planted firmly on the other side of it, it will be harder to write something that doesn't incorporate the profound ways in which we have changed. 

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