For Monday’s Book Club discussion, click here.

The Full Stop Book Club is a regular feature in which Full Stop editors and guests discuss a book in detail over the course of a week.  Our first Book Club selection is The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, edited by Jeff Martin and The Millions‘ C. Max Magee (Soft Skull Press, 2011), and our panel consists of five Full Stop editors – Alex Shephard, Amanda Shubert, Eric Jett, Max Rivlin-Nadler, and Jesse Montgomery.  Our discussion happened (continues to happen) over a long e-mail thread in which we responded to the book and to each other, so the pieces we printed below are not essays so much as shares in an ongoing conversation that will extend from Monday to Friday, with two or three voices represented each day. Check back for daily updates.

 

 

Eric Jett (Full Stop Web Editor):

“Fiction – the old transaction, the old transmission – just seems to springily retake the basic shape that it was put into by Austen and Dickens.” Where Amanda sees stability, I see stagnation. To me, the novel as we know it is an exhausted form, and it has been for quite some time.

Many situations should be forbidden, all getting and losing of jobs, proposals of marriage, reception of love-letters by either sex (especially if they are hugged closely and taken up to attics or the familiar seat in the apple tree), all allusion to illness or suicide (except insanity), all quotations, all mention of genius, promise, writing, painting, sculpting, art, and the phrases “I like your stuff,” “What’s his stuff like?” “Damned good,” “let me make you some coffee,” all remarks like “darling, I’ve found this most wonderful cottage” (flat, castle), “Ask me any other time, dearest, only please – just this once – not now,” “Love you – of course I love you” (don’t love you) – and “It’s not that, it’s only that I feel so terribly tired.”

This is from Cyril Connolly’s More About the Modern Novel, which was published in 1935, but it could have easily been included in this collection. It is meant to be humorous, of course; if we eliminated all these conventions, there would be nothing left but insanity (which Connolly might consider adding to the list in 2011). But it raises a serious question, one that is asked over and over in The Late American Novel: why is the novel, inside and out, so resistant to change?

Of course, there are people who look back on the novel more fondly, people like Owen King, who believes that the novel offers something, an incisive whisper, that no other medium can. I agree. But that belief does not blind King to the possibility that this whisper may one day be drowned out by other media. After all, what will a whisper be to generations that will wake up wearing custom-molded, noise-canceling, wireless in-ear headphones with bass boost and bluetooth? And as readers move to laptops and iPads, how will the quiet, solitary act of reading compete with the nagging itch to alt-tab to the browser and check their email (which some are already denouncing as too slow)? How will a folder of PDFs stack up against a link to streaming HD movies and a shortcut to the latest MMORPG (which will not only involve them in an engrossing, nonlinear story, but will also allow them to navigate that story with persons – not characters – from around the world)?

A degree of Luddism has always dragged behind advancement (telegrams were once decried, like text messages, for their bastard abbreviations), and it is usually overblown. Kindles aren’t atomic bombs, after all. But without addressing these concerns, several pieces seem naive and short-sighted. Some writers, like Joshua Gaylord and Nancy Jo Sales, whose love of books is more sentimental than intellectual, can’t imagine a world without books, it seems, because they can’t imagine a world without themselves, without Golden Age children pulling Radio Flyers full of French flaps and deckle edges or full-fledged authors hauling swollen boxes labeled Balzac-Bellow.

While I can empathize with these writers – I too love the smell of fresh pages – I see this conservative nostalgia, which prefers memory to imagination, as a hindrance for the novel. Why can’t scroll bars, pages numbers, and file sizes replace the heft of a book? Why can’t the smell of plastic replace the smell of pulp? And if we are going to commemorate childhood, why can’t we choose to remember the curiosity, the excitement of finding something new, whether novel or novelty?

The books that I called my own, since I was a bookish kid by nature, were cheap paperbacks that rarely survived for more than a few weeks. I’d read them in bed and crush pages in my sleep or just lose them somewhere between school and home. If I got bored in class I’d doodle faces in the margins, or tear off a back cover so I could write a note to one of my boys on the blank space inside. I loved to read, but books were disposable. – Victor LaValle

My favorite pieces are those by writers who respect the past but face the future, writers like Victor LaValle, Emily St. John Mandel, and Reif Larsen, who don’t care so much about books as physical objects (there are plenty of these lying around, and they will continue to be read). Instead of worrying about how to format aging media for future devices – about whether their chiseling skills will be appreciated in an age of bronze – they are looking forward to the new directions in which technology might take them. They are adapting, and as a result, they will survive.

We should not simply recreate the sparse beauty of the printed page on the screen. We can learn from the page’s minimalism, from the power of its margins, but if we are to be true storytellers in this new medium, then we must embrace the power of the medium and move into new standards of delivery that use the page as only an instructive starting point. – Reif Larsen

What if Beckett and Barthelme failed to deform literature because they lacked the proper tools, and hypertext has been a bust because it has lacked the proper writers? What if technology is the kick in the pants the novel has needed for a century?

Max Rivlin-Nadler (Full Stop Reviews Editor):

Ah, to go fourth – I’ll keep it short this time around.  I tend to be more of an optimistic sort, while remaining steadfastly forward-looking. From the perspective of an unpublished but hopeful author, there seemed to be a kind of “thank-heavens-I’m-already-established” vibe from the sentimentalists of the group. These writers would like to hold on to what they know and be glad they’re either teaching or somehow getting paid to write. That type of energy acted as a disservice to their pieces as they clung to their myopia through overwhelming evidence that quite possibly, they just might want to explore some of these wonderful new tools. But who can blame them? A changing medium is scary shit and they have no idea how to utilize or teach it. Take any class on creating new media or combining forms and you’ll witness a total absence of focus, structure, and drive. The pillars of that academy have yet to be built (and may never be).
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I agree with the compliments regarding the Roth piece and any piece that dealt optimistically toward the production of future work – ones that emphasized that essential and honed storytelling skills will always have a place. In terms of a multimedia experience – books that sing – I think that is going to be a tall order. Writers become great writers by writing. Editing audio, video, and even more difficult, creating an app, will take away from the very engine of storytelling. They might somehow enhance the experience, but the writing itself will suffer. How to reconcile the need to branch out to new media while maintaining a level of writing we’ve come to expect from contemporary fiction (which we at Full Stop think is the total shit), and the inverse, like the students at Brown, how do we keep writing from becoming total NetArt bullshit, is what young creators must consider and conquer. It seems the older generation is just glad to have found dry land.
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Jesse Montgomery (Full Stop Managing Editor):

I agree with Amanda that there is little reason to believe that books are dying or deforming. As with most prophesies of apocalypse, this one seems trumped up, confused, and lazy. I say this not only because I disagree on temperamental grounds – I’ve always considered the end of the world to be overstatement – but also because the logic surrounding the discussion is always so damn murky. What do we mean when say “book” and contemplate its future? Are we discussing questions of physicality or form? Or are we actually concerned with the future reading? If so, what kind of reading? Once the topic of the future of the book has been broached, these sorts of questions proliferate quickly, and anyone who knows what they’re getting into and is still interested in wrasslin has some serious legwork to do. Not the least of which is, as Amanda pointed out, deciding which of these questions are worth the wrassle.

This struggle to distinguish signal from noise is not, of course, an exclusively contemporary challenge. As several of the writers in the book point out, most advances in communications technologies are commonly accompanied by much wailing and gnashing of teeth. The better these technologies (the telegraph, the radio, the telephone, the smart phone, etc.) are at transmitting information, the more information exists, and the more information that exists, the harder it is to assess value.  So goes the argument, and such is our cross to bear.

The latest noisemaker – the e-reader – seems to have galvanized the contributors to The Late American Novel, unearthed not a few anxieties, and raised plenty of questions – some interesting, some less so. Despite sharing a few very similar, fairly specific concerns, such as the physicality of books, histories of readership, the effects of e-readers on mass literacy etc., the pieces in the book run the gamut from highly insightful, well-researched essays (I’m looking at you Marco Roth, Benjamin Kunkel, and Kyle Beachy) to meandering exercises in woolgathering. The few woolgatherers in the collection tend to be less analytic, more “creative” solutions to the fate of the novel, most of which read like thought exercises or industry satires.

Most of the essays fall somewhere in between the wonderful and the superfluous. And, despite feeling like these essays weren’t particularly successful in diagnosing the health or trajectory of the American novel, I found myself enjoying some of these pieces a lot, precisely because of their oblique insight into the nature of the book and reading. Let me elaborate (but briefly).

Several pieces in The Late American Novel – Joe Meno’s “A Book is A Place,” Owen King’s “Not Quite as Dire as Having Your Spine Ripped Out, but…,” and Victor LaValle’ “Scribble” – touch on the subject of the book’s physicality in order to detail what would be lost if all went digital. These essays discuss what it feels like to hold a book (to perhaps make reflexive, yet culturally complex judgments based on its weight) what it means to dog-ear or annotate, and which strange details (or metadata) – smells, sounds, stains – are forever embedded in our memories of reading. This sort of thing may sound silly. Some of it is. I’m not particularly captivated by someone else’s memory of reading Franny and Zooey, for example, because I have my own (admittedly, unfortunately, less sexy than Meno’s). But I am interested in what these pieces reveal about our emotional attachment to this weird thing: the book, and this weird thing we do to it: reading.

As Sam Anderson (one of the critics featured in the New York Times’ Why Criticism Matters”) wrote in a recent NYT article on marginalia:

I’ve long been frustrated with the “distance” between criticism and reading itself. Most critical energy is expended in big-picture work — situating texts in history, talking about broad themes — all of which is useful but hardly touches the excitement of actual reading, a process of discovery that happens in time, moment by moment, line by line.

Again, I’m not suggesting that I think this is the best model for criticism – far from it. I would, however, argue that many of these less-analytic essays (and I’m using this term to distinguish from the overtly-analytic) have moments where they light on why people enjoy reading. And this question of enjoyment, of pleasure, is, I think, fairly critical when we are attempting to consider the future of the printed book.

In my more cynical, or perhaps realistic, moments, I am convinced that the printed book is, quite simply, a now inferior communications technology. The things that most people wanted from a novel – entertainment, escapism, cultural capital – are more readily delivered in more palatable packages by a host of other technologies. People put up with the book when it was the best option available, but now they’re free from its limitations and it’s all “so long! we never liked you anyway, Cuz.” Then I remind myself that this is a silly way to think; that time spent reading has been on a downward slide since my parents were born; that those who read prodigiously have always been in the minority; that,as Marco Roth notes, “there are still backward parts of the world, like the theater companies of London, New York, Paris, and Buenos Aires where human beings still commit vast amounts of words to memory.”

I never knew a Golden Age of literacy and I’m still not clear on what that looked like, or if it did indeed exist (most of my favorite writers wrote during or after reading in America entered its quantifiable decline). I am worried about the waning of the graphosphere and the world getting noisier, but not so much that I think we will forget our books and why we love them (“we” being an interesting, perhaps problematic kin to claim, but more on that later…).


 

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