Fiction's Future: Elaborations
We smile ruefully, knowing that serious readers are a tiny minority within a tiny minority, and that we have no discernable economic effect on anything. And we can complain, if we like, about the decline in the cultural status of literature over the past 150 years, but we run the risk of sounding like we’re yelling at These Rotten Kids Today for abandoning the telegraph machine in favor of Facebook and Twitter. For there isn’t much chance that literature will regain its former cultural prominence as a mass information technology—or as an agent of “civilization.” But as Wendy Griswold has recently argued in her book Regionalism and the Reading Class (2007), our narratives of decline and fall depend precisely on this kind of jury-rigging in which we take anomalous high points as the norm. Noting the “universal pattern” throughout the world in which “no sooner does a popular reading culture get established than commentators start worrying about the decline of reading,” Griswold points out that
Reading for entertainment by the general population is something very rare and very recent. Reading has always been associated with education and with urban social elites. Although contemporary commentators deplore the decline of “the reading habit” or “literary reading,” historically the era of mass reading, which lasted from the mid-nineteenth through the mid-twentieth century in northwestern Europe, Japan, and North America, was the anomaly. Today reading is returning to its former, narrower social base: a self-perpetuating minority that I have called the reading class.
And there’s fiction’s future, lying somewhere in the heart of the heart of the reading class.
Stephen J. Burn
In American fiction’s past, Herman Melville—sensing parallels between the workings of his own mind and the widening horizons outside himself—observed that “not the smallest atom stirs or lives in matter, but has its cunning duplicate in mind.” In our current cultural moment, as novelists increasingly see society in terms of complex systems and emergent properties, the reputed most complex object in the universe—the human brain, with its constellation of neurons—provides fiction’s future with, as Melville intuited, perhaps its most powerful symbol for talking about both self and world. But while contemporary writers are exploring what H.G. Wells called “the brain organization of the modern world,” the brain is also central to fiction’s future because over the last twenty years, in particular, the sciences of mind have progressively invaded and reordered disciplines, such as literature, that have traditionally explored and explained the self. Writing in Nature in 1997, the behavioral neurologist V.S. Ramachandran and J.J. Smythies dismissed the “metaphorical explanations” of psychology as a series of “passing fads” that withered next to neurobiology’s landmark breakthroughs and materialist theories. This reductionist movement to scientize the humanities already shapes fiction. Two years before Ramachandran and Smythies, Evan Dara offered a neat summation of this trend: “psychology becomes biology becomes chemistry becomes physics” in FC2’s The Lost Scrapbook. But these vast disciplinary redistributions of power inevitably require a meta-form such as the novel to face a much deeper reformulation of its codes and conventions, and whether looking back explicitly to Melville and Wells or not, fiction’s future may be a kind of neurofiction, simultaneously informed by and contesting the authoritative claims of the neuronal explanation of identity.
When approaching an innovative work of prose, a reader will ask, “Is this collaged, procedural, constraint-based? Is this influenced by Gertrude Stein, Jorge Luis Borges, Kathy Acker?” This kind of analysis—as used in critical exegesis—will become a compositional element, even as, in many works, it already has.
The future of fiction?
Can as well ask: What is the future of death?
What is the future of joy, or of sorrow?
What’s to be expected of love?
We keep living, and loving, and dying away, and saying what we can say about it. So long as this keeps going—living and loving and dying away—so long as the fixers of things can’t fix everything—the tattered bowel, the flaccid heart—so long as there is music and wind in the trees and that last man clinging to that last red rock, so long as there are John Milton and Sappho, Virginia Woolf and Samuel Beckett and Gertrude Stein, so long as sun and such stars at night and a frog or two left in the poisoned pond, we’ll record in prose and record again the imagined lives about us.
Fiction isn’t in peril.
Plenty else is—but not fiction, not the human enterprise, not the want to understand ourselves despite the news that we cannot.
We are keepers, preservers. We live on hungrily, as though the news of what we harm hasn’t reached us.
We harm plenty.
And hope to make amends.
I write this from among the tubules, where the nanoguys assemble themselves into organizations sometimes useful. I loom here like a journalist on assignment, not to spy but to observe. Though miniscule in this expression of myself, I am not diminished. Fiction is my citadel, and its future my obsession. I see God in these nanotubes, and realize that is where It sequesters these days. There the future of fiction abides. Louis Aragon called the idea of God a “psychological mechanism, a disgusting and vulgar idea.” If only he’d had access to these nanoplaces. These miniweensy ones treat me with respect. They are interested, indifferent, neutral, vicious, curious, aloof, polite, whimsical, dangerous, sly, murderous, nurturing, all the modes. One thing I’ve observed about the nanocritters is that all their molecules are on the surface. How to translate that into the production of fiction is a conundrum, since authors’ molecules are invariably found at differing depths. Nanos are almost impossible to influence, particularly into useful thicknesses and functions. They occasionally do give some hope by rhyming, or coming together in suggestive narrative thrusts like, “In the wax jungle where the elbow meets…” and nothing more so far, but hopeful. I know I can’t influence them, but I can raise on this tiny flag shaved of cork flutter, the word of advice presented to his students by Sun Lu Tang when asked how to improve their skills, how to “get it”—PRACTICE! I observe that these do practice, constantly. As if they have no choice. As if they have no time to waste. Fiction is their priority. They have many priorities, and fiction is one of them. O dear fiction, unscrunch the pages and bind us again. By hanging with the nanos, although I can hardly say I’ve hooked up, I can’t but present great hope for the future of fiction.
If human life continues on our planet, stories will be told and storytellers will write their tales, publish them, or “post” them. Fiction will persist, but it may become quicker and shorter—if longer forms continue, they’ll be offered in installments.
Online journals are already posting “Micro-novels.” In Japan, young writers have created a new genre of “reality novel” they text message to their readers.
Is this a sad postmodern destiny for literary fiction? Does the twenty-first-century life defy depth, vision, and aesthetic quality? Not necessarily.
What would Honoré de Balzac and Charles Dickens think of modern novels? The coming generations of this new century may tweet and text message, they may hop from one useless information to another, but some of them will take literature seriously and will write stories in new forms that do not necessarily satisfy the modernist taste.
What I’m thinking is, fiction as an art has adapted itself to the structure of societies and pace of life, but has not ceased to exist and it cannot—as long as humans live, experience, imagine, and tell stories.
Conceptual writing, still under construction as a twenty-first-century literary form, includes many kinds of work and techniques, such as appropriation, documentation, constraint, process, performance, polyvocality, construction via search engine, and the overtly baroque.
While conceptual poetry has been staking its claims and counter-claims in the avant community for a number of years, conceptual fiction has barely begun. Fiction will have to address itself at its roots: what are the core elements of fiction as a genre, and how will those elements withstand the current crisis in language—not the twentieth century’s crisis of signification, but the more radical crisis of language’s excess? What will fiction become in the age of digital reproduction? What will be a character, a plot, a point of view? In what forms will we will our other content containers? There is too much language within, and far too much information without. Copyright is quaint, and the narrative arc as old hat as a silk stovepipe. Will we reuse, recycle, /i.e./, plagiarize? Or will we make still more, accelerating our linguistic demise? Conceptual writing requires a thinkership more than a readership: in all its excessive and extant forms, language must be rethought as a material production with serial concerns. Good luck to everyone and then some.
In the twenty-first century, avant-garde fiction, long scorned as too difficult and arcane, has once again become a necessary field. Why? As R.M. Berry puts it in his Forms at War (2009), in our “zero degree of history,” “[t]he avant-garde…[doesn’t] want to surpass the present. It merely [wants] to be there.” And today the “there” is increasingly transnational. The enormous interest in the political novels of Roberto Bolaño and Javier Marías or the exophonic fiction of Yoko Tawada suggests that fiction is once again producing the conversation that matters—the conversation that, in the later twentieth century, was called “theory.”
The New York Times Remix
“[Judy Newman, president of Scholastic Book Clubs] said that some children might be drawn to a book because it comes with a sticker or a poster, but that that doesn’t mean that they’re not reading. She added that even a product like a make-your-own-jewelry kit would have a reading component in the instructions.” (Motoko Rich, “Scholastic Accused of Misusing Book Clubs,” The New York Times, 9 February 2009)
“Just a month after announcing a restructuring that led to layoffs and the shuttering of an entire division, HarperCollins Publishers hopes to jazz up its book lists by opening a new imprint. This fall the company will publish 21 new hardcover and paperback original titles under the It Books imprint, focusing on pop culture, sports, style and content derived from the Internet, like a planned collection of Twitter posts called ‘Twitter Wit.’” (Motoko Rich, “HarperCollins Puts Its Money on New ‘It Books’ Imprint,” The New York Times, 4 March 2009)
“So I wrote a book about a kid who worked in a big investment bank. The opening scene was the bonus dinner. I had a friend who told me about them. The partners have envelopes in front of them with the bonuses. But they don’t know how much they are. You have to sit there and stare all through all evening at this envelope with your bonus in it. And in this scene, one guy opens his envelope and gets nothing and he goes crazy. The book, called ‘The Takeover,’ goes on to describe a secret society that tries to bring down the banking system.”
“Since then, I have written 15 more books. I quit banking in 1995 to write full time. I would take people in finance out for drinks at the end of the day, once a week, and say ‘Tell me some stories.’ That lasted four years, and led to lots of ideas, and then I started to get stale.”
“I earn mid-six figures writing novels and still do some financial consulting.”
“‘Forced Out,’ a baseball novel that is out now, and ‘Hell’s Gate,’ a novel that will be out in August (about the forest fires in the Western United States), are departures from my first 14 books.”
“These books aren’t set on Wall Street and in Washington, and I think that’s a good thing. I’m not sure people want to read books that are heavy on finance and national politics when every time they look at their I.R.A. or 401(k) statements they’ve lost more money and every time they watch the news they get mad.” (Stephen Frey, “From Finance to Fiction,” The New York Times, 4 April 2009)
Fiction’s future may be neatly summarized.
A fricassee, of course, delights by being both verbal and nominal: the stewed mash prepared in a dense, often white sauce, and, also, the process of making the mix (or remix).
Fast-forward “x” number of years compacted against the space of the mediascape the cyberscape the inner landscape of the spine writhing against the off-ramps of the superhighway the low-orbiting spaceways of faster-than-sound passenger aircraft, and FICTION becomes suitably transformed.
FICTION as product. FICTION as process.
2119: Six hundred years since Cortes and his men begin their conquest of what we now, today at least, call Mexico. Let’s FICTION up that mess with Quetzalcoatl—the plumed serpent related to the wind, the morning, to merchants, crafts, knowledge—bursting across the sky in gigantic cyborg bio-steel frame.
Don’t check your cell phone your Web visualizer your e-book reader your ThinkBook page burning behind your parietal lobe. The eye of the sun is the eye of FICTION, and this is Conquest 2.0. Here, we FICTION things up, and, for a single moment at least, the wind done gone.
Yes. I know. Too dependant upon the patriarchal postcolonialist narrative intended to make everybody feel better. Yes, of course.
So, let’s see what else you can cover in genetically enciphered white sauce. Throw everything into the pot.After all, it’s everyone’s guess how the FICTION will taste?
William V. Spanos
The craft of fiction is easy to master. But to learn even the slightest thing about the world that fiction is intended to represent demands total immersion in the infinitely various and contradictory anarchic archive that thinking/imagining it has produced. That immense undecidable realm is the destructive element—the vortex which, in taking you down to its absent center, either will drown you or will vomit you up as the orphan you have to be to write fiction that’s commensurate with the world that is our occasion. The writing workshop is a safe haven. As such, it will never produce a Herman Melville or a Thomas Mann or a Thomas Pynchon.
James Whorton, Jr.
I have lately heard writers say two things over and over: 1) fiction is now boring and irrelevant and 2) creative nonfiction, to be truthful, must bend facts. Really? Maybe what is asked for is a fiction that is less creative. Leo Tolstoy in his essay on Guy de Maupassant’s short stories wrote, “Maupassant possessed talent, that is, the gift of attention, which in the objects and phenomena of life revealed to him those qualities which are not visible to other men.” Further on Tolstoy refers again to “the remarkable power of his talent, that is, of that peculiar, strained attention, directed upon an object, in consequence of which the author sees entirely new features in the life which he is describing.” And again: “Maupassant had talent, that is, he saw things in their real form, and so he involuntarily revealed the truth.” Never does Tolstoy associate talent with the ability to make things up. It’s the opposite: the gift is attention, or the ability to see things as they are.
The first time I saw Mitt Romney was in 2006, on C-SPAN. He wasn’t on stage but among some empty folding chairs, grabbing people as they wandered into the hall a few at a time. He didn’t appear to know the camera was on. Who was this well-groomed fellow with a kind word for every stranger? He was only a man making small-talk, but C-SPAN had put a square around him. Just that—the square with some life inside it—was almost art.
From the perspective of cognitive science, we’ll never get enough of fictional narratives because they grant us access, however illusory, to what as a social species we value most of all: other people’s minds. Our evolved cognitive adaptations for “mind-reading” (aka “Theory of Mind”) constantly prompt us to scrutinize observable behavior in terms of unobservable thoughts, feelings, desires, and intentions. So important is this mind-reading ability for our species that, at least on some level, we do not distinguish between attributing states of mind to real people and attributing them to fictional characters. Figuring out what Mr. Darcy is thinking when he visits the Bennets with Mr. Bingley, stays mostly silent, and looks “serious as usual,” feels almost as important as figuring out what a real-life attractive stranger is thinking as she looks us in the eye and holds forth on how she enjoyed reading the book that we currently have in our hands. Thus, the pleasure afforded by following various minds in fictional narratives is to a significant degree a social pleasure—an illusive but satisfying confirmation that we remain competent players in the social game that is our life. Different cultural representations—novels, movies, plays, paintings, reality shows, and computer games—engage our Theory of Mind in different ways, overlapping in some respects, but not reducible to one another. Hence, we’ll always read fiction: some of us more than others, some of us more at certain times than at others, some of us more of certain kinds than of others.