“Crisis averted,” declares Mark Athitakis about the latest crisis in the novel. In a recent conference, “The Crisis of American Fiction,” Jay McInerney pointed out that the novel has always adjusted to changing circumstances with something new: the artisanal realism of John Updike to counter the threat from New Journalism, Don DeLillo’s co-opting of post-modernist self-referentiality, David Foster Wallace’s reconciliation of experimentation with interiority. The latest threat to the novel is the short attention spans of readers distracted by the Internet. Athitakis cites Laura Miller’s recent article on tentative efforts to bring the novel into the Internet age.
I also wrote this week on the contemporary 3D film, which is in crisis after only 18 months or so. In a way, both 3D films and novels face the same problems with the same causes. Novelists worry about constructing immersive reading experiences, while filmmakers are stepping back from the immersive experiences offered by 3D technology. Considered together, the challenges facing film and the novel lead to these questions:
- Does the problem have to do with the relationship of form to medium? The relationships between the novel and the books as physical object, as well as film and the theater as a physical place, once seemed inextricable. The novel is no longer so tied to the book, while the cinema faces a much graver existential crisis in the age of digitization.
- Is the problem phenomenological? Walter Benjamin argued in “The Work of Art in the Age of Reproduction” that technology changes perception. The way we see the world has a history. Filmmakers and novelists may be struggling to catch up with changes in the way we relate to our environment. Are Merleau-Ponty’s writings on the bodily dimension of perception relevant to this question?
- Is form the problem? Miller seems to suggest that it is. It’s possible to read Jennifer Egan‘s A Visit from the Goon Squad as a kind of elegiac Internet browsing, an updating of Proustian memory for the Internet age. But what about The Social Network? Does that film look at the Internet from the outside, or does it somehow inhabit it? Has the flowering of long-form fictional storytelling on television (Mad Men, The Sopranos) forced movies into becoming ever-more entrancing spectacles? Can different stories alone engage people more deeply, thus solving problem #2 above?
- Is distraction the best way to define the problem? Or is it a problem of center and margin? Whatever we are reading, whatever we are watching, there is always some other book more central to a particular topic, another film more meaningful to watch. In this view, the Internet proffers the false lure of the essential.