Paper and Future: The Late American Novel, Bound To Last

Being A Writer Internet Culture Postmodernism Reading Reviews Technology

Two new anthologies explore the impact of technology on book culture, each featuring brief contributions from notable writers revolving around a specific question. The Late American Novel by Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee consists of essays in an appealing variety of postmodern styles about how electronic reading is affecting the craft of creative writing. Sean Manning's Bound to Last asks writers to look fondly backward at physical books that have been significant in their lives, and to write about the books as objects.

Here are some notes on a few of the pieces in each of the books.

Rivka Galchen opens The Late American Novel with a funny dystopian fantasy, imagining that all the paper in the world has been destroyed by an infectious virus, after which the world finally appreciates it as never before ("In Brooklyn, a paper-making collective was born."). This type of sardonic humor permeates the book. Tom Piazza stages a self-interview that begins with him waking himself up in the morning, but the layer of comedy conceals some serious concerns about electronic publishing: "Computers and e-books and smartphones all basically look alike. They are strictly vehicles; you pick them up to step through them into some consensus reality; you're wired in. Everything is leveled out. When everything has equal weight, everything is weightless."

If you don't like sarcasm, this might not be the book for you, and a few of the pieces don't seem to have anything beyond the requisite parodic tone. Garth Risk Hallberg is one of the best contributors to co-editor C. Max Magee's blog The Millions, but his mocking self-portrait of a writer stricken by electronic overconnectedness feels obligatory, and I suspect he phoned the piece in (Hallberg closes, jokingly, with "sent from my iPad"). Ander Monson's piece starts off loopy but then becomes way too earnest ("What I'm saying here is that we've forgotten how it can feel to make a book.")

At least Benjamin Kunkel writes his heart out on "Goodbye to the Graphosphere", though I don't necessarily buy his thesis that the emergence of the "digisphere" threatens anything at all. But he makes the original point that the form of the novel has always had a certain grassroots, amateur-hour kind of charm -- a kind of charm that we now associate with freewheeling Internet culture rather than literary fiction. Kunkel is onto something here -- perhaps it's the internet's appropriation of a kind of indie/amateur appeal that previously belonged to literature that most threatens the future of the book.

Probably the best piece in The Late American Novel is by a writer I've never heard of, Rudolph Delson, who points out that to somebody inquiring about the future of literature in the year 1910, an accurate description of the great modern literature that would emerge during the 20th century, from Dubliners to Toni Morrison, would simply make no sense. He also points out that this hypothetical person from 1910 would have never heard of Moby Dick, even though Moby Dick had been published in 1851, because the 20th century would not have rediscovered Melville yet. The title of Delson's piece is "The Best Books Will Be Written Long After You're Dead", and it's slightly disconcerting to realize that this may be true.

The Late American Novel also features a kickass cover by Thomas Allen, who explains the artwork in a short piece. Sean Manning's Bound to Last also has a pretty interesting cover, designed to look like a well-trampled copy of J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. None of the writers who contribute to Manning's anthology pick Catcher as their most cherished physical book, but we do get a vibrant mix of titles, including The Stranger (Anthony Swofford), Das Kapital (Shahriar Mandanipour) and Speak, Memory (Danielle Trussoni). There are several good pieces here: Jim Shepard tells a great story about a vast, lost book warehouse he once stumbled onto; Sarah Manguso vividly describes a Ripley's Believe It or Not! collection (I remember these books from my own childhood), and Xu Xiaobin's homage to a book of Emily Dickinson's poetry, which once seemed to mirror her struggles growing up in China, is a good reminder of the power of literature to reach across cultural boundaries.

The best entry in this book might be Francine Prose's Proustian celebration of the endpaper linings in a memory-filled Anderson's Family Tales. I had the most trouble with Ed Park's paean to the Dungeon Master's Guide because, well, I don't play Dungeons and Dragons and I had no clue what he was saying at all. I was particularly interested to see what the anthology's editor would pick for his own selection, and was amused to find Sean Manning writing about a book, James Joyce's Ulysses, that he still hasn't read.

These anthologies are good, when they are good, because of the individual qualities of the pieces selected. There are worthwhile nuggets in both collections, but it's still not clear that anything brilliant can be said about literature in the digital age at this highly self-conscious moment in the evolution of publishing, nor that anything brilliant needs to be said. I just bought my first Kindle, and the main thing I've discovered is that reading a book on a Kindle feels a whole lot like reading a book in print. There's really very little difference at all.

11 Responses to "Paper and Future: The Late American Novel, Bound To Last"

by mtmynd on

Re: "I've discovered is that reading a book on a Kindle feels a whole lot like reading a book in print. There's really very little difference at all."

I find it odd that you would even think this, Levi, given the fact that this very website of yours wholly survives on digital print. Personally, I see no real difference between the print on my monitor and the print on a Kindle. Perhaps you do..?

by Levi Asher on

Mtmynd, I guess what I mean is that, when I read a book on a Kindle, I forget I'm on a Kindle very quickly. If I'm still aware of the Kindle after a page of reading, that probably means the book is not capturing my attention.

Reading on my computer, via a web browser, feels different to me from either Kindle or book reading -- maybe because of my posture, or because of the opportunities available to click elsewhere.

by mtmynd on

I understand.... much like a paper book (p-book?). It's the content not the messenger.

I remember those earlier conversations about e-books and how resistant you were about the future of them. I believe I took the route that they would be eventually embraced. I am surprised how quickly they have taken foothold in the publishing world with, the latest I heard, that e-books outsold paper books lately. I would have reckoned a few years longer myself.

I would like to know about the battery life and if the Kindle's is easily replaced or recharged in comparison to the others on the market. Comment?

by TKG on

I think Rudolph Delson is right. I've tried to meke that point here in the discussions on the publishing industry.

The stuff that lasts forever is often obscure or overlooked. That can happen in literature, music and even science. The most buzzed about product is not always the best.

In biology for example, Darwin gets the hype, but the most important biologist of the 19th century was Gregor Mendel. He determined the laws of genetics. But he died in obscurity, and in fact thinking maybe he was wrong about his findings.

Nobody rediscovered what he had found out, but decades after his death his paper on trait inheritance in peas was rediscovered (akin to Moby Dick being rediscovered). After that biology took off.

Mendel is famous now. It is all because he was able to publish his article in an obscure science journal and it was save for posterity. It wasn't appreciated or even read at the time he wrote it. He sent it to others in the field, but it was ignored. When Darwin died for example, the article Mendel sent Darwin was un opened and unread.

With electronic publishing the chances for the timeless gems people may create to be save for posterity and rediscovered years later increases.

One can also argue that the level of noise can also increase so it would be harder to find the obscure masterpieces in the murk.

You know what I think is weird? How kids someday will not even recognize certain noises made by physical friction and vibration. Some noises will be around a lot longer than others, like when you open door in a video game, it sounds like real door opening. Doors aren't likely to vanish as quickly as say, the click of a shutter and automatic film advance mechanism of a camera. On digital cameras, these sounds can be turned off because they are not real. I think if you made a time graph of sounds that will disappear, somewhere between the opening door and the clicking shutter will fall the turning of pages. It does no good to lament the fact; it's just the way things are.

Great point about Mendel, TKG! Good information.

by Diane on

Great conversation! Let's face it, this is the future of publishing and it's actually a good thing for both the environment and independent authors and publishers. I think that if done correctly, electronic formats can actually enhance reading pleasure (even though I am and will always be a traditional book fan as well). I don't think it has to be either/or--we can have both and see that electronic books can take us to new places, in a new way.

We have created annotated versions of Shakespeare and Twain and I would love to get everyone's take on them. Please take a look at www.gleeditions.com and let me know what you think.

by frsh on

The future of the fiction genre is going to be interactive fiction. It's amazing almost nobody talks about it. I guess it's because it is very close to those icky video games the kids like so much these days.

by frsh on

I'm kidding of course. That thing died with the 80's. Maybe the kindle and all these electronic gadgets will die too. I wouldn't like to see a world without books because humans got too careless and all the books in the world got deleted during a massive system failure.
Paper books are necessary. Not everything can be digital and not everything should. Relying too much on technology will always spell disaster.

by Levi Asher on

Frsh, I actually thought you were serious. I've heard worse ideas.

by frsh on

I thought it was a good idea too, until I felt like I was preaching pinball as a path to enlightenment.
I think interactive fiction failed because it doesn't really let you know the characters, it centers more around the environment of the story and the possible puzzles that can be built around it. But there's no in depth character development, no spiritual development, otherwise the "games" would be too long for anyone to be willing to "play" long enough.
That's why graphics became necessary, seeing the characters makes you "think" you know them even though in video games character development is always extremely poor when compared to a story like Grapes of Wrath or One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

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