The title wheels a corpse into the room: The Late American Novel. And the first two epigraphs to the essay collection sound like eulogies. Steve Jobs, asked if he felt competitive about the Kindle: “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore.” Don DeLillo, in a letter to Jonathan Franzen: “If serious reading dwindles to near nothingness, it will probably mean that the thing we’re talking about when we use the word ‘identity’ has reached an end.”
But all that front matter mischaracterizes the book’s contents. The authors assembled by editors Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee don’t share uniform reasons for feeling hopeful about the future of books, but the feeling itself is largely uniform. Joe Meno: “[T]he idea of the book is more important than the actual form it takes.” Nancy Jo Sales: “I don’t think books will ever disappear for this reason: We need them too much.” Elizabeth Crane: “[T]he role of the writer will always be to write.” Owen King: “I still don’t expect the book as an object, or the art form of the novel, to disappear anytime soon.”
And so on: The majority of the essays are structured by the writer’s taking notice of the alarms—e-books, tablets, an ever-destabilizing economy for writers, readers’ decreased attention spans, the novelist’s loss of centricity in the culture—and then choosing to ignore them. We’re wired for story; story will never die; writing is worthy labor; there will always be readers who appreciate it; and hey, didn’t Choose Your Own Adventure books prove the physical book can play with form well before the iPad? The arguments’ shape, along with their homily-like brevity, reminded me of a line from Roger Lambert, the bitter, pervy divinity-school teacher at the heart of John Updike‘s Roger’s Version: “Raise the doubts, then do the reassurances. People have no idea what they’re hearing, they just want a certain kind of verbal music. The major, the minor, and back to the major, then Bless you and keep you, and out the door to the luncheon party.”
Two exceptions, though. Despite its sheen of condescension, Benjamin Kunkel‘s “Goodbye to the Graphosphere” is admirable for never letting go of its sense of doubt. Though the internet has been a boon for writing in general, he argues, in general it works to erode it as a vehicle for considered thought, with “the role of writing as a whole resembling viewers’ comments on YouTube.” As much as I bristle at Kunkel’s characterization of novel-writing as being inherently amateurish, I get his point that if there’s something inexpert about novels—that it’s just a smart person taking a stab at explaining human nature without performing a clinical study—then the internet’s role as an enormous narcissism engine will erase a need for them.
Kunkel is right so long as we read novels only to validate the feelings we have in our daily, non-reading lives—if we do it only to meet people we can relate to. But that’s the main reason people read, yes? We could name other reasons—to challenge ourselves, to learn something about a place/culture/time we wouldn’t know about otherwise—but those still circle around the idea that novels exist for us to bounce our emotions off of. Critical remove is nice and all, but it’s impossible, or at least churlish, to read books full of people we can’t relate to, and any book with human beings in it is meant to be, at some level, relatable. At any rate, unrelatable-ness a hard thing upon which to build a literary culture. And if a sense of fellow-feeling is as easy as tweaking your Twitter stream, who needs novels?
At least, that’s the question Kunkel leaves me working through. The only voice of optimism that convinces me in The Late American Novel comes from Ander Monson (a writer I very much admire): In “Finallyfast.com and Playing the Book,” he breaks open a lot of presumptions writers reflexively make about the structure of books and writing, from the syntax of sentences to the shape of the page. The writer’s role, then, is to test those limitations: “[I]f we think our only job as writers is to write nice sentences and hand them off to someone else, we risk obsolescence or, at the least, irrelevance.”
If I hadn’t seen how Monson himself does it, I wouldn’t trust his call to arms more than anybody else’s. And his challenge to writers to test the boundaries of writing will probably get executed hamfistedly a lot; I suspect we’re in for a lot more Choose Your Own Adventure-type books. (The questions the people who point to Choose Your Own Adventure as the future never seem to answer: Why was the series conceived for children? And why do you think the concept is so easily transferable to adult readers?) Per Monson, the future is full of plenty of interesting stories; we’ll just have to accept, per Kunkel, that fewer people will want to read them.