dematerialisation in literature

IdleRich

IdleRich
I guess I tend to think about these things ("can there still be a novel in the age of the web?!") in terms of ecological niches, and what things provide that other media don't. Visual arts are in a real crisis now cuz photography set somethin off a century ago, and books are in a similar place with movies and TV. If you want immersive narrative form—traditionally the bread and butter of novels—a screen's an easier, smoother experience.
But I think the one things novels can still do that no other medium can touch yet is something like "psychic occupation"—the ability to get inside a consciousness. That's why in my mind it's no surprise authors like Knausgaard and Ben Lerner and Maggie Nelson are such constant presences.
Isn't there a confusion here when you're saying that novels do something that no other medium can do? Some kind of category error or something.
What I mean is, if a novel is written on the internet is it a novel or not? Is the medium "novel" or is it "internet" or is it "book" (meaning on paper in a thing you hold)? Cos from what you're saying above if you took a novel and just wrote it on the internet surely its medium has changed from book to net but it hasn't stopped being a novel has it? I don't know that it's wrong to use the word medium for any of those things - but there appears to be some difference between the way you are using it in each case, perhaps they are media in different ways or something and I don't think what you're saying above captures that somehow. Does what I'm saying make sense? I'm not sure I'm explaining it properly but I do think there is an issue there even so.
Separately but relatedly if Knausgaard wrote his next novel on the internet - but straightforwardly as a novel, using no tricks, just wrote it as it would be on the page, then surely it could perform the "psychic occupation" that you refer to in the same way. So the internet can do that. Of course it's kind of a cheat to restrict the internet to what is available to the novel, but the very fact the novel can be contained within the internet in that way means that it can't be true that there is anything the novel can do that the internet can't.
So suppose Knausgaard wrote his next novel entirely as pages on the internet and it was a good novel and it achieved the psychic occupation you refer to above, ok, all cool. But suppose he added one single thing that is not possible in a book - a hyperlink or a moving picture or whatever - does that mean the psychic occupation is automatically destroyed? I'd say not, in fact I'd argue that, with skill, he could maintain that and add something extra... and what if two hyperlinks, or three? To me it's not inevitable that there should come a point where anything is lost and it's entirely possible that something could be added.
To anticipate one possible argument against that last point; maybe - counterintuitively - it's not true to say that you can just include a book within internet - you would think that you could include theatre inside television or film by just filming a play but that doesn't quite work and the play does look wrong and lose something (nb I'm not saying that you can't can't make a good film out of a play, I'm saying just putting a still camera filming a play and filming it precisely as it is will not recreate the play with the same feel as you would have if you saw it actually live). But I reckon you can.
 

suspendedreason

Well-known member
A medium is just a form, I don't think the term's defined specifically or consistently enough to call my usage a "category error." I don't think it matters whether the novel is written on the net or on paper; the fundamental form is "longform textual narrative with an established disciplinary history." I think maybe we're just using "media" differently.
 

IdleRich

IdleRich
Actually, come to think of it, books like Freedom or Normal People might be high enough in social information that they're in a league of their own, w/r/t say a television series doing similar... I'll have to think that thru
Not totally sure what you mean here. I don't really understand what you mean by social information or what makes them higher in that than other books - or, if they are higher, what does that convey on them?
I'm not criticising you or disagreeing with you here by the way (apologies if it comes out that way), I'm just failing to grasp what you're saying, probably my fault.
Whenever I think of Freedom I remember an article or essay or something by Will Self in which he attacked Freedom (or not so much the book, but the fact that people were praising it and giving it awards) as a sad indictment of how modernism had failed in the novel. I think he was claiming that in other fields new forms had come along and replaced old forms and there was a kind of progression....

(I couldn't remember precisely what he said about it in the end so I googled)
One of the bestselling literary novels of last year, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, self-consciously models itself on Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and toddles realistically along like modernism never happened. It's as if a contemporary composer were to rescore the Eroica, making the melodies more saccharine and the harmonies more schmaltzy, then premiere it at the last night of the Proms to rapturous applause from the musical cognoscenti. To complete my trope at the outset: for a century or so the symphony and the novel made love to each other, quite beautifully. But now its artistic partner has died, the novel, instead of moving on, lies there in the dark summoning up past pleasures while playing with itself in a masturbatory orgy of populism.
My take is...
1. If he's asserting that all other fields have stayed true to the ideas of modernism and have been progressively advancing through further experimentations with form etc while literature alone has stagnated, then he's taking a very optimistic/generous view of all other fields.
2. I'm not totally sure that Self himself is single-handedly carrying the torch for progressive literature in the way that he thinks he is
3. Dunno why he should pick on Freedom as particularly regressive, it was no more so than any other kinda middlebrow big seller from that time and as far as I remember it wasn't as though it represented any big change in attitudes, it was just another book that fitted in perfectly well with everything else at the time, there was no way it represented any watershed or philosophical change or such
4. I dunno if that is relevant to what you're saying about the books or not
 

IdleRich

IdleRich
A medium is just a form, I don't think the term's defined specifically or consistently enough to call my usage a "category error." I don't think it matters whether the novel is written on the net or on paper; the fundamental form is "longform textual narrative with an established disciplinary history." I think maybe we're just using "media" differently.
Maybe category error is not the right word. I was just saying that (perhaps cos of the lack of definition to which you refer) there is a confusion in what is exactly been said or meant in your point above... but let's not get sidetracked on that, do you agree with the second bit about internet being able to do novel-plus so surely it can do novel?
 

suspendedreason

Well-known member
Not totally sure what you mean here. I don't really understand what you mean by social information or what makes them higher in that than other books - or, if they are higher, what does that convey on them?
I'm not criticising you or disagreeing with you here by the way (apologies if it comes out that way), I'm just failing to grasp what you're saying, probably my fault.
Whenever I think of Freedom I remember an article or essay or something by Will Self in which he attacked Freedom (or not so much the book, but the fact that people were praising it and giving it awards) as a sad indictment of how modernism had failed in the novel. I think he was claiming that in other fields new forms had come along and replaced old forms and there was a kind of progression....

(I couldn't remember precisely what he said about it in the end so I googled)

> One of the bestselling literary novels of last year, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, self-consciously models itself on Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and toddles realistically along like modernism never happened. It's as if a contemporary composer were to rescore the Eroica, making the melodies more saccharine and the harmonies more schmaltzy, then premiere it at the last night of the Proms to rapturous applause from the musical cognoscenti. To complete my trope at the outset: for a century or so the symphony and the novel made love to each other, quite beautifully. But now its artistic partner has died, the novel, instead of moving on, lies there in the dark summoning up past pleasures while playing with itself in a masturbatory orgy of populism.

My take is...
1. If he's asserting that all other fields have stayed true to the ideas of modernism and have been progressively advancing through further experimentations with form etc while literature alone has stagnated, then he's taking a very optimistic/generous view of all other fields.
2. I'm not totally sure that Self himself is single-handedly carrying the torch for progressive literature in the way that he thinks he is
3. Dunno why he should pick on Freedom as particularly regressive, it was no more so than any other kinda middlebrow big seller from that time and as far as I remember it wasn't as though it represented any big change in attitudes, it was just another book that fitted in perfectly well with everything else at the time, there was no way it represented any watershed or philosophical change or such
4. I dunno if that is relevant to what you're saying about the books or not
Yeah sorry I'm probably not being very clear! Thanks for taking the time to ask for clarification. I think #1 and #2 of your take are right on, though I'm gonna push back on "middlebrow" and say that the critical mentality which equates accessibility with compromised quality is itself a product of modernism, specifically the aristocratic, Mandarin, "pure" aesthetics folks like TS Eliot championed. In that light, and given the theoretical discrediting of formalism (incl. New Criticism, aesthetic autonomy, etc), I don't think we should take modernist taxonomies of taste too seriously.

I think Will Self's account is borderline wrong on some fronts, and at the very least needs disclaimers/context added to it:

1) Maybe Anna Karenina is the only Victorian novel Self's ever read, but the book's a very self-aware pastiche of the entire genre; it has as much to do with the Bronte sisters in form as it does Tolstoy (Wuthering Heights is definitely woven through it, e.g.). And it opens, on the very first page, with the main characters, a married couple, moving in to a new house: They paid nothing for their Victorian and then killed themselves for ten years renovating it. This is a very self-aware novel—which Self doesn't deny—but it's worth noting.

2) I'm not sure why Self feels like there can only be one form at a given moment, that there is one form appropriate to a given age and all makers in a discipline need to follow its telos. (This is a myth from art history, where the only canonized works are those that exhibit its "characteristic form," eg impressionism or what have you—ignoring the many skilled artisans who dabbled in different styles.) Anyway, whether we wanna call it a medium or form or genre or style, I think we can agree that different "forms" do different "things"—they have different strengths and functions. To me, the style that Austen kicks off, and that culminates in someone like Tolstoy, is fundamentally a social novel. That is its form. It has large casts of characters whose lives are interwoven; it is interested in the status games and etiquette maneuvers and conversational microtransactions that play out in the social sphere; in some sense, it is a dignified form of social gossip. Here's the opening to Freedom:

> The news about Walter Berglund wasn't picked up local—he and Patty had moved away to Washington two years earlier and meant nothing to St. Paul now—but the urban gentry of Ramsey Hill were not so loyal to their city as not to read the New York Times. According to a long and very unflattering story in the Times, Walter had made quite a mess of his professional life out there in the nation's capital.

This is what I meant by "social information." Human beings are probably hardwired at some level to love hearing about their neighbors, to love hearing about the minutiae of local customs, pecking orders of who's who in the neighborhood, intrigues and scandals among their own.
 

luka

Well-known member
Staff member
well we don't quite have a social field in that way any more, at least, not unless we live all our likes in a Kazak village surrounded by deep forest. all our aquantinces are casual, even our own famlies. friendships are fleeting and superficial. romances likewise. we rarely stay in one job for long and even if we do our workmates move on.
 

luka

Well-known member
Staff member
i agree that the modern novel isn't obliged to keep making 'experiments.' the experiments, such as they were, didn't really lead anywhere. it is obliged to feel modern however and that is not just a question of making references to Pokemon, Metal Gear Solid and Rachel from Friends.
 

Corpsey

call me big papa
I'd say we're still fascinated by other people, though. Albeit through the distorting lens of reality TV and social media. I mean, of course we are. It's baked in.

I agree that we live a much more atomised existence now, thanks to technology. Our social relations can take place entirely via a keyboard.
 

luka

Well-known member
Staff member
i don't say that we're no longer interested in other people, just that the bonds are far weaker and shorter lived and the depth and intensity of our relationships has been greatly reduced, hence the kind of affectlessness of Less than Zero etc. it's a situation which is challenging to anyone wishing to write the social novel.
 

luka

Well-known member
Staff member
you can write an antisocial novel. notes from underground for instance. a man who lives in his room and is scalded and humiliated everytime he ventures out of it and into the world of social relations.
 

Corpsey

call me big papa
You're right in that I can't imagine writing a 'modern' novel about a group of people having social relations unimpeded unless it was set on a desert island or something.

Presumably that's why a lot of writers prefer to write historical/period fiction.

The Internet is THE subject now, isn't it? Is it an illusion, or is everything happening there? It's what caters to and shapes our desires.
 

luka

Well-known member
Staff member
if that is the case then i suppose the problem that needs solving is how you go about writing about the internet. im sure plenty of people are trying in all sorts of hokey and unlovely ways.
 

Corpsey

call me big papa
Hard to write about something so huge nebulous and shifting

Something which farts out a gagillion words and images and sounds a day.

A subject that won't sit still.
 

Corpsey

call me big papa
I bet someone's done the internet age equivalent of that old novelistic technique of Russian dolling a story within layers of correspondence and finding some papers in a mysterious cabinet.
 

Corpsey

call me big papa
Can we say that great art arises not from intellectual interest but from passionate feeling?

It's a problem because nobody feels passionately about the internet.
 

luka

Well-known member
Staff member
Can we say that great art arises not from intellectual interest but from passionate feeling?

It's a problem because nobody feels passionately about the internet.
depends what you mean by passionately.
 
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