Writers like Toby Litt insist that our computer-obsessed lives make for dull fiction. They couldn't be more wrong
Last week in Part I, Sam Byers looked at the “death” of the novel as it got killed off by too much technology.
THE EFFECT OF regarding technology as some insidious external force threatening books (and our sense of self) from “over there” (where technology lives) is that it encourages us to regard novels as a last bastion of existential honesty which must be defended against technology’s cruel advance. The defense, of course, must be mounted both externally (the book as object, shielded from the encroachment of devices) and internally (the book as work of art, immunized against the insidious spread of techno-speak and cyber-babble). The result, sadly, is a discourse of denial that traps the novel in an illusory and self-defeating antiquity.
Writing on the Granta website, Toby Litt attempts to get to the root of the issue I’ve outlined above: that technology is gnawing away at readers, writers and the novel itself. On the issue of readers he has the following to say:
“A couple of years ago, I spent three months playing World of Warcraft – partly as research for a short story I was writing, mostly because I became addicted to it. This convinced me of one thing: If the computer games which exist now had existed back in 1979 I would not have read any books, I think; I would not have seen writing as an adequate entertainment; I would not have seen going outdoors as sufficiently interesting to bother with. Similarly, I find it difficult to understand why any eleven-year-old of today would be sufficiently bored to turn inward for entertainment.”
He concludes: “The human race is no longer sufficiently bored with life to be distracted by an art form as boring as the novel.”
This argument has, of course, been made before, and note how the much-abused term “addiction” rears its head again here. But note also the striking self-defeatism, the alarming passivity, of Litt’s conception of the novel. The novel, he seems to be saying, is a last resort, to be enjoyed only when all other forms of enjoyment are unavailable. Confronted with the violent competition of video games, it simply cannot compete.
For Litt, boredom is not only the impetus for reading, it is the impetus for writing, and now that we are, according to accepted wisdom, unable to be bored because we have such ready access to unlimited distraction, it’s going to be as difficult to produce text as it will be to consume it:
“The internet connection offers all of us the constant temptation of snippets, of trivia. We don’t live, as other writers did in the past, without these particular temptations. They had their own temptations: Byron wasn’t undistracted. Yet there were greater acres of emptiness, surely. Travel took forever. Winters isolated. Boredom was there as a resource for daydreaming, trancing out.”
Again, one has to wonder about this framing of the artistic impulse. Isn’t it just as likely that people write out of a sense of interest, of fascination, of wonder, of bafflement, of awe, as it is that they write because, quite frankly, they got a bit bored on the journey over? And just to be really pedantic about this: any of you reading this who have taken a train in the UK in the last few years will know that travel still frequently takes forever, and an internet connection is only sporadically to be had. Hurrah for privatized rail services! They may yet save the novel.
Not content with announcing the death of both reading and writing as we know it, Litt quickly moves on to the problem of the novel’s apparent inability to absorb the technology we now take for granted. And here, I think, we begin to see that in many ways contemporary concerns about the place of technology in the novel are not as new as they might at first appear, linked as they are to much older, more deeply embedded and, I would argue, essentially elitist concerns about whether or not the novel should concern itself with the mundane, the everyday, the proletarian:
“The people novels have conventionally been written about are gradually ceasing to exist.
Novels have always belonged to aristocrats of time; not, I say, merely to aristocrats, although they have been disproportionately represented, but to those subjects who have freedom of choice about how to act within time. The Fordist factory-line workers, performing a repetitive task all day, cannot interest the novel for more than a few moments whilst they are at work. It is only when the machine stops that the story begins. (David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King attempts to make a novel out of the dead time of insanely repetitive deskwork; and it fails, at least in the form of it he left us.)
The basic plots of Western Literature depend on separation by distance – Odysseus separated from Penelope; the Odyssey doesn’t exist if Odysseus can catch an easyJet flight home, or text Penelope’s Blackberry. Joyce’s Ulysses doesn’t exist if Bloom can do his day’s business from a laptop in a Temple Bar coffeeshop.
I don’t want to overemphasize this. You could imagine a similar anxiety over how the telephone would undermine fiction. Perhaps it is just a matter of acceleration. But I don’t think I am alone in already being weary of characters who make their great discoveries whilst sitting in front of a computer screen. If for example a character, by diligent online research and persistent emailing, finds out one day – after a ping in their inbox – who their father really is, isn’t that a story hardly worth telling? Watching someone at a computer is dull. Watching someone play even the most exciting computer game is dull. You, reading this now, are not something any writer would want to write about for more than a sentence.”
Well. There you go. It’s a tough break, but, you know, cruel to be kind and all that. Better just to come right out with it than dance around the subject. You, dear reader, are not very interesting. You, with your job, your life, your bloody family history or whatever, are so f–ing dull we can’t even be bothered to write about you any more. Indeed, you’re so dull, to borrow a phrase, that you’re the cause of dullness in novels. If only you didn’t have to work! If only you didn’t have a computer! If only you’d been an aristocrat (of time)! Then we’d be able to write about you!
Aside from the bizarre assumption that novels abhor everyday working people (a bourgeois fallacy that has been roaming largely unchecked through pseudo-critical discourse for centuries, and which really we should be long past), Litt’s wider error lies in a single word: watching. The novel does not watch. We, as a reader, do not watch. Watching is for the visual media. When we watch, we, quite naturally, judge, just as Litt has judged here. If indeed the person Litt uses as an example was a character in a novel, we would not be watching them reading that email, we would be reading it with them, with their eyes, and we would, in a half-way decent novel not constrained by some outmoded notion of showing rather than telling, be feeling their feelings with our own heart. We would, for a moment, for a few pages, be that person, and it is at that point that we depart from the remarkably stubborn McLuhan-esque framework we still insist on using to discuss technology: in the novel, the medium is not the message; the message is the message, and however that message is received, it is the receiving of it that produces the emotional response in which we, the reader, are interested.
It is also necessary to take issue with the notion of plots. Now, the argument that the “basic plots” of Western literature “depend on distance” is not a new one, and indeed I’m sure there was a website at one time that confounded the plots of Victorian novels by introducing mobile phones into the action. Perhaps it’s true; perhaps plots do depend on distance. But whether or not novels depend on plots is debatable, as is the idea that we are somehow less distant from each other than we were before. In Nicholson Baker’s wonderful, and wonderfully strange, little novel The Mezzanine, the narrator wanders around and looks at stuff on his lunch hour. It is a novel fashioned from drinking straws and shoelaces. At one point, towards the end, the narrator even reads a book, Aurelius’s Meditations, and we, of course, read with him:
“‘Manifestly,’ I read (the warped sound of a rinsed saucepan struck against the side of the sink ringing in my head), ‘Manifestly, no condition of life could be so well adapted for the practice of philosophy as this in which chance finds you today!’”
Well, suffice to say that, in returning to the book to look up that quote, I experienced something akin to the sound of that saucepan hitting the sink myself. Baker’s point, obviously, is that Aurelius’s clarion call for a philosophy of lived experience applies just as much to the practice of the novel (particularly Baker’s novel) as it does to the practice of philosophy. We must take life as we find it, and by extension we must both reflect life as it is lived and speak to the people living it. This involves two basic assumptions, both of which Litt neglects: first, that all human experience is valid and valuable; and, second, that people are smart enough and patient enough to find meaning in that experience when it is reflected back at them. The moment we begin to assume that life, as lived by the vast majority of people who read novels, is “boring,” we begin to write boring novels. The moment we assume the people reading those novels are stupid, we start writing stupid novels.
Writing for The Millions, Allison Gibson offers a rather more balanced and optimistic view, concluding:
“Maybe, then, if this is the truth about technology, there shouldn’t be any slack given to those authors who forgo including it in their books. You might even say it’s foolish to miss the opportunity to show that technology is not a series of tubes, or a high-pitched beeping sound, or an awkward element to work around, but rather a vital part of the modern human experience.”
Such is the extent of hand-wringing-as-dogma amongst novelists, though, that even Gibson, who is essentially arguing for the inclusion of technology in novels, still feels the need to nod in the direction of the school of no-admittance:
“Technology can be awkward to write about. Also, to read about. The jargon is clumsy: download, reboot, global positioning device. It’s embarrassing, really. So I understand an author’s impulse to avoid littering pages of otherwise lyrical prose with the bleep-boop-beep of tech speak. For this reason, authors often forgo current technologies when they want their characters to communicate with one another, or to reveal important, plot-forwarding information. I get it. What could be less romantic than a text message?”
While it may be true that modern modes of communication may be less romanticized than their forbears the letter, the messenger and the carrier pigeon, I’m not so sure they are inherently less romantic (or dramatic) at the moment you are receiving or sending them. Because surely what really matters, when you’re waiting for that special communication from that special someone, is what it says and what it makes you feel.
Let’s imagine for a moment that you, the reader who none of us are supposedly interested in (enjoy your time in the spotlight, it may not come again) have fallen in love. You met a man the old fashioned way: at work, where apparently nothing of interest ever occurs but where 20% of the Western world still, much to modern novelists’ distress, inconveniently insist on meeting their future spouses. (By the way, a further 30% of couples now meet online, so if novelists refuse to engage with either the workplace or the internet we’re going to have to read a hell of a lot of novels about single people). You have negotiated the numerous pitfalls of trying to find a way to see the man in question outside of the confines of the office, either by asking him out directly or by a series of faux-nonchalant “coincidences” which he has almost certainly seen through. It has gone well. If anything, he is even more charming, more handsome, more just-the-right-side-of-damaged-so-that-he-appears-confident-yet-vulnerable outside work than he is in. Somehow (ie: through a great deal of very pre-meditated hard work on your part), it has reached the point where you text each other when you are not together, just to, you know, check in. You follow each other on Twitter, too. And you’re Facebook friends, but there’s an unspoken agreement that you’re going to be pretty careful with social media because you both also follow/are friends with other people from the office who would like nothing better than to totally put word round the whole office that you two are seeing each other, which everyone will take to mean you are sleeping with each other, even if you are categorically not sleeping with each other because he’s not long out out of a really heavy thing with Janice, who although she may be leaving the office very soon has not left the office yet, and he’s still getting his head together and, well, he’s not sure, basically, and he’s been totally open about that and it has led to you saying yes, absolutely, you’re not sure either, even though you are very, very sure, so sure in fact that you have written things about him and the things you hope to be able to do to each other in a Word file on your work computer: a document about which you would love to say you are ashamed but by which you are, quite frankly, thrilled to your very core every time you open it up to add to the list of deeds and feelings the document contains. So anyway, one night he doesn’t text, and he has, by this point, been texting every night, so this is definitely an event, and even though you don’t want to freak out you totally freak out. Is this some sort of passive aggressive message? Has he grown tired of you? What did you last text him? You go back through every single text you have ever sent him and look for possible sources of misunderstanding. You analyze every text and email he has ever sent you for possible clues as to his current location and/or state of mind. You look at his Twitter page; his Facebook. He has posted on neither. He has gone off the grid and OH MY GOD you are losing it. You can’t text anyone for support because you haven’t told anyone you’re seeing someone so you are on your own and it is three in the morning and even though you said you wouldn’t lose your shit in this fashion ever again after the last time, when you totally and without dignity or restraint lost your shit, you are losing your shit, and it is horrible, and you are miserably, almost psychotically alone, so you have a few drinks to take the edge off and what do you know, here you are waking up in the morning with your phone in your hand and a mouth that feels like it needs sandblasting to find that he still has not texted, and now you’re not even freaking out any more, you’re just devastated, steeped in rejection and horribly hung over. It’s got to the point where you actually hope he’s died or suffered some kind of massive cerebro-vascular haemorrhage that wiped his neuro-linguistic pathways because at least then you won’t have been rejected. You stagger into work. He is not in work. You are not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing. You feel it could be a good thing. You look through your special Word document and remind yourself just how in thrall you are to this man. My God he is special, this one. No one, ever, has proved themselves worthy of their own Word document before. This is worth fighting for. And then, just as you’re wrapping up a bit of work that needs to be emailed round to the team by lunchtime and starting to feel half way human, he emails. He has been so worried! His car broke down, he fell in a ditch and his phone got wet and all he could think all night while he was sitting by the side of the road in damp slacks was how worried he was that you would be angry with him. He even says he’s sorry. Sorry! His car breaks down, he falls in a ditch, and he’s sorry! What a guy. You’re thrilled. You’re more thrilled, in fact, than you have possibly ever been in your life. What a day this is. Because this is, so obviously, a breakthrough in your relationship. One day, you’ll look back at this day and it will seem absolutely pivotal. You arrange to meet him for lunch. You can’t wait. You wrap up your work in record time. You open up a global email, add an attachment, hit send and . . . email the whole building, including the man, your special secret Word document.
My question is this: are you, at the moment that you realize you have sent that email, or at the moment the lovely man sends you an email, in some way not participating fully in life? Are you deadened? Dulled? Are you, worst of all, someone no novelist would ever be interested in?
What I am getting at here is that the novel deals with human experience, and, much as the means by which we share our experiences might have changed, the experiences themselves have not changed nearly as much as we like to think. We’re still lonely; still falling in love; still hating each other’s guts; still trying to get ahead and make ends meet. Why, then, this determination to act as if the world has changed so dramatically that the novel can no longer reflect it? I would suggest that all this talk of change actually serves quite conveniently to cover the fact that it is not what has changed that is the problem, but what has not changed, namely: novelists.
Here’s David Gates, quoted in the same Millions piece I mentioned above, and being, I think, I little more honest about the real root of the problem:
“I have no idea how to handle this new mode of living (I guess “living” is the word) in fiction. I probably spend more time emailing and reading online than I do having non-virtual human contact — and I bet I’m not that unusual. If my characters were like that, would their lives be eventful enough to write about? On the other hand, if I write about people for whom the internet is — as far as the reader can see — peripheral or nonexistent, am I not essentially writing historical fiction? In the last story I finished, I used the expedient of sending my main character on a vacation where she’s sworn to limit her internet and cell phone use. And how do you deal with the problem of writing something that may be dated by the time the book comes out? My novel Preston Falls which appeared in 1998, has a now-hilarious account of an email exchange — “He hit Send,” and so forth. And I just received a piece of student fiction which mentions Facebook and Skype in adjacent paragraphs; my instinct is that this is showing off, but maybe it’s no different from Jane Austen mentioning a fortepiano and a huswife on the same page.”
Phew. There we go. That felt good, didn’t it? It’s not that we can’t do it, or that the reality in which we find ourselves is somehow inimicable to the nature of the novel. No. It’s just that we’re scared. We don’t know what we are doing, and we’re having a bit of a panic.
Sam Byers is the author of the forthcoming novel "Idiopathy" (FSG) More Sam Byers.
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