"Has the Internet Killed the Novel?" was the purported theme of an exchange of e-mail essays posted Friday morning between Kurt Andersen, a columnist for the New Yorker and the author of a new novel, "Turn of the Century," and Jon Katz, a veteran Internet commentator (he currently writes for Slashdot.org) and the author of, most recently, "Running to the Mountain," a memoir. Those who dropped by Random House's site to see what the two men could possibly make of such a dopey topic may have noticed their computers swell perceptibly owing to a sudden influx of hot air. Don't worry. It's completely harmless. Completely.
After informing readers that he, by gum, is no Luddite (he sends out 36 e-mails a day!), Andersen goes on to refute the rampant utopianism of the Net visionaries of about four years ago in the weary tone of one who has heard it all in the zealotry department and can only shake his head in sagacious forbearance. "If Louis Rosetto [sic], the founder of Wired, is Jesus," Andersen explains, "and Bill Gates is an early pope, I guess I'm a Unitarian." That's a big if.
"The Well and Ebay are decent instant decaf," Andersen continues, still in the mood for analogy, "but my Brooklyn neighborhood and my favorite flea market are fresh espresso." But since not everyone is fortunate enough to live next door to Andersen, the Internet, he concedes, may offer some comfort to "people who live in physical or social isolation, or need to know the names and current prices of all 242 Beanie Babies" (especially if that keeps them from moving to Brooklyn?). The author of "Turn of the Century" is a tougher nut than this to crack ("I find it almost impossible to be moved watching television"), and he can only cry out in this wilderness of hype: "Where is an important online literary (or cinematic or musical) work?"
Katz jumps into the fray in high style by quoting Edward Gibbon, the author of "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," the minute he's out of the gate. (Immanuel Kant and David Hume make brief appearances as well.) He later hauls out "a reader named Tony of Brainerd.net," one of those bright, socially aware Internet citizens -- the kind who never use ALL CAPS or ask whether you're wearing underwear or denounce your desire to keep semiautomatic weapons out of the hands of mentally unstable 13-year-olds as an example of liberal quasi-fascism -- who agree with Katz that the "Holy Circle" of the media elite must go. "They want freedom," Katz writes of Tony and his brethren, "freedom from arbitrary power, freedom from marketers and hype, freedom from autocratic seers, pundits, editors and producers telling them what to see, read and think." And they're seeking it by "bidding on collectibles, watching their portfolios fluctuate, designing their own Web pages, downloading favorite tunes without buying CDs, playing games and a zillion other things."
What does all of this have to do with the supposed death of the novel? the reader may find herself wondering. "Not much" is the answer, but since there's no persuasive evidence that the novel is dead (whatever that means), then the question of whether this non-crime can be pinned on the Internet seems less than pressing. Nothing is proved, established or demonstrated by the Andersen/Katz debate on the "issue" beyond the propensity of certain media types to pontificate on the slenderest of premises.
But wait -- there's more! You, too, can participate in the grand old Net tradition of pompously holding forth on topics of no particular relevance by joining a Yahoo chat pursuant to the Andersen/Katz debate on Thursday, May 20, at 8 p.m. EDT.