Turning Back, Looking Forward:

Digital Reading, Analogue Writing, and the Struggle for Narrative Redemption.

Clare Hayes-Brady

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There is a peculiarly permanent sense of ending that accompanies literature throughout its history, from the histrionic denunciation of the vulgar tongue in fourteenth-century Florence, which gave rise to Dante Aligheri’s impassioned defence De Vulgari Eloquentia, to the contemporary debate over e-readers and the various ways in which they menace the written word, from self-published drivel to the convenience and portability that purportedly threatens the paper version with obsolescence. A couple of years ago, at the height of e-reader fever, Robert McCrum wrote in The Observer that “Technological change is discontinuous. The typewriter did not eliminate the pen, nor the motorcar the horse”. Noting that paperback sales at the time were in – not freefall, perhaps, but decline, certainly – McCrum decided that “the sensible thing to observe at the moment is that, in the middle of a huge paradigm shift, no one knows anything”. McCrum’s caution has proven sensible, with the announcement this week that Waterstone’s are to pull Kindles from their shelves due to what its MD James Daunt referred to as “pitiful” sales, to make more display room for actual books. The first half of 2015 saw the first year-on-year rise (a respectable 4.6% up on the same period in 2014) since 2007. In the same week, online magazine Aeon asked “Will digital books ever replace print?” and “Why have digital books stopped evolving?” Craig Mod, the article’s author, writes of the imaginative magic of the Kindle, but gives the strong sense that the magic never really materialised. 

One possible explanation for the apparent pop and fizzle of the Kindle market (although Amazon insist that sales are growing in the UK, just not in bookshops) is a kind of uncanny valley of paper; the e-reader is interesting in that it changes the packaging of literature, but not the experience of reading. With a few notable exceptions, the e-reader mimics the book precisely, down to the page-turning technology – millions of lines of code whose sole purpose is familiarity. It seems that we like the way we read, but would prefer not to have to bring a separate suitcase of books on holiday. On the other hand, as Mod argues, “Containers matter. They shape stories and the experience of stories.” Most of all, books – real book – show the marks of time. Battered and dog-eared books are beloved, familiar, a kind of map of our interactions with it. E-readers are always new, always intact: a cracked or soaked Kindle is a broken Kindle. And so while we may read disposable books – books we read on holiday or on a train, that we know we will not pick up again – on an e-reader, we migrate back to the heft and scent of paper for the books that matter to us. The social and aesthetic fears associated with the potential demise of books are also important – it may soon be impossible to judge people by the books they possess, to snipe at the reading patterns of the great unwashed or to impress the smart-looking man on your morning train. The idea that the significant subtext of textual preference may become incommunicable is far more unsettling than any actual literary implications we might balefully predict.

Analogies between the decline of CDs, and more recently DVDs, and the development of screen reading technologies are tempting, but flawed. The very tactility of reading books rather than screens in some ways renders the common analogy of books to music somewhat (though not completely) invidious. The sudden shift from CD to mp3 made almost no difference to the experience of listening to music, except to improve its quality. Reading on a screen, no matter how well-designed and inky-looking, is a qualitatively different experience to reading from page, as well as being substantially less fatal if you should accidentally drop it in the bath. It helps that publishers seem to have caught up, with beautiful, tactile volumes, large and small, emerging at an unprecedented pace. Book production in recent years seems to be as much about creating art objects as it does simple technologies of reading. Meanwhile, book festivals and literary awards proliferate at a positively ebullient rate. Having said that, while the e-reader “threat” itself seems to be on the back foot, so to speak, online magazines like this one continue to grow and develop apace, and much of our reading – literary and particularly non-literary – does indeed take place onscreen. Online spaces offer flexibility and speed that print does not, as well as new media, audiences and writers. And yet, this increase, though steadier and cheaper, does not seem to cause the same hysterical predictions of illiteracy and book-hoarding that e-readers did. Why not? What is the particular threat posed by Kindles and Nooks that websites don’t seem to mirror? It seems to me that the answer, or an answer, may lie in the nature of e-readers as technology and in the trajectory of literature, particularly but not exclusively the novel, in the aftermath of postmodernism.

It is, perhaps, also worth noting that we tend to conflate the decline of books with the decline of reading, somehow forecasting the demise of literature itself. It seems that there is a quite unreasonable fear that literature will somehow dwindle given the primacy of the digital book. This seems to me radically to misunderstand the situation, conflating the concept of literature with the physical book. In this we might look back to John Barth, whose “Literature of Exhaustion” points out that even if the novel were on its last legs in the 1960s, it would be succeeded by something else, a new narrative form. Humans are narrative creatures, and reading – evidently – is not in any danger. Literature may change, but the predictions of its death reflect the kind of epochal arrogance that sees each successive generation convinced that the one after it is destroying all that is good in the world, a complaint as old as generations themselves. However, it is interesting to consider the e-reader as emblematic of the decline of a literary type or period. The e-reader is effectively an infinitely erasable space, a kind of depthless reading surface. The e-reader is an essentially postmodernist artefact, simultaneously disposable and unchanging, lacking depth and history but full of information, and unreadable as a whole. How does such a technology fare in a cultural period of post-postmodernism?

For much of the early part of this millennium, critics and theorists have been, as Fintan O’Toole rather gruesomely put it “picking over the skeleton” of postmodernism, proclaiming its demise and hand-wringing to greater or lesser degrees over the great unforeseen. Reading the majority of critical discourse at present, one would be forgiven, I think, for locating the nearest television and playing cartoons on a loop. Postmodernism is over, leaving a blasted narrative heath in its wake. Ghosts of plot wander, searching for some prose to inhabit, meaning is irrelevant and in hiding. Irony has twisted in on itself so as to become clumsy and unrecognizable. Combined with anxiety over encroaching digital technology and the fear that people aren’t reading anymore, there is a generally bleak picture abroad for those of us concerned with such things. There is clearly nowhere for literature to go but the scrap heap. Game over. And yet, we read, onscreen and off. On e-readers. we are reading classics because they are often free, and romance and erotica because it is easy to hide them on a digital reader. We buy beautiful books and display them like art, or relish the weight. We flit between paper and online news. The impact of changing reading patterns on literature is something worth considering in detail, what does it mean for the academy, what does it mean for writers and publishers?

Artistically speaking, there is also a quiet shift going on. Adjectives like Dickensian, Tolstoyan, even Lovecraftian, feature heavily in reviews. The apoplectic anticipation of literature’s End of Days appears to have been somewhat overwrought. In fact, the traditional novel appears to be adapting remarkably well to its new surroundings. There has been an increasing tendency to move back towards the traditional plot structure in recent years, a movement away from overt experimentalism, a calming of the frenetic novelty typified by the early McSweeney’s publications. However, as we cannot simply wrap the naked Emperor in a towel and pretend nothing has happened, the new old-fashioned novels do not represent  a cowed return to naively prelapsarian narrative ideals, but accommodate the concerns of postmodernity and postmodernism with the apparently antithetical principles of plot- and character-driven narrative, making gentler use, for example, of metafictional devices and allowing ambiguity to permeate stories without necessarily engaging in typical postmodernist ploys. In the past few years, alternative realities – though not necessarily science fiction or fantasy – have come to offer a fresh landscape in which to explore old themes. In terms of the literary mainstream, critics have come to discuss a movement called New Sincerity, privileging the resurgence and renegotiation of old forms of communication. The concept of a return to sincerity is useful here, but there is more at work than sincerity alone. Aesthetically, the novel has calmed down, and critics discussing the end of postmodernism observe a settling of ostentatious experimentation. Stephen Burn comments that contemporary writers have increasingly turned to the strategies of classical realism, especially in their movement towards “smaller scales and increased closure”.

Some of the more obvious members of this category include Hilary Mantel’s saga, Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, and of course Elena Ferrante’s meteoric rise, novels that dramatise and narrate relationships and human frailty in dense, detailed prose and more or less progress in a recognisably linear pattern. Their ease of reading is not flimsy but firm, and a major part of their appeal. In another area, the popularity of what has come to be called Young Adult novels bespeaks a desire on the part of readers, on the whole, for plot-driven narrative. Genre fiction, traditionally the preserve of teenagers and board-game players, has become decidedly mainstream, remarkably unaffected by the structural shifts of postmodernism and gleefully engaging with the development of epic television narratives, becoming a cultural and aesthetic touchstone that perhaps more than anything defines the culture of the past decade.

Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides are both, more or less deservedly, giants of the contemporary American canon. They are writers with very different approaches, but their relatively recent novels – Freedom and The Marriage Plot respectively – have several features in common. Franzen’s Purity exists in the same mould, but does not I think have the same tonal resonances with The Marriage Plot, and rather takes on feminist politics than family saga. In both cases the authors have compared the novels to nineteenth century sagas, Franzen in interviews and Eugenides both within the novel and in discussion of the novel. Interestingly, both have referred explicitly to Tolstoy. Both novels ostensibly have a female protagonist, but in both cases that protagonist is more of a cipher for the two men romantically involved with her. Both novels look back to college in the 1970s (briefly in the case of Freedom and systemically in The Marriage Plot) and are distinguished by a somewhat sepia-tinted style. Both novels are also notable for their stylistic sedateness, particularly given the titanic reputations of their authors, who had won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer between them for their preceding novels. At the risk of controversy, I submit that both of these novels are fairly colossal failures.

Freedom is – with apologies to its many fans – effectively a thinly-veiled anti-parenthood manifesto, flatly written and peopled by flat characters who amount to mouthpieces for Franzen’s increasingly curmudgeonly world-view. (As an aside, it is no coincidence that Franzen is one of the most histrionically anti-digital voices in the literary world.) The many positive reviews of Freedom note its sweeping scale, its tender recreation of the voices of ordinary protagonists and its tracing of the price politics exacts on families. But the novel is heavily let down by Franzen’s weak characterisation of Patty. Arguably the flatness that characterises the novel as a whole, and especially Patty’s oddly stilted journal, authentically recreates the Minnesotan voice, but Franzen’s own ambition for literature is much greater than mere mimesis. Reviewing Terry Eagleton’s The Event of Literature, Stuart Kelly contrasted Franzen with his rival and “friend” David Foster Wallace as follows: “David Foster Wallace is literature. Jonathan Franzen just tried to write a literary novel”. Franzen’s literary manifesto, Why Bother?, outlines his lofty ambition for literature, expressing his fear that the novel was becoming provincial and losing diversity, as well as articulating a wish for the novel to return to what he saw as its rightful place as a force of cultural agency, as it had been in the nineteenth century. The grains of this ambition are visible within Freedom, but the novel never quite emerges from its own heaviness, making it a novel about characters like Franzen with a sincere message but little affective power; in other words, the sort of novel he worried about. Franzen’s ambitions for literature are admirable and he is both an excellent critic and a talented writer, but Freedom is not the novel he wanted to write. Given its author’s explicit ambitions for the novel form, it cannot legitimately be regarded as anything but an ambitious failure. Early responses to Purity seem to reflect the same ambivalence over Franzen’s aim for literature, but certainly the drive toward a kind of realism persists.

Eugenides’s novel is at best a harmless nostalgia piece with an interesting hook – the challenge to the traditional marriage plot in the late twentieth century given divorce and sexual liberation – and at worst a bizarre work of Mary-Sue fiction fictionalising a love triangle that featured himself, David Foster Wallace and Mary Karr. Either way, the novel suffers from a sort of weightlessness. The intimacy of the novel’s focus, the fragility and significance of brief episodes evokes Eugenides’s masterly restraint in The Virgin Suicides, but the gossamer effect in this case does not underscore a heavier narrative punch, and the novel feels flimsy rather than delicate. James Lasdun’s Guardian review quite tactfully suggested that while “It's customary to cheer when an author moves outside his comfort zone, [he’s] not sure it was such a great idea in this case”, and that the uninterrupted mundanity of the narrative “restricts [Eugenides’s] access to his own considerable powers”. I would counter Lasdun’s suggestion that the relationships of the young, privileged and bewildered are out of Eugenides’s comfort zone – The Marriage Plot resonates strongly with both The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex in themes, focus and style, it’s just not narratively as good – but the point stands that The Marriage Plot is significantly less challenging that Eugenides’s previous work. Like Freedom, the novel is somehow affectless, hopelessly smooth, paling in comparison to its author’s previous work.

However, with all that said, both novels have enjoyed considerable critical and (more significantly for this discussion) commercial success. Both are essentially unsuccessful projects by authors with extraordinary amounts of both talent and ambition. These two novels are what Faulkner called “splendid failures”, whose ambition stands as meritorious in itself. While I suspect that both novels would have passed unremarked had the come from the pen of Maeve Binchy, the fact that these two extremely ambitious, uncompromisingly literary writers have both produced works that are almost anti-experimental offers a tentative answer to the question “where next for the novel?” Both authors make concessions within the texts to some of the typical postmodernist questions. Patty’s search for an authentic voice, the recolourings and compromises of memory and the contingency of truth on perspective are issues that constantly occupy Freedom. More overtly, The Marriage Plot articulates the postmodernist concern that life in the late twentieth century prohibited narrative meaning by its complication. There is an ironic tone to much of Eugenides’s characterisation, particularly in respect of Madeleine’s privileged upbringing. The culture clash that inheres in her relationship with Leonard undermines the assumption of classlessness in education, providing a weak but discernible gesture at social commentary. Both novels, then, allow for the questions raised by postmodernist art and criticism and incorporate some of the dominant tools, but they are at heart novels about nineteenth century narrative. The sense of nostalgia that marks both novels is in a sense nostalgia on the part of both authors and characters for a kind of prelapsarian narrative coherence, and seems to me to go hand in hand with the return of the market to physical books.

Of course, as I said earlier, a return to such coherence is both illusory and absurd. Having been forged to a large degree in the tumult of postmodernism, neither Franzen nor Eugenides can simply abandon the questions it raised. Compromise is the only possible avenue to progress, and it is here that the discourses of New Sincerity – though I think incomplete and problematic – are useful. The author must chart a middle course between omniscience and wholesale narrative abrogation. A balance is struck, a New Deal between author and reader is offered. The author acknowledges, tacitly or explicitly, that narrative is a shaky proposition at best, and offers the reader not certainty but possibility. The reader accepts that the “whole story” is a myth and performs his or her interpretative role on that basis. Counterintuitively, perhaps, this necessary pluralism allows for a more natural creation of narrative tension: the fundamentally incomplete narrative structure mimics the fundamentally incomplete nature of “real life” human perception, making the inevitable misunderstandings that drive plot less contrived. It stands to reason, then, that such a structural renegotiation should lend itself to a common theme. Both of these novels, and the ones I mentioned earlier are fundamentally concerned with human relationships, an arena in which identical deals are necessarily struck. Jedediah Purdy writes in the LA Review of Books that the most popular and powerful books of the moment are those that offer both familiarity and a sense of deep meaning and an ungovernable resistance to easy connection, a refusal “on grounds that are formal, political , and, in a fashion, ethical [...] to be our books”. These are books whose “resistance to making connection and meaning co-exists with hunger for these”. The relationship between writer and reader in Franzen and Eugenides’ apparently anti-experimental novels is a direct parallel to the relationships between partners, families and friends, made possible by a partial suspension of belief and perpetuated by a combination of self-interested cynicism and altruistic desire to believe. Both Freedom and The Marriage Plot are failed novels, but they both represent the genuine possibility of narrative redemption following postmodernist collapse.Complex and tentative as the movement towards relational narratives may be, it seems that this cultural and aesthetic movement is mirrored in a continued desire for old-fashioned literary artifacts. The techno-literary marketplace may in fact provide a clear analogue of the creative one, and here again John Barth comes to mind. What is great, about art and about technology, will always flourish. The vanishing will vanish, the disposable be disposed of. What holds the marks of time – faces, books, stories of relationships – will always have a hold on the imagination. Reading the economics of readership in parallel with the economics of writing and publishing, it appears that, in a period whose creative spirit seems to tend towards the synthesis of postmodernist and pre-postmodernist strategies, there is a similar drive towards balance in modes of reading, and that however we read, we will continue to seek out stories about the lives and relationships of people we recognise.