The Guardian | How novels came to terms with the internet

Seems as if there could be a good companion piece on this: “How the Internet came to terms with the novel.”

One of the underlying questions here is the task of the novelist — to depict life as he or she sees it now, or rather to deal instead within “timeless” provinces and themes? And yet, a presumption that to write about the Internet is to engage in a sort of literary faddishness, has a hint of fogeyism to it.

“[T]he American novelist is buffeted by two increasingly contradictory imperatives. The first comes as the directive to depict ‘The Way We Live Now’ — a phrase whose origins in the title of a Trollope novel have been almost entirely obscured by countless deployments in reviews and publisher’s blurbs. Cliché it may be, but the notion that no one is better suited to explain the dilemmas of contemporary life than the novelist persists.”

There’s some merit to the idea of seeing literature as the antithesis of mass culture (especially when we have things like this being marketed as novels,to use the term very loosely):

“The further literature is driven to the outskirts of the culture, the more it is cherished as a sanctuary from everything coarse, shallow and meretricious in that culture. It is the chapel of profundity, and about as lively and well visited as a bricks-and-mortar chapel to boot. Literature is where you retreat when you’re sick of celebrity divorces, political mudslinging, office intrigues, trials of the century, new Apple products, internet flame wars, sexting and X Factor contestants — in short, everything that everybody else spends most of their time thinking and talking about.”

The cultural position of Literature as a site of debate between High and Low culture is certainly nothing new (just ask old friend Matthew Arnold). Some sort of mediated approach might make sense, although it is unlikely to appease either side (recall for instance Virginia Woolf’s thoughts on the “middlebrow”). And yet, that seems to be the perpetual task of the novelist, “ to be able to derive the Timeless from a series of frivolous Nows, and then you have to persuade your readers that you have given them what they want by presenting them with what they were trying to get away from when they came to you in the first place.”

Why have novelists been slow to embrace the Internet within their narratives? It’s an interesting question. Not that there aren’t compelling examples to point to, as the article does — specifically Jonathan Lethem’s fabulation of Manhattan in Chronic City and Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story (which sounds like a fun read, by the way) — but, “more searching depictions of how technology is embedded in the lives of ordinary people have been pretty rare.”

That’s only dealing with the Internet’s thematic relationship to the novel — a whole separate, and interesting topic to be discussed later on the Internet as a medium shaping the form of the novel (to take an extreme example: the Twitter novel, writing a novel, 140 characters at a time).


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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