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Cutting through the din of the dotcom age

The real battle was waged with the Internet.

December 20, 2009|By Susan Salter Reynolds >>>
(David Pohl / For The Times )

During the last decade, more than ever before, writers faced the challenge of cutting through the noise. The new millennium began with the enduring influence of W.G. Sebald: his marriage of word and image somewhere deep in the reader's subconscious; his ingenious blending of fact and fiction, dream and reality.

Criticism of the American way of life, particularly the inhumanity of corporate America, has been a consistent theme. Second- and third-generation immigrant fiction expanded the literary globe. Novels overshadowed short stories, the way they often do. Alice Munro, Kazuo Ishiguro, John Updike and Ian McEwan cemented their immortality. Zadie Smith, Jonathan Franzen, Peter Carey, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Geoff Dyer, Jhumpa Lahiri, Jonathan Safran Foer, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace wrote unforgettable books.

And a strange thing happened in this last decade. Some of our best fiction, literary fiction, was made into movies; there seemed an increase in mutual respect, a better blending of word and image: "The Secret Life of Bees" by Sue Monk Kidd, "The Kite Runner" by Khaled Hosseini, " There Will Be Blood," based on Upton Sinclair's "Oil!," to name a few. Nonfiction pushed forward the idea that we inhabited, if not the margins, something other than the center of the universe -- Richard Dawkins, Bill McKibben and Malcolm Gladwell. Meanwhile, Tracy Kidder, Barbara Ehrenreich, Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser showed us the importance of thinking about others as extensions of ourselves.

A friend of mine used to play in a rock band. Before a gig in a Holiday Inn one night, the leader of the band, in full, sparkling jumpsuit, gave a pep talk. "You got to sing out," he said. "We are competing with television." He had a bit of a hard time with his Vs; so "television" became "telewision." Competing with telewision was literature's first great media hurdle. (Sure, there were other distractions, but none of them did their imagery right in your living room, or took over space in your bookshelves). But the real mano-a-mano came with the increasingly widespread use of the Internet.

Still, the truth is that literature has a big head start when it comes to helping us live our lives. On the world map literature would be Europe and the Internet, America. Escaping is one thing -- science fiction, romance novels and nonfiction make excellent magic carpets -- but for turning and facing, there's nothing like good old literary fiction. If I spend money to make myself happy, I could end up like Emma Bovary. If I abandon my children for my lover, I might become Anna Karenina.

"It's not about you," someone else I once knew used to say whenever I cried in movies or got too emotional about paintings or accused him of linking certain musical pieces with ex-girlfriends. He's right, I thought, full of self-loathing for my own self-centeredness; art is not about me.

But it is. In order to be truly useful, fiction has to have a certain psychological density and depth. And as much as authors like to deny it, much of that depth comes from the autobiographical component of all fiction. "I live my life 11 days ahead of my fiction," the author Pam Houston used to say. An author's life experience is the glue that holds the characters to the metaphors: the tall pine that gives them courage, the rock or hurdle they have to walk around or the small, shell-shaped cake that brings childhood memories flooding back. A reader brings his or her own experience to the equation.

So authors have to be particularly conscious. And so do readers. The act of reading is not all that relaxing, as every child first starting out seems to know. Virginia Woolf distinguished between moments of being and unconsciousness -- her work depended on being for its spark and heat. If we become too depleted by, say, the pace of life, the bombarding of information or our disconnection from the natural world; too emptied out, too dependent on external stimuli, we run the risk of being lousy writers and lousy readers.

It takes effort to make art out of emptiness; the more emptiness, the more effort (hence all that phony, amplified emotion in bad writing). You can hear the gears grinding. So the best writing feels light and musical but also plain, honest and clear. And there will be an element of surprise throughout. Characters will not act or react in received ways; the thing we expect to happen will not always happen (never say never). The writer must resist cultural gravity. This is how literature helps not just the reader but the entire species evolve.

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