January 20, 2012

GChat, fiction and the pace of life: Do we have a problem?


In the most hilariously excellent insult I’ve seen lately, David Shields has just named Justin Halpern of Shit My Dad Says a more engaging writer than Jonathan Franzen. In an extract from his forthcoming book How Literature Saved My Life published in Little Star Journal, Shields says:

Can social networking, blogging generate good books? In very rare occasions, yes. Justin Halpern (Shit My Dad Says) says that he was collecting notes for a screenplay, then the notes became blog posts, the posts became tweets, the tweets became a web site, book, TV show, etc. In the book each entry is 140 characters or fewer—the length of a tweet—and all of the subsections and mini-chapters are extremely short; the book is essentially a tape recording of the best lines of the author’s father, Sam, overdubbed with relatively brief monologues by the son. It’s not great or even good, probably, really, finally, but above all it’s not boring. Which is everything to me. Compare it to, say, Jonathan Franzen. (Franzen is, for me, the captain of the unfulfilled donnée. In The Corrections, he pretends to explore what is in fact a fascinating idea—that people, families, societies, and markets have a tendency to overcorrect—but he gives the merest lip service to unpacking this trope and settles instead for a painfully old-fashioned family album. Freedom: different metaphor; same result.)

This isn’t just a random attack; rather it forms part of Shields’s argument that the novel is, if not in crisis, at least floundering in many quarters. Says he:

Books, if they want to survive, need to figure out how to coexist with contemporary culture and catalyze the same energies for literary purposes. That cut-to-the-bone, cut-to-the-chase quality: this is how to write and read now.

As I’m sure many people who’ve interacted with a slush pile recently will tell you, this is dangerous ground: the GChat in fiction is the fad of the day, and while sometimes it works (obviously, we thought Tao Lin was good at it), that depends on a humour and an authorial distance, a finely tuned pitch that these manuscripts rarely achieve. For the most part, for all their engagement with contemporary culture, they are guilty of Shields’s cardinal sin: they are boring. A thing’s commonness in daily life doesn’t automatically make it a fitting topic or form for fiction, and while ambivalence is normally the mode and the central thematic concern of these manuscripts (hooray), and so in their lack of artistry they may in fact be perfectly crafted encapsulations of the mentality they present, it’s very hard to make that compelling as a work of fiction.

Shields’s argument seems to be that life is exciting and art-as-we-have-always-known-it is tired and banal. This is a very sad standpoint, and Tim Parks argues against it persuasively in the New York Review of Books:

If there is a problem with the novel, and I’m agreed with Shields that there is, it is not because it doesn’t participate in modern technology, can’t talk about it or isn’t involved with it; I can download in seconds on my Kindle a novel made up entirely of emails or text messages. Perhaps the problem is rather a slow weakening of our sense of being inside a society with related and competing visions of the world to which we make our own urgent narrative contributions; this being replaced by the author who takes courses to learn how to create a product with universal appeal, something that can float in the world mix, rather than feed into the immediate experience of people in his own culture.

I’m inclined to side with Parks on this one, but interested to know where our readers stand on the issue. The comments section is all yours…


Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.