Monday, February 02, 2009

What shapes literature

Time’s book critic Lev Grossman is convinced that, as the magazine’s headline announces, the digital age is reshaping literature (h/t: Daniel Green). “Literature interprets the world,” Grossman says, “but it’s also shaped by that world, and we’re living through one of the greatest economic and technological transformations since—well, since the early 18th century.”

The eighteenth century is significant, because according to Grossman (repeating a scholarly commonplace as if he were saying something original), the “novel in its modern form really got rolling” then:

This wasn’t an accident, and it didn’t happen because a bunch of writers like Defoe and Richardson and Fielding suddenly decided we should be reading long books about imaginary people. It happened as a result of an unprecedented configuration of financial and technological circumstances. New industrial printing techniques meant you could print lots of books cheaply; a modern capitalist marketplace had evolved in which you could sell them; and for the first time there was a large, increasingly literate, relatively well-off urban middle class to buy and read them. Once those conditions were in place, writers like Defoe and Richardson showed up to take advantage of them.[1]But while this third-hand Marxism may seem to explain the rise of mass-market fiction, it does nothing whatever to distinguish Moll Flanders or Pamela from the Morte d’Arthur or the Arcadia. Why did the “large, increasingly literate, relatively well-off urban middle class” not prefer the supernatural to realistic replica-worlds?

The older theory is that the novel came of age along with the individual, and thus the novel, understood as fiction in which human character is represented and developed, owes its emergence to a political concept. This older theory has not so much been disproven as discarded. We are all cultural materialists now, at least those of us who live by received ideas.

In the American university, cultural materialism has spawned a new discipline—the history of the book. (Bibliography, the old discipline, was materialist only in its exclusive concern with how books are made and where to find them.) And what would an academic fashion be without a French auteur? Roger Chartier, a historian of the Annales school who teaches at the Collège de France, stitched together the new discipline by combining reception theory with the study of printed objects. Its purpose, he explains, is to replace the “lazy familiarity with which literary history is transformed into a pantheon of great texts” with “another project altogether,” which aims at “reinserting works, whatever they might be, into the conditions and procedures that governed their writing, their distribution and their reception. . . .”[2]

As someone who believes that literature is shaped by material forces outside individual control, including how it is used, especially by what he calls “the political and economic powers,” Chartier is unruffled by the thought that electronic texts may replace printed books. To see into the literary future, “we must,” he says, “do two things”:First, we need to examine the changes that have begun, at an uneven rate, in the world today and place them where they belong within the revolutions in techniques for reproductions of texts, in the forms of the book, and in manners of reading. Then, taking into account the effects of meaning produced by the material aspects of writing, we need to reflect on the many consequences of our entry into the age of the electronic representation of texts and their reading on screens.[3]The effects of meaning produced by the material aspects of writing—there in a phrase is the assumption behind all such efforts as Lev Grossman’s to predict what will become of the novel. “Like fan fiction,” Grossman says breathlessly,it will be ravenously referential and intertextual in ways that will strain copyright law to the breaking point. Novels will get longer—electronic books aren’t bound by physical constraints—and they’ll be patchable and updatable, like software. We’ll see more novels doled out episodically, on the model of TV series or, for that matter, the serial novels of the 19th century. We can expect a literary culture of pleasure and immediate gratification. Reading on a screen speeds you up: you don’t linger on the language; you just click through. We’ll see less modernist-style difficulty and more romance-novel-style sentiment and high-speed-narrative throughput. Novels will compete to hook you in the first paragraph and then hang on for dear life.It sounds swell. I can hardly wait. But if any of this happens, it won’t be for the reason Grossman thinks. It won’t be because the material conditions of fiction-writing generate its meaning. It will be, rather, because the new technology ratifies what a writer has already been doing.

Let me illustrate. According to Chartier, the invention of the codex was fundamental and far more important than the invention of printing, because the transition from unrolling a scroll to turning a page gave the book “the form, structure, and organization it has retained up to the present.” And when discussing the history of the codex, it is ritual to point out that the new form of the book was first mentioned by Martial (14.184–92), who praised its compactness. The best of these is his epigram on a single-volume Livy:Pellibus exiguis artatur Livius ingens,
Quem mea non totum bibliotheca capit.

In this one book whole histories are told
That once whole libraries could scarcely hold.
What few historians of the book go on to observe is that by the time he got around to praising the codex, Martial had already become the universally acknowledged master of the most compact form of writing known to man. The epigram, as its name implies, originated as writing upon—engravings, inscriptions, graffiti. A codex with pages simply gave Martial something more convenient to write upon.

I am just old enough to have lived through the technological transformation of writing from manual typewriters (my father, a professor at the local junior college, picked me up a secondhand Underwood, with blank keys for typing students, when the business department purchased newer models) through impatiently humming Selectrics with changeable “typeballs” into the earliest days of word-processing on an Apple II, when preparing a typescript was much like marking up .html, and finally to the sophisticated software of today, with drag-and-drop editing, simultaneous spell-checking, automated hyphenation, and even the capacity to embed right-to-left Hebrew or Arabic into English prose. How have these transformations, these alterations in the material conditions of writing, influenced meaning?

Not at all. They have made it easier for me to complete what I set out to write. Nothing more. Ralph Marvell, who “could do charming things, if only he had known how to finish them!” would not have been saved by purchasing a typewriter, which had reached a standardized design about the same time that Wharton was writing The Custom of the Country. Ralph is destroyed by intellectual errors—by believing that a creative temperament unfitted him for business, by a bad marriage, entered into for the wrong reasons, by the conviction “how killing uncongenial work is,” and not being grateful for the support it provides his son.

When technology accompanies a cognitive revolution, then and only then does it have much chance to shape literature. The invention of printing hastened the shift from listening to silent reading, which had already been under way for a millennium, or ever since Augustine came upon Ambrose seeking out the meaning of a page with his heart. Before Gutenberg, as the historian of ideas William A. Ringler points out, “all longer fictional English narratives had been in verse.”[4] Verse is an aid to listening; the prose novel emerged when printing made books more readily available, aiding the practice of silent reading. Meaning is produced not by the material aspects of writing, but by its intellectual conditions. And the ways human beings think, evolved over eons, are not so responsive to change.

[1] This view is elaborated by Michael McKeon, The Origins of the English Novel, 1600–1740 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987).

[2] Roger Chartier, “The End of the Reign of the Book,” trans. Eric D. Friedman, SubStance 26 (1997): 9–11.

[3] Roger Chartier, Forms and Meanings: Texts, Performances, and Audiences from Codex to Computer (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), p. 5.

[4] William A. Ringler Jr., ”Beware the Cat and the Beginnings of English Fiction,” Novel 12 (Winter 1979): 113–26.


Lee said...

I'm not as convinced as you that material forces do not act upon cognitive ones. Leaving this aside, however, it may very well be that we humans are in the midst another cognitive shift to a much more visual mode of thought.

D. G. Myers said...

The reason I disagree is that, during any given day, a human being does far more listening than he does silently reading. The more that writing sacrifices any aural dimension, the worse it becomes. It becomes abstract, attenuated, dead words on page or screen. That won’t change. What will change, I predict, is that there will be more bad writing—simply because it will be easier and easier to produce and disseminate.

Anonymous said...


As you know, I've been thinking about the history of the novel myself recently...

Grossman's repetition of the "scholarly commonplace" that the modern novel got going in the 17/18th Century might not explain exactly why Moll Flanders followed after Arcadia, but neither does your recourse to an "older theory" which explains either nothing or something very similar to G's "third-hand Marxism."

You say, "the novel came of age along with the individual." Well, surely, the individual was and always has been shaped by the world around him, determined more by his context than he is able to change it? (Not that I'm convinced that "the individual" suddenly came along at this time.)

Secondly, I see no difference between these two sentences: "It won’t be because the material conditions of fiction-writing generate its meaning. It will be, rather, because the new technology [erm, material conditions] ratifies [erm, generates the meaning of] what a writer has already been doing."

D. G. Myers said...


Thanks for the comment. I shall discuss the idea of the individual and the realistic novel in a later post, if you don’t mind.

You see no difference between (1) the materialist commonplace, as set forth by Chartier, that the effects of meaning produced by the material aspects of writing, and (2) my counterclaim that a “new technology ratifies what a writer has already been doing.” You are correct that the subject of each sentence is the same, despite my inelegant variation of it. Chartier and I predicate something different, however. According to him (and his materialist followers), meaning changes when material conditions change. According to me, meaning is independent of material conditions, which (when affirmed by the writer) merely affirm it.