I’m currently at the Western Region of the Conference of Christianity and Literature. Last night, the plenary speaker gave an anxiety-filled talk about the “future of literature” to a room full of literary scholars. Most of the talk focused on the potential death of the novel, and how our brains are being re-wired by the internet, how videogames are taking the place of novels in people’s lives, etc.
What bothered me most about the talk and the Q&A session afterward was a) the lack of historical perspective, and b) the clear sense that most of the audience was anxiety-ridden not over the death of the novel, but the death of the “literary” novel.
In terms of historical perspective, no one (except me) brought up that our anxieties over the internet and the corresponding “shallows” therein are remarkably similar to the anxieties held by people like Plato over the invention of writing in the first place. And, strikingly, the fact that our brains are being rewired by the internet is also parallel to what happened to our brains when writing was invented in the first place. In terms of historical perspective, few others last night were willing to talk about the fact that other literary forms have disappeared before, and we’ve gotten new ones in their place: no one is anxiety ridden that people are’t writing epic poems anymore, precisely because we got the novel instead. (I will say that 99% of the audience seemed to be people who focus on 19th, 20th, and 21st c. literature. The one medievalist and I had a great time kibbitzing over this problem with the discussion.) So, for me, I find it hard to be anxious over the development of the videogame into a literary form, even if the novel might decline in popularity. (though it does mean I’m finally going to have to learn to play videogames.)
So much of the anxiety seemed to be really over the fact that we’re going to have to change our own reading habits and what we study to take in and participate in these developments. This was clearly evident both in the discussion of videogames and when one Q&A participant asked why no one was writing 700 page novels anymore. Clearly, she had never looked beyond the literary fiction section of Barnes and Noble into the F/SF section, where authors regularly turn out series of 700 page novels. (The Game of Thrones series is really a 7000 page novel that is being published serially as we wait for Martin to finish writing it.)