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May 07, 2007

Book Review Brouhaha

I know I'm cruisin' for a bruisin' when I say this, but I'm not sure losing traditional print book reviews is necessarily---well I won't say "a bad thing" because I don't think it's either a good thing OR a bad thing. I think it's a sign of the times. I mean, of course, that the print book as it is and has been is dying, and the literary establishment is ill, ill, ill-equipped to even recognize that fact, much less prepare itself to move on to the next thing.

"Literary Fiction," i.e. that which is regarded as the high form of the art, and appropriately rewarded with university study and small patches of prestigious prize monies, is the most overworked, trope-ridden, regressive, reificatin', self-diddly on the artistic block. I'm not sayin' that SF is any better--most of it isn't. There aren't many fresh breezes blowin' around the bookshelves is what I'm saying.

I'm not exempting my own work, by the way.

Where the fresh stuff is happening is TV. Yep, you heard me, tv. Film, which is short-form narrative--short stories--is going the way of Salinger product in the decline of the Saturday Evening Post. It's all about the long-form visual narrative now--all about the serial drama. Yes, like the novel in the 19th century, tv drama still carries a whiff of low/bad. But who cares? I defy any random six New York Times' notable novels from last year to compare in excitement, freshness, power, audacity and frank, hardy narrative chops to Heroes, Deadwood, Carnivale, the first two seasons of Battlestar Galactica or Six Feet Under, or, from what I hear, since I don't watch it, The Sopranos.

There's breeziness in anime, too, I'm told, especially the serials, and in manga. There's freshness still in the "graphic novel" revolution, although there I'm also not an expert. And, if Second Life is any indication, RPGs, which themselves are becoming more excitingly narrative, are melding with social networking in a way that bodes extremely well for a new form of interactive narrative art.

Yes, I'm still dreaming of STTNGesque holonovels.

So why are we nerds and geeks left all alone out here in the cold with the naked scion of narrative art? It's the cart/horse thing again: they're cutting the horse loose without investigating what will replace the cart. They're recognizing that people aren't reading book reviews but not looking at why or what the next thing should be. I don't think the answer is to start reviewing games and manga in mainstream print rags. But there COULD be some thought about proselytizing.

Ha, who am I fooling? It took the NYT what, only eighty years to come up with an intermittant column addressing spec fic? Print spec fic.

What I'm saying is, though, without having any answers, that you all intellectuals and readers can stop feeling so good about yourselves. The train is leaving the station and you're still waiting for a blacksmith to come along and reshoe your horse. Go. Ride. Be my guest. Riding is a beautiful sport. It's just not going to get you anywhere anymore, and before you know it, you'll find yourself riding cavalry into WWI against tanks and nerve gas.

The novel is no longer equipped to convey human life at the velocity, within the complexity, to which we've become accustomed. The prose, on-the-page narrative no longer mirrors our existence. God, I love novels. Novels were my first love. But what I loved about novels wasn't the novel itself, but what the novel could do. What it could do to me and with me and what it could do to the world and about the world. Between this moment of my adulthood and my novel-soaked childhood the novel has--between probably last year and this year the novel has--become obsolete.

And the discourse about whither the book, whither the novel just looks brown to me. Brown and crinkly, like a dead leaf.

So either we need to start talking about how to change the novel to help it keep up (html novels, anyone?) or we need to start talking about what we're going to put our narrative energy into instead of the novel.

Of course, I have no intention of stopping my writing. But for the past several years I've been writing with at least a partial understanding of the fact that I need to master the novel at some level so I can help push it forward into its next, less-text incarnation.

Who's with me?


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I'm totally with you! I love novels and want to spend my time learning the craft and hope to one day write a good one. But I agree that the novel is becoming obsolete. It breaks my heart, but rather than lament the situation, I want to adapt and continue as a storyteller to find an audience. The human need for narrative has not vanished, it's alive and well.

I don't know what to do next, though. I want to know where to put my narrative energy. I often feel like my friends who design role-playing games are doing more with character, conflict, plot, and social commentary than any novelist I come across. I often wonder if the next Vanity Fair will be some kind of game title. The archetypal characters of the social novel are also perfectly suited for gaming, and some of the dynamics I've seen in game design seem like the underpinnings of great fiction.

Also, if you want to read more musings on the genre of lit fic, the guys at 2blowhards have a great 5 part series on the topic that I've enjoyed reading.


The thing about tv and video games and anime and movies--and even comic books and manga--is that they are all the product of more than one artist. Who writes Heroes, anyway? I don't know any names. Very few people get to be George Lucas or Quentin Tarantino or Francis Ford Coppola or Joss Whedon. And they presumably got to their lone wolf positions by having pretty good people skills (and, hmm, they're all men, you notice? White men, at that.)

Maybe what you should ask is, who wants to write a twenty-writer colloborative novel?

this strikes me as a really smart thing to say: "The novel is no longer equipped to convey human life at the velocity, within the complexity, to which we've become accustomed. The prose, on-the-page narrative no longer mirrors our existence." in fact, if i were given to quotes in my email signature lines, i'd likely adopt that quote for such a purpose.

and if i may offer "notes" on this observation, i think my notes would ask the writer, when she next re-iterates this concept, to shift the thought ever so slightly so that it focuses not upon the novel, per se, but upon our lives, which have changed drastically since whichever "golden age" of the novel you may prefer. something like thus:

"our complex lives can no longer be conveyed/reified/manifest by/within the traditional novel; our lives are no longer adequately represented by traditional, page-bound, linear, and plot-driven textual presentations such as those which dominated literature in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries."

meh . . . my notes are much clunkier, i know, than claire's original take. nevertheless, i find the idea quite compelling, if only it were to focus upon the novel's falling away from the purposes we've read it to assume, rather than our lives flying past the bounds of the novel.

and . . . again, to this end, claire, have you yet read "vurt?" did i ask you this before? it's hella-effed-up, as the kids out your way used to say . . .

but it's also only a novel. onto jackie's point, perhaps collaborative authorship really has moved into the mainstream of the marketplace. most tv shows (and movies, to be sure) rely upon multiple authorial and editorial revision, despite our anachronic reliance upon attributions of individuated 'ownership' for intellectual and other non-tangible properties . . .

And visual media now have the advantage of having already evolved several collaborative teams in which the authors/editors have formed tight networks of not just mutual friendship and admiration, but also writing compatibility. Watching a show like Firefly or Heroes, you get the strong sense that these writers compliment each other--so much so, that their collaboration has become more than the sum of their individual talents.

Which, obviously, is not always the case: if you just randomly throw ingredients together, you'll most likely get fruit cake, not navrattan korma. A good curry sauce takes a lot of trial and error.

I don't know how much this applies to the general population, but I've personally stopped reading most printed book reviews because I get all my recs online via my LJ. My friends know my taste pretty well, so I get tailor recs, and hopefully I get to pass some of those along as well via book posts.

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