Technology seeps into our imaginations, changes the way we think and the way we write. The novel may seem like a relic, a low-bandwidth version of virtual reality better suited to the 19th and 20th Centuries than today. But beneath its grim monochrome interface (a.k.a. “pages”) it glows like the neon-piped suits in Tron. Contemporary fiction is nearly as much a product of Silicon Valley as the integrated circuit.
SHORT literary fiction and critical essays are the publishing world’s equivalent of weapons-grade plutonium. Dense, highly refined, and for all but a professional few, something best avoided. The world’s demand for the stuff is met by a handful of respectable quarterlies, such as the Paris Review and Granta, and countless “little magazines” that publish experimental fiction and serve more as a proving ground for authors than something people actually read.
In the 1970s it was unusual to see wealthy families on television. The Jeffersons with their deluxe apartment in the sky, the occasional rich couple flitting over to “Fantasy Island” or booking a cruise on “The Love Boat”—these were the exceptions. But as the economy accelerated, mass culture was suddenly inundated with images of affluence. The wave hit around 1981, as the economy slowly recovered from the stagnant wages and inflation of the 1970s. Rabbit Angstrom, John Updike’s scampering everyman, began to make serious money on his appreciating property and selling Toyotas on his father-in-law’s lot in Rabbit is Rich; Joan Collins joined the cast of “Dynasty” as the splendid and venomous Alexis; and the second edition of The Official Preppy Handbook came out, gently mocking but also instructing a peculiar subculture of well-coiffed, pastel-hue wearing teenagers who wanted to look as if they summered on Cape Cod and worked on Wall Street.
So horrid and bright to open his eyes. So much better to stay enshrouded in ruddy dark. But other signals were… penetrating too. His gullet came unfastened, pulsing and melting, and a sour bulge of liquid rose and – oh fuck, he sat up too late – popped and disgorged into his cupped hands. He cradled this liquid inch; it had weight and mass, and the gluey but slippery consistency of watered cornstarch. Sweet artificial scents of partially digested alcohol rose from its glistening surface. How much like an offering this was, with its bobbing rice grains and bilious yellow tint (he was bent on his knees in the sand). The smell intensified. A nostril twitched. Revulsion clenched him, and he flung his slop into the fire pit.
PULITZER prizes are better known for honoring American journalism than fiction. Their heft in literary circles is far outweighed by the Nobel prize or MacArthur Fellowship. Yet the Pulitzer remains one of the few literary honours that can substantially increase an author’s sales in America. The Pulitzer prize for fiction last year boosted sales of Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit from the Goon Squad” by an order of magnitude. Publishers had been keen on a similar revenue injection this year, in light of disappointing sales and a looming (and costly) anti-trust decision on digital rights.
The rocket had failed. Kim Jong-un snapped off his the monitor and turned to face his advisors. What could they possibly tell him? This was total failure. Five ashen men in uniform glittered in the gloom. They groveled and made excuses. Kim lifted a hand and batted the air as if to shoo a fly, and the men backed away slowly, heads bowed deeply in shame. He waited for them to leave and left the control room for his private chambers. The hallway smelled of sandalwood and cognac.
As a strategy “Translit” is not new. This so-called new genre sounds an awful lot like Moby Dick, minus the throbbing heartbeat of Captain Ahab pursuing his white whale; or the multi-faceted storytelling of a Thousand-and-One Nights. But all novels are a soup of partially digested hanks of literary matter. A typical chapter is a hybrid of drama, description and transcribed speech. And this soupiness is probably the reason why novels have defied easy categorization into genre since they evolved from the golden triad of Greek drama, tragedy and comedy. But it’s certainly fun to try nail it down and coin a new term. What is disturbing about this trumpeting of “Translit,” however, is Coupland’s suggestion that it is an effective strategy for dealing with “interconnectivity across time and space, just as interconnectedness defines the here and now.”
Our brains are filled with the whispering of objects, the shrieking presence of things we lust after or despise or simply want to ignore but can’t for all the noise. It seems impossible to write fiction without addressing it but so little does. Part of this is the nature of the medium. The contemporary novel or short story is a ghostly place, a necropolis where memories are dissected and pinned to the page.
Writers are anxious about the Internet and all things electronic, as we worry these newfangled ways of entertaining ourselves might someday obviate our own work. The solution, perhaps, lies in understanding and adapting to this new medium. Consuming enough that we can master its complexities and render appealingly intelligent confections for our readers. But who are these readers? Are they different online than they are in print? Some of them aren’t even human. There is a new form of reader browsing the Internet. For this is no longer just the age of mechanical reproduction; we now have to contend with mechanical readers as well. [LINK]