While conceding "change is inevitable," [Shteyngart] notes that "things happen way too fast. I always bring up the example of Tolstoy writing about the War of 1812 in the 1860s. The horse was a horse and a carriage was a carriage. Tolstoy didn't have to worry about the next killer app. The novel is a disaster at this point. It's not a disaster that there are no good novels being written. There are wonderful novels written. It's that our brains are being disassembled right now and being put back together in a whole different shape, and that is not going to be conducive to reading a 300-page thing that doesn't have any links."Read the whole thing. While Shteyngart is doubtlessly correct about the disappearance of poetry (when's the last time you heard anything about a contemporary poet in pop culture?), I think he's only partly right about the perils facing novels. Yes, scatterbrained habits reinforced by twitch-happy Internet surfing certainly don't help us read 700-page tomes. But poesy didn't perish because of YouTube videos and Facebook; it went away because it ceased to entertain.
Mr. Shteyngart made an amusing Internet trailer for the book starring writers Edmund White and Jay McInerney and the actor James Franco, a former student in his writing class at Columbia. "You have to use extraordinary ways to attract an audience," he says. The danger is that serious fiction will "become poetry, which now exists almost entirely inside the walls of academia."
Poetry fans might feel their blood pressure rising at that last sentence, but take a moment to consider what happened to verse in the twentieth century: Meter and rhyme went away while subject matter became increasingly obtuse. Even if they didn't grasp every nuance, everyday audiences could appreciate poems wherein a scheming Duke describes how he murdered his wife or world-weary Magi trudge toward Bethlehem. But when poets dumped any semblance of beauty and began penning opaque lines about blackbirds and rain-glazed wheelbarrows, well, was it any wonder folks lost interest?
Boring the audience is the true danger facing fiction, not Blackberries and iPods. If genre fiction needs to apprehend the depth of literary works (and it does), then so-called Serious Books need to understand that being soporific isn't a virtue. In An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis wisely concluded, "Every good book should be entertaining. A good book will be more; it must not be less. Entertainment … is like a qualifying examination."
(Picture: CC 2009 by centralasian)