In an April 12th essay online at Granta, author Toby Litt writes one of the better reflections on the multifaceted impact of technology on the literary novel. Entitled “The Reader and Technology,” I had expected another nostalgia-driven tirade against technology, but was pleasantly surprised.
Although his essay is far from cogent and well developed (he touches on a number of different ideas without investigating any one with the depth it deserves), he at least approaches the subject of technology and novels with a fair amount of objectivity. And when it comes to discussing how technology is affecting literature, a truly analytical perspective is generally lacking among critics and writers in the literary community (at least when it comes to prose fiction. The poetry community not only accepts the digital age but in many cases, god forbid, is actually excited by new technology.)
One point in particular I found to be rather interesting. Litt points out that the ways in which technology has changed our daily lives will have significant consequences for the literary subject matter for writers. To watch an individual using technology is boring. Much of our daily interactions with technology consist of clicking and typing and scrolling – actions that will not easily allow character development and depth let along be interesting actions to observe as a reader. He says,
“If for example a character, by diligent online research and persistent emailing, finds out one day – after a ping in their inbox – who their father really is, isn’t that a story hardly worth telling? Watching someone at a computer is dull.”
This simple observation is not completely fleshed out but Litt at least allows himself to think about a real potential consequence that the digital age will have on the creation of fiction. And for all of its simplicity, it was one that I hadn’t thought of. He even draws from historical literary criticism to propose a solution to this potential crisis of content.
Litt believes that the idea of ‘operative irony’ as described by Henry James in one of his many critical prefaces “may contain the whole future of the novel.”
Operative irony is more of less when a writer creates an alternate idealized reality with his fiction. He goes beyond the vain and vulgar present-day existence of an ordinary person to project a ‘better’ potential existence. So in the future of the novel the ‘interesting characters’ will be of the alternate idealized reality because individual lives in the digital age are, he implies, incredibly boring – not worthy material for a novelist.
And yet, although I initially found his idea to be interesting, I do not believe that this crisis of content will actually exist for future novelists. In general, it is always the exception to the norm that is the subject of literary investigation and description. Even with regard to literary minimalism, the characters themselves are necessarily unexceptional but there is always a reason why that particular individual was written into existence instead of any other of the near infinite potentials.
The great writer takes the ordinary and expresses it in a unique way. In Nabokov’s lecture “Good Readers and Good Writers” originally delivered in 1948, he said:
“To minor authors is left the ornamentation of the commonplace: these do not bother about any reinventing of the world; they merely try to squeeze the best they can out of a given order of things, out of traditional patterns of fiction.”
Only for the lesser author will the type of operative irony that Litt propounds be necessary. Even then it is questionable whether this device could be used successfully by such an author. The great writers will never need to employ operative irony for the integrity of their work. Rather, as James suggests, it will be a cultural imperative.
If the novel has a future at all the novelists will not have difficulty relating the world in a unique way. The moment that a device like operative irony becomes necessary will be the moment that the novel becomes an inadequate genre for the creation of prose fiction.