Friday, December 18, 2009

To be human

This pressure gets exerted downward, with agents informing their authors of the Facts of Life: if they want the kind of attention and healthy advances that were common a decade ago, during the boom years, they had better make sure their work is pitched broadly. More and more authors alter their approach to fit into a stream that grows ever narrower. And more and more readers find themselves baffled by books that don’t seem to know what they are trying to do, and turn away to more forthrightly literary or commercial work.

With all this talk basically asserting that the literary novel is in a crisis I have come to the conclusion that what the form offers that few if any forms of art can is 'intimacy'. I have gravitated in recent years to books like Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe trilogy partly because, like the main character, I am a middle-aged man experiencing middle-age-manhood. But more because Ford is a master at creating a bubble of intimacy between writer and reader. Reading these books one has the sense that we have entered the protagonist's authentic world, the inner-sanctum of his selfhood. In a world in which the celebrity-driven media is all-intrusive, a world in which basic human interaction is so heavily mediated by technology, the screen, the phone, and so forth, the literary novel can exist as a counterbalance. It has to do with the quality of the medium and mode of consumption ('curling up with a good book') which may be characterized as 'quiet' and 'revealing' in nature. There are a lot of experiences that were once the purview of books that films can now, and will in the future, do as well if not better than books in the realm of bombast and spectacle; generate thrills, suspense and horror, carry us to distant or imagined lands, fabricate alternative realities etc. But because it is fundamentally a flattening medium, film does not (and will never) convey the subtle complexities and depth of what it means (in thought, feeling and spirit) to be another person. The question for the future of the novel will ultimately rest on how much we value achieving that level of genuine personal human connection.

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