The Reader and Technology

Toby Litt


Photo by Patrick Feller.

My Futuristic Past

I was born on 20 August 1968 – eleven months to the day before the first Apollo Moon Landing. The Space Age was always something to which I aspired rather than belonged.

For several years, between approximately 1976 and 1979, I wasn’t interested in anything earthbound. The two most important films of my boyhood were Star Wars, which showed me where I wanted to be, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which showed me a possible means of getting there.

In preference to Ampthill, Bedfordshire in 1979, I would have taken any technological dystopia. There was no armed rebellion against Margaret Thatcher, and even if there had been it would not have involved laser guns.

A couple of years ago, I spent three months playing World of Warcraft – partly as research for a short story I was writing, mostly because I became addicted to it. This convinced me of one thing: If the computer games which exist now had existed back in 1979 I would not have read any books, I think; I would not have seen writing as an adequate entertainment; I would not have seen going outdoors as sufficiently interesting to bother with.

Similarly, I find it difficult to understand why any eleven-year-old of today would be sufficiently bored to turn inward for entertainment.

This raises the question as to how future writers will come about, without ‘silence, exile and cunning’ – without the need for these things?

I was formed, as a writer, by the boredom of the place in which I lived. Philip Larkin said ‘not the place’s fault’ – but in my case, I think it was. And then, the being taken out of the first place into another place (boarding school) where I was unable to have any privacy. This developed a mania for privacy in me, which began to come out as poetry, as a diary. It’s not that I didn’t do these things before – they just became essentials for self-creating, self-preservation. That’s how I read myself, anyway.

The Reader and Technology

Literature isn’t alien to technology, literature is technological to begin with.

Literature depends on technology – a society needs to be able to do more than subsist before it produces a literature. An oral culture, yes, that is possible – but I am referring specifically to words on the page, words on the screen.

The internet connection offers all of us the constant temptation of snippets, of trivia. We don’t live, as other writers did in the past, without these particular temptations. They had their own temptations: Byron wasn’t undistracted. Yet there were greater acres of emptiness, surely. Travel took forever. Winters isolated. Boredom was there as a resource for daydreaming, trancing out.

I think writers will continue to occur but technology and its trivia will cause us to lose something, just as we lost something when we lost the classical education. We write worse because we cannot write classical prose. Yet classical prose is useless for describing the world of 2012, the world that is there – ready to buzz – in your pocket or bag.

Our perceptions outrun the sedentary sentence by much too much; just as we listen to mp3s to hear what an album would sound like were we actually to sit down and listen to it, so we skim-read the classic books to get a sense of what they would be like were we to sit down and dwell on them.

Readers more accustomed to screens – web pages, iPhone displays – will scan a page of text for its contents, rather than experience it in a There was no armed rebellion against Margaret Thatcher, and even if there had been it would not have involved laser guns. gradual linear top-left to bottom-right way. This will make for increased speed and decreased specificity. These readers will be half-distracted even as they read; their visual field will include other things than just the text, because they won’t feel happy unless those things are there. A writer of long, doubling-back sentences such as Henry James will be incomprehensible to them. They won’t be grammatically equipped to deal with him. They won’t be neurologically capable of reading him. Their eyes will photograph fields rather than, as ours do, or did, follow tracks.

This scanning approach will have a bad effect on sentence structure. For these readers, the fact they are reading bassackwardly – constructed sequences of words won’t matter. They won’t even notice. As long as the content is there for them somewhere on the page, the job of writing will have been done.

Perhaps future writers will, therefore, create vague fields of possible meaning; more Charles Olson than Ezra Pound. The exact sequence of sounds, the precise inflection of grammar – these things will seem prissy. We will be back to the eighteenth century, pre-Flaubert.

Isaac Babel’s famous sentence from his story ‘Guy de Maupassant’: ‘No iron spike can pierce a human heart as icily as a period in the right place.’ – prissy.

The Novel and Connectivity

The people novels have conventionally been written about are gradually ceasing to exist.

Novels have always belonged to aristocrats of time; not, I say, merely to aristocrats, although they have been disproportionately represented, Our perceptions outrun the sedentary sentence by much too much but to those subjects who have freedom of choice about how to act within time. The Fordist factory-line workers, performing a repetitive task all day, cannot interest the novel for more than a few moments whilst they are at work. It is only when the machine stops that the story begins. (David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King attempts to make a novel out of the dead time of insanely repetitive deskwork; and it fails, at least in the form of it he left us.)

Proposition: ‘The human race is no longer sufficently bored with life to be distracted by an art form as boring as the novel.’

Perhaps novels will continue, but instead of the machine it will be the connectivity that stops, or becomes secondary.

What we’re going to see more and more of is the pseudo-contemporary novel – in which characters are, for some reason, cut off from one another, technologically cut off. Already, many contemporary novels avoid the truly contemporary (which is hyperconnectivity).

The basic plots of Western Literature depend on separation by distance – Odysseus separated from Penelope; the Odyssey doesn’t exist if Odysseus can catch an easyJet flight home, or text Penelope’s Blackberry. Joyce’s Ulysses doesn’t exist if Bloom can do his day’s business from a laptop in a Temple Bar coffeeshop.

I don’t want to overemphasize this. You could imagine a similar anxiety over how the telephone would undermine fiction. Perhaps it is just a matter of acceleration. But I don’t think I am alone in already being weary of characters who make their great discoveries whilst sitting in front of a computer screen. 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. Watching someone play even the most exciting computer game is dull. You, reading this now, are not something any writer would want to write about for more than a sentence.

The Future

In the Preface to Volume 15 of the New York Edition, Henry James writes about ‘operative irony’. It’s a long quote, but try to stick with it because it may contain the whole future of the novel.

‘I have already mentioned the particular rebuke once addressed me on all this ground, the question of where on earth, where roundabout us at this hour, I had “found” my Neil Paradays, my Ralph Limberts, my Hugh Verekers and other such supersubtle fry. I was reminded then, as I have said, that these represented eminent cases fell to the ground, as by their foolish weight, unless I could give chapter and verse for the eminence. I was reduced to confessing I couldn’t, and yet must repeat again here how little I was so abashed. On going over these The basic plots of Western Literature depend on separation by distance – Odysseus separated from Penelope; the Odyssey doesn’t exist if Odysseus can catch an easyJet flight home things I see, to our critical edification, exactly why – which was because I was able to plead that my postulates, my animating presences, were all, to their great enrichment, their intensification of value, ironic; the strength of applied irony being surely in the sincerities, the lucidities, the utilities that stand behind it. When it’s not a campaign, of a sort, on behalf of the something better (better than the obnoxious, the provoking object) that blessedly, as is assumed, might be, it’s not worth speaking of. But this is exactly what we mean by operative irony. It implies and projects the possible other case, the case rich and edifying where the actuality is pretentious and vain. So it plays its lamp; so, essentially, it carries that smokeless flame, which makes clear, with all the rest, the good cause that guides it. My application of which remarks is that the studies here collected have their justification in the ironic spirit, the spirit expressed by my being able to reply promptly enough to my friend: “If the life about us for the last thirty years refuses warrant for these examples, then so much the worse for that life. The constatation would be so deplorable that instead of making it we must dodge it: there are decencies that in the name of the general self-respect we must take for granted, there’s a kind of rudimentary intellectual honour to which we must, in the interest of civilization, at least pretend.” But I must really reproduce the whole passion of my retort.’

In the future, all novels will invoke a kind of operative irony; post-Twitter, post-whatever-comes-after-what-comes-after-Twitter. Who are these ‘supersubtle fry’, your characters, who have all this time in which to become rich, deep selfhoods? Where do you find these interesting subjects of yours?

Or, as Henry James appears to us, so we will appear to the readers of the near future: existing in a different, slow-flowing time that they will need to make an extreme effort of deceleration to access.

I think – as a result of all this – there will be great nostalgia for the pre-trivial age, not even to mention the pre-genetic manipulation age.

Literature can accommodate nostalgia, but only as a houseguest; if nostalgia becomes the landlord, architect and psychoanalyst, literature will have to evict itself. ?

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