Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Who Needs Novels?

Though he says it really well and has a dead cool name, it’s difficult for me to swallow very much author and essayist Garth Risk Hallberg posits in a recent New York Times piece. This is especially true after doing some thinking about all that was said and implied in a piece January ran last week on how reading impacts our neural pathways. From Risk Hallberg’s piece, “Why Write Novels at All?”
The central question driving literary aesthetics in the age of the iPad is no longer “How should novels be?” but “Why write novels at all?”

The roots of this question, in its contemporary incarnation, can be traced back to the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who at the dawn of the ’80s promulgated the notion of “cultural capital”: the idea that aesthetic choices are an artifact of socioeconomic position. Bourdieu documented a correlation between taste and class position: The scarcer or more difficult to access an aesthetic experience is — the novel very much included — the greater its ability to set us apart from those further down the social ladder. This kind of value is, in his analysis, the only real value that “refined” tastes have.
Risk Hallberg’s idea is that we’re on the cusp of a whole new deal:
Even as you read this, engineers in Silicon Valley are hard at work on new ways to delight you -- gathering the entire field of aesthetic experience onto a single screen you’ll be able to roll up like a paperback and stick in your back pocket. It’s safe to say that delight won’t be in short supply, and as long as there’s juice in the battery, we won’t have to feel alone.
Pretty much every new wrinkle in the evolution of culture has brought fearmongers out of hiding, promising the end of something beloved. The wide acceptance of photography towards the end of the 19th century, for instance, had skeptics threatening the end of painting as an artform. The invention of moveable type brought out those who predicted it would mean the end of storytelling and -- same horse, different paddock -- that democratization through mass production of books (read that pulp fiction) would spell the end of “proper” literature.

History is filled with many such dire predictions at times of change. But should we really concern ourselves with disconnected possibilities? And, maybe more to the point, is the artform that so recently gave us The Pale King, 11/22/63, and The Tiger’s Wife actually under threat? From what we’re seeing -- and from what our neural pathways are telling us -- no. It is not.



Anonymous Michelle Baker said...

Perhaps the problem lies not in the proliferation of the genre, but in the critic's definition of art as a mechanism for social propulsion.

As a postmodern scholar, I attempted to redefine the aesthetic in my dissertation Blaming Helen: Beauty and Desire in Contemporary Literature. There I posit that the beauty we seek in a work of art is something ineffable that is both embodied in material form and capable of transcending it.

At the intersection between the two lies a void that those who experience (both the artists who create it and the audience who consume it) describe as the sublime.

So long as artworks continue to be produced capable of generating such a whirlwind of desire, the vacuum where that void can open, neither the volume nor the medium matter.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012 at 8:03:00 AM PST  

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