Let’s Get Small: Three Books from 2010
I have a year-end confession. I liked Reality Hunger. A lot. I might even go so far as to say that I think Reality Hunger is an important book.
This might not seem very provocative, since the thing is covered in blurbs by all the usual, stylish suspects, but it still seems like David Shields’ manifesto was the book book-lovers loved to hate in 2010. Most recently, every book blog I read reproduced—with much appreciation—New York book critic Sam Anderson’s marginalia expressing his desire to punch Reality Hunger in the face. In marginalia! How perfectly dismissive.
But the reason I like Shields’ book—a lot, as I said—is because I don’t think it’s so easily dismissed, and (furthermore) I think the desire to dismiss it as something stupid or half-baked or pretentious is more dangerous to fiction than anything in the book itself. In other words, I think you have to be pretty out of it to think Shields is prima facie out of it for suggesting that the big Aristotelian, cantilevered thing we call the novel has become an inefficient mechanism for delivering insights into the human condition that could better be delivered via a thousand other means, some of them written and some of them not. And, frankly, I don’t want to read fiction or criticism by anyone who hasn’t taken this argument completely seriously.
Have I taken this argument completely seriously?
Perhaps not seriously enough, since I continue to write fiction, but I have certainly felt the dissatisfaction that Shields describes—the sense that in an age of 24-7 voyeurism, fiction risks becoming unnecessary. The questions that Reality Hunger raised for me were, specifically, 1) What sort of stories, if any, can only be told with the written word? and 2) What stories, if any, can only be told as fictional narratives?
Off the top of my head, I would say that the first set is not empty and that it’s probably much larger than the second. Certain subtleties of experience can only be captured in writing, while certain fantastical situations can only be captured in fiction. The current vogue for dystopian fabulism no doubt owes something to the latter—an old thread, to be sure; Gogol’s “Nose” is my favorite example of a text that could never be filmed—but the former is an insufficient justification for fiction, as I thinks Shields demonstrates. If your fictional narrative takes place in the actual world, why go to the trouble of not really placing it there? I’m not saying you can’t, but—as a reader—I’m going to need a justification beyond literary tradition.
And as a writer, too. I’ve had my ups and downs with the novelistic form. (Aha! We’ve got him.) Years ago, I wrote a novel because I thought I should. I showed it around, got luke-warm responses, then realized my own response was pretty luke-warm. Long after I’d finished showing everything I wanted to show and describing everything I wanted to describe, I pressed on from conflict to conflict, all the way to a final resolution. But I didn’t really believe it. This might say more about me as a writer than anything about the form, of course, and I pretty much assumed that was the case until I read Shields’ book and found out I wasn’t alone in feeling a little meh about prevailing storytelling conventions.
You might say that it’s my job as a writer to fix this somehow, to breath new life into old forms. But why? Defenses of the novel remind me of the defenses of Heidegger I spent hours listening to—and occasionally participating in—when I was in graduate school. Can Heidegger be saved, despite his flirtation with National Socialism? After awhile, you think, who cares? What’s so great about Heidegger, anyway? Why all the effort to “save” him? Let’s go do something else.
The something else I’ve been attracted to lately is, well, whatever comes up—whether it’s short fiction or serialization or blogging. It does not even exclude the novel. The passage in Shields’ book I related to the most reads as follows:
It is important for a writer to be cognizant of the marginalization of literature by more technologically sophisticated and more visceral narrative forms. You can work in these forms or use them or write about them or through them, but I don’t think it’s a very good idea to go on writing in a vacuum. Culture, like science, moves forward. Art evolves.
While Reality Hunger is famously composed of stolen quotes, this turns out to be by Shields himself, at least according to the end notes. I just found this out. I read Reality Hunger on an iPhone—with the Kindle app—and would recommend others do the same. The forced linearity of the medium kept me from flipping back to check every source and somewhat obviated my anxieties about attribution. Maybe that’s why I liked it where others didn’t. But that’s ridiculous, right? That we could live in a time when interpretation of texts is influenced by what platforms are deployed in their consumption? Actually, no, it’s not ridiculous at all. It’s what’s happening. But I couldn’t agree with Shields more that writing in a vacuum is not a very good idea, even if it is valorized by our creative class folklore. In any case, I’m not cut out for it. I like to write and tinker, and I don’t for a second dream of being left alone to write.
I’ve read about writers—and talked to others—who describe a moment when they stopped trying to write like they thought they should and started writing like they did spontaneously, a revelation that can be compounded in myriad ways by the fragmentation of media. This means writers might now accept what, when, and where they write, in addition to the stylistic how. There are a lot of possibilities, in other words, and whether or not the novel is a vital form doesn’t capture even a fraction of them. In fact, the more the novel insists on its vitality, the deader it will seem as fiction marches down a sad path of self-justification that will end in arguments about whether or not it improves math scores or can be usefully read to the unborn.
I’d rather have it die now than see it come to that.
In science fiction movies, there’s almost always rock music in the future? Why is that? It’s because we usually imagine that the future will be like the present, only more so. But what if that’s wrong? This is another thing Shields gets right, I think. Our assumption, as storytelling technologies take off in all directions, is that stories will become huge. Enhanced, transmediated, and massively collaborative!
While this is one possible outcome of current technologies, it will not be the only one—nor will it necessarily be the most interesting. In addition to going big, technology is going to allow stories to go small. Very small. Down to the individual scale, where we actually live and connect with each other. So much is made of the next big thing, that we might actually miss what’s going on. Franzen’s Freedom captivates, because it’s fucking huge. If you’re going to go big—and publishing has no choice as this point—you gotta go with Freedom. But the small revolution is happening all the time, as tiny stories—sublime little narratives and minor conceits—are played out quietly, right under our noses.
There are two books I read this year that were small—which is to say they were not so ambitious—but which I found to be profound (in their way) and interesting for their very existence. They might not be classics, but if I’m right about small, future classics (should accelerating media fragmentation support such things) will look more like them than like Freedom.
The first is You’ll Like This Film Because You’re In It: The Be Kind Rewind Protocol, by film director Michel Gondry. Gondry is, for my money, the most influential visual stylist of the last decade. From his commercial work to videos for The White Stripes to his movies like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, he—along with Spike Jonze—are the leading exponents of a kind of a hip, naive surrealism that has become so prevalent it’s almost impossible to locate its boundaries. Gondry’s The Science of Sleep is perhaps its clearest manifesto—declaring the primacy of dreamlike creativity and placing technology in the service of childlike reverie—but You’ll Like This Film Because You’re In It is its story. In it, Gondry charmingly tells the tale of how he sought to take the plot of Be Kind Rewind—in which a community comes together to make a film—into the real world, or at least into Manhattan Gallery Deitch Projects, where Gondry helped groups of people make small films following a structured protocol for two months in 2008.
A must-read for anyone truly interested in “community”—a major buzzword of 2010—Gondry’s narrative is as philosophical as it is personal. A first attempt at a communally-made film fails, for instance, when removed from the context of an actual film. As Gondry realizes:
I had ignored the influence of the other actors, like Jack Black, who had added a bit of artificial magic to the experience, not to a mention a solid reason to consistently attend the shoot. … My system seemed to work only because it was held together by the big attractive filmmaking machine. Despite my best attempts, my utopia was still a utopia.
I also have a hunch that those who are lucky enough to express their voices to the world, the “professional artists,” are not encouraging the “ordinary” people to be creative. Maybe because it is not in their financial interest to bring more people into their profession (the industry recruits through its own social circles). Recently, someone from a creative field approached me and said, “It’s amazing, I saw my best friend from school the other day, and he told me he had just worked with you. It’s such a small world.”
“Yes, it’s a small world because we don’t share it,” I answered. OK, now I am quoting myself. How much worse can I get? Please forgive me.
The book is a double whammy: a small book—in both size and scale—about pursuing (or allowing) smallness, and thereby making the creative world much larger.
The second book I read this year that would have once been “too small” to even share was Rob Walker’s Where Were You? 2009. I got to know Rob this year via the Significant Objects project, which he co-founded and to which I’ve contributed, and this happily landed me on the mailing list for this side project of his.
For years, Rob has been jotting down a few lines whenever he learns that someone famous has died. For years, he shared this with no one. Then, for a few years, he circulated it as a print zine. Last year, he issued it as a free e-book. Why? He explains:
First, I don’t really know why I started this project. I was 23. I believe I had the vague sense that this was the sort of exercise that really wouldn’t be interesting for years, if ever. And since I’ve never been able to maintain a traditional journal for longer than a few weeks, I’m pleased that this thing has lasted, because now I’m 41, and it contains a (somewhat eccentric) record of my life. Second: This project began in the pre-Web era, when doing something without regard to an immediate audience was the default. For the first few years, it was actually a series of physical scrapbooks. Later it transitioned to just words in a digital file, and I think I decided to make the zines because I wanted to go back to something that was partly a series of objects—plus I was ready to experiment with having an audience (however modest) for this material.
The entries themselves are straightforward and unsentimental. Collectively, they serve as a phenomenological study of fame and mortality. Their effect is both cumulative and sublime. “Goody died of cervical cancer at age 27, at home in Essex, in England. I really didn’t know who she was, but read the obit online,” Walker writes in one entry. And later:
Arthur died of cancer at age 86, at home in Los Angeles. I noticed two status updates of friends on Facebook mentioning Maude—one said, “And then there’s Maude,” and the other said, “Maude was my role model.” Neither had an explanation or link, but I assumed that the coincidence of two such entries must mean: Bea Arthur has died.
Over the course of the book, the impression grows that death in our age of real-time news and celebrity gossip is the same as it’s ever been: intimate yet unfathomably remote. As Walker concludes (?) in the preface:
In the process, for me at least, it prods me not just out of the now, but out of the most familiar self-deception: The fiction that I’m not really getting older because age is a mindset a point of view a way of approaching life. That mindset has its advantages, but it’s good to recall: We’re mortal, you and I. You already knew that, but sometimes I forget. As for what the following material offers readers … well, perhaps there are some facts of interest here, some moments of amusement, some recognition, some surprise. I guess I could say that I hope you find it diverting. But that’s not the right word.
The book is a free download. I’m already looking forward to the 2010 edition.
Of course I’m not the first person to hope that new technology will foster smallness and intimacy rather than gigantism. Television and screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky held out the same hope for TV during its so-called Golden Age. He believed that TV, unlike the big screen, was uniquely suited to presenting “minutely detailed studies of small moments of life.” Chayefsky would live to see TV both fulfill and betray this promise between his screenwriting Oscars for the small drama Marty (1955) and Network (1976), the wrathful satire of television’s reckless hugeness. (“The most awesome goddamned force in the whole godless world,” Howard Beale calls it.)
So where are we in relation to our own Golden Age of smallness? Has it just started, or is it almost over? Will it be fleeting, or will the fragmentation of media deliver it as a permanent state? I’m tempted to say I’m anxious about this as we enter 2011. But that’s not the right word.