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What Tweets and Emojis Did to the Novel

26 November 2019

From The New York Times:

Until the 2010s, if you were reading, it generally meant you weren’t doing it online. Though change had been in the offing, this was the decade that irreversibly altered how we consume text — when the smartphone transformed from a marvel to a staple. Suddenly, the sharpest cultural and political analysis came in the form of a distracted boyfriend meme. Racists deployed a playful cartoon frog to sugar their messages. From the Arab Spring onward, the best reporters were often panicked bystanders with Twitter accounts.

One of the strangest effects of this transition was that it rekindled very ancient human behaviors. The scroll, one of the earliest technologies for reading, returned, as did the oldest form of writing, the ideogram, reincarnated in the emoji panel. In this weird, narrow sense, opening a paperback in 2019 was more modern than texting with your friends.

That seems ridiculous right until it spills over into being obvious. After all, who could contest the idea that communications, behind a ceaseless inflow of data, have been continually evolving to target ever more primitive brain functions? Think of the obscurely nauseous casino ping of tugging downward on Instagram and seeing it refresh with a notification, the instant dopamine rush. The scroll and the ideogram died out because of their simplicity, only to have been revived for that reason. The scroll is a frictionless waterfall on the screen. And while an entire alphabet of ideograms would be unusably bulky, a handful of key ones, scattered into our language, condense thousands of complicated reactions into a few dozen universal symbols.

It would seem as if few times in history could be less hospitable to literature. Not even 20 years ago we mostly read about things in lag, on thin slices of tree, whereas now we do — well, this, whatever this is. Yet instead of technology superannuating literature once and for all, it seems to have created a new space in our minds for it.

. . . .

The novel thrives on social repercussions, and the fiction that was fashionable during the first 10 years of the century was no exception. Writers produced big, clever, glossy sagas of family and friendship, in a fretfully bravura style that reached its fullest expression in books like “White Teeth,” by Zadie Smith; “The Corrections,” by Jonathan Franzen; and “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” by Jennifer Egan. They were irradiated by the conviction that an author could observe life at the turn of the millennium and repackage it for readers with a set of decisive, fine-grained interpretations.

. . . .

By contrast, Knausgaard and Ferrante promise so little. But they give it. Each recounts, in the close first person, the inside of a human life. That’s something innumerable writers have done, obviously, but they seemed to do it in a newly dangerous way — with a pitiless, dispassionate modesty of ambition. Neither narrator extrapolates larger truths from experience. Both trust themselves as far as their own fingertips; Ferrante portrays the intricate social world of working-class Naples, but in a state of constantly renewed bafflement, while Knausgaard (“He broke the sound barrier of the autobiographical novel,” the novelist Jeffrey Eugenides told a reporter for The New Republic) abandons almost all narrative pretense to describe his time on earth as straightforwardly as he can.

The effect this method had on me, and I believe on many people, was one of immediate trust and identification. Somewhere in the stretch between Sept. 11, 2001, and the 2016 election, such limited claims to certainty came to seem not unambitious, but like the only sane rejoinder to the world as it had become. And the length of the books — their uncompressed, occasionally boring plots — created a profound new version of the self-forgetting that the best stories give us. To read Knausgaard or Ferrante, or indeed other writers of what critics have called autofiction, such as Teju Cole and Rachel Cusk, was less to enter a story than to spend a while as another person.

Link to the rest at The New York Times

For the record, PG frequently reads think pieces in The New York Times as science fiction or installments in the always-growing neurotic autodidact genre.

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