The Future of Talking About the Future of The Novel

Yesterday, the New York Observer published Does the Novel Have a Future? The Answer is In This Essay! by recent lit star/ guy my boyfriend thinks seems pretentious, Tao Lin. In case you don’t know who Tao Lin is, he is famous for his short novel Shoplifting from American Apparel and his recent release Richard Yates, as well as writing pieces for Thought Catalog about subjects like which fruits would be worst to get a blow job from.

I clicked on the essay thinking, “that seems like a shitty subject to read/write about, but I bet Tao Lin will have something off-kilter and surprising to say.” What it ended up being was an exhaustingly elaborate set of proof points that Lin had done his research – A+ on that – before finally just sharing his own viewpoint:

Therefore I currently feel most interested in reading/writing novels that aren’t improvements on or innovations of other novels. I want to view each potential novel as already definitively and unavoidably unique, improvable only in comparison to itself and then only from its creator’s singular perspective.

Basically, he is saying you do not need to create a novel that uses the touch navigation of the iPad to explore non-linearity while also using QR codes and Yelp.com RSS feeds. Instead, he seems to be arguing, the conversation about innovating the format is just a distraction from actually sharing your own life, experiences and viewpoint.

That opinion is a slight recourse from what I have been noticing in a lot of traveling author speeches, which have given me this general expectation about the future of the novel:

The future of the novel is choose your own adventure. It is 200 possible outcomes. It is time as a circle. Each e-book will have 1,000 different paths that lead to different conclusions.

But what about the author’s story development? I would think.

No, Becky, you are just theorizing that the story will fall away in an event of such loose, quantum, variable outcomes because you are getting set in your ways and are just intimidated bye the cell phone-raised generation. What you don’t realize is they grow up having seven unique attention spans, each of which has its own color-scheme on their iPhone. They can simply wave their iPhone over their iPad while reading and they shall be able to keep track of 49 different plot outcomes at all times. Try to follow along, OK?

I think Jonathan Safran Foer’s latest release, Tree of Codes, is a perfect example of this ultra-futuristic-minded idea of where the novel is going. Die-cut to have countless words removed, the book seems more about exploration and play than storytelling in general. This kind of physical non-traditionality of format is even more accelerated in e-books, which will probably end up not just being words, but being sound-effects, embedded videos, etc.

But the reliance on format of the book is also distracting from the question about the future of the author, which is dramatically changing. Tao Lin himself is an example of this. When he’s not pranking awkward social media sites, of which he’s got most of them covered, he’s interacting with growing subsets of writers that are making writing into a community affair, rather than a bunch of solitary bodies scribbling in silence. Writers today are using the Internet to elevate their own careers, bylines and “personal brands,” but also to show that writer culture can be an engaging, risque subculture of its own, and as history has shown us, that’s when it’s the most powerful.

So maybe instead of talking about the future of reading books on a platform with a gyroscope, we should think about how the Internet has changed the culture as a whole, giving it an upward momentum that has little to do with destroying traditional story structure.

-Becky Lang

  • cp

    i don’t think Foer means for Tree of Codes to be anything but an art piece and homage to his favorite author. tao lin is still a pretentious ass, like many authors are (and have always been). maybe they need to be?

    and for being such a internet darling, his perception of judging each novel on an individual basis doesn’t make any sense. of course all writing (fiction or not) is an improvement on and reflection of what that author has read in his/her life. it cannot be otherwise. the only way a work is completely, totally unique is if the author has never read anything, never watched a movie, and never listened to music.

    i’m not entirely sure what your argument is here–that novels will be heavily influenced by the reader and commity? haven’t they always been?

    i should stop writing comments in my six minutes between classes.