The Future of American Literary Fiction?


To install my recent printers, I have no longer been required to read. This isn't a passing fad or a dumbed-down instruction manual for cheap printers. This is the standard. 

There are a few words and a lot of pictures showing you what to do, step by step.

It calls to mind the graffiti I saw scrawled on a truck passing through our Bed-Stuy neighborhood: "I used to read."

Since part of transposition may involve a shift from word to image, it looks as if printer manufacturers have already headed down this path. In literary fiction, this might be achieved by having a character's name be replaced by an icon or other type of picture. Presumably some of this type of work has already appeared online and will grow. Personally, I have not yet addressed this beyond the painting of the characters in DSP to replace narrated description of them, a project which continues to be in progress.

But there is another point that is arguably related:

What is the future of a sentence in literary fiction?

I happened to skim through a couple pieces in the New Yorker yesterday on train back to Brooklyn. One consisted of fiction, a story by Colum McCann, the other fell under the rubric of Dept of Travel and was basically an "investigative" article about the author Patricia Marx's experiences and research related to couch surfing through the internet website CouchSurf.com.

What was absolutely remarkable about the two pieces, something that I have also noticed in comparing popular literary fiction (e.g. Jonathan Franzen) with non-fiction (e.g. Greenblatt) is that sentence structure in literary fiction is very simple. In fact, it is almost identical to the style of business reports (part of my translation work). Every sentence runs subject-verb-object or subject-predicate. There are also prepositional phrases at the beginning of sentences and adverbs are also integrated, but it is next to impossible to find an independent clause (even dependent clauses are rare), inversion beyond the inquit phrase has become obsolete, and long sentences are uncommon and, where they appear, represent a type of "list." Evidently the author is trying to use stimulus to draw you into the story (McCann fails miserably) similar to the way an action movie or a business report employs simple forms to retain the audience's attention. Since such an author of literary fiction, the action movie and the business report as well as their respective audiences know that this is entertainment, a useless product created to generate income, the creators are forced to accept the lowest common denominator: stimulus.

Apparently, the situation is quite different for an author of investigative journalism. Alone Patricia Marx (and Stephen Greenblatt's) use of language demonstrates that they have something to say. Look at these sentences (to start the article!!!!):

"'This is the last thing you want to hear when you're couch surfing,' said my host, Cortney Fielding, a thirty-year-old freelance writer, when I arrived, this winter, at her one-bedroom apartment in Nob Hill neighborhood of San Francisco. 'Couch surfing' refers to the practice of temporarily loding with a stranger - free of charge, unless you count being incessantly sociable as payment. Fielding and I, along with 3,965,492 others, are members of CouchSurfing.org, a hospitality-exchange network that pairs travellers looking for a place to crash with locals willing to accommodate them or perhaps just meet for a beverage." (50)

Multiple clauses, injunctions, independent clauses. There is literally not one sentence in the 4-5 pages (I read) of McCann's story that even resembles this. The same applies to Franzen's latest novel. Literary fiction no longer tells. This is probably lesson 1 in every creative writing class (I've never taken one so I don't actually know, but I can see it in the publications).

As I have pointed out in the context of peripateticism, no further simplification of the English sentence is possible. There are only two roads from here: either we reintroduce some complexity and tell a little more, i.e. have authors with something to say like P. Marx or we embark on the printer route and integrate images into the text.

The polarization in peripateticism will probably result in the juxtaposition of these two extremes, as always, attempt to find a form commensurate with our contemporary epoch.

References:

The New Yorker, April 16, 2012


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