from THE NEXT THING
KINDLE, KINDLE BURNING BRIGHT; OR, 21ST CENTURY FICTION & THE POETICS OF SUCH
Fielding once wrote something to the effect that people tend to believe they are writers by virtue of having the manual dexterity to apply pen to paper. Perhaps, in the 21st century we can just replace pen and paper with finger, keyboard and mouse and get the same results. It would be pretentious on my part to suggest what fiction may look like deep into the 21st century or what a poetics of fiction may look like deep into the 21st century, but based on what’s been happening to fiction at the close of the 20th century and the onset of the 21st, I might suggest there will be little “experimental fiction” in the 21st century that will ever get published in book form since most every manuscript has now been siphoned by literary agents (who are neither literary nor agents), but are “order takers” who thrive on the “blockbuster” mentality. Couple that with the fact readers are less inclined to read “long books” or “eccentric books” or “literary books” and that pandemic case of ADD would puzzle even Chekhov’s medical acumen, we’re left with very little to work on indeed. Perhaps, fictional blogs will take over or Mark Zuckerberg might expand Facebook to include something like “Fictionbook” that will become a cyber site of such immense popularity that “writers” won’t need an agent for representation and publication.
Amazon’s Kindle (of which I’ll speak later) is already using the internet to expand the borders of self-publishing albeit for a nominal amount of money. Perhaps, at some point, there will be a Nobel Prize awarded for CyberLit. Perhaps, not; however, what I find engaging in considering “The Next Thing: Art in the 21st century” is the notion of how a 21st century poetics of fiction might relate to the 21st century notion of fiction. The distance between Diderot’s This is not a story (1772) and David Markson’s This Is Not A Novel (2001) is fewer than the 229 chronological years between them. Actually, they could have easily been written at the same time. So, if Diderot were asked in 1772 what art might look like in th 1800s he might have been prescient enough to have said, “David Markson.” The literary imagination of someone such as Diderot or Xaxier de Maistre or Machado de Assis may not have been much different than Coover, Barth or Fowles. Having said that, as Steve Katz said in an interview with Larry McCaffery, about a group of postmodern writers, certain shared things were "in the air," in a manner of speaking: "…all of us found ourselves at the same stoplights in different cities at the same time. When the lights changed, we all crossed the streets"1 In a sense, that was kind of a diachronic literary Zeitgeist.
What will be different is how the technology of today may become the tools for the fiction of tomorrow just as the typographical flourishes of Apollinaire and Tzara predated the Concretists. It’s certainly conceivable that anything within the purview of the “technologic” (in the broad sense) can be used as a medium for fiction. On a personal level, disturbed by the inevitable disappearance of personal checks (in the UK this is supposed to happen by 2018), I’ve written a novel entirely composed of checks (The Checks & Balances of Alfie Schiller). I’ve even worked on a novel written entirely in emails (Les Liaisons Dangereuses: The Email Edition); a photonovel (not to be confused with a ‘graphic novel’), Aleatory; or, A Day in the Life of Jürgen Jürgensen, Imaginary Cartographer: A Novel in Four Cities. What’s available as a medium for a novelist or prose fiction writer is as unlimited as the imagination of the writer. Going beyond Apollinaire and Tzara and the Concretists, I’ve utilized sandwich boards, license plates, and movie tickets to create literary pieces that are both readable as text and visually effective as art on paper or canvas.
Clearly, the internet has expanded the visual culture beyond television and that culture has become so attuned to the visual the visual seems to have surpassed the efficacy and predominance of the word. As bookstore chains go into bankruptcy, internet vanity publishing becomes state of the art, but what gets visualized is not necessarily what’s being written or what has been written. Does anyone still read Pessoa? Does anyone know about Karl Marx’s Scorpion and Felix? What manuscripts did Beckett keep in his trunk? What else did Gogol burn? Was it possible that the Hidab al-jabr wal-muqubala, written in Baghdad about 825 A.D. by the Arab mathematician Mohammed ibn-Musa al-Khowarizmi, may have also influenced him to write fiction? And what influence did the Concrete Poets and the Brazilian Noigandres have on the fiction of the time? The modes of fiction have been as mutable and immutable as the writers writing them which brings me back to a poetics of the 21st Century, to an understanding of a fictional poetics; to a poetics of novel notions: a cacophony of phonetics, semantics, semiotics, linguistics et al. Forms that often undermine the Aristotelian notion of fair game, fair play, of what Leonard Orr has written as ‘aristotelian novels’ versus ‘nonaristotelian’ ones; of a seemingly corporeal harmony for Socrates, placating Peripatetic wanderings. Just as we are left pondering Brian McHale’s question “whose postmodernism is it anyway?” when he writes “…we can discriminate among constructions of postmodernism, none of them any less ‘true’ or less fictional than the others, since all of them are finally fictions. Thus, there is John Barth’s postmodernism, the literature of replenishment; Charles Newman’s postmodernism, the literature of inflationary economy; Jean-François Lyotard’s postmodernism, a general condition of knowledge in the contemporary informational regime; Ihab Hassan’s postmodernism, a stage on the road to the spiritual unification of humankind; and so on. There is even Kermode’s construction of postmodernism, which in effect constructs it right out of existence.”2 In the end, we have to ask, “whose poetics is it anyway?” Shklovsky has his poetics. So did Wellek and Warren. Frye has his as does Said and Todorov. And Linda Hutcheon’s? She even labels hers ‘postmodern’. So what exactly is this thing called poetics? Presumably it is the method of their individual madnesses. Those fools who protest too much; those deceivers who actually know the difference between windmills and giants, but play their game anyway; those fabricators of labyrinths and manufacturers of such and such and so on and so on so such like Taking a stone from the right pocket of my greatcoat, and putting it in my mouth, I replaced it in the right pocket of my greatcoat by a stone from the right pocket of my trousers ad astra and if that’s not poetics then what is it?
It is their vision that disembowels the genie to perform the Herculean feats of transmogrifying the intangible, the inchoate, to that which incises into some fleshless archive called ‘craft’ or ‘art’. To work on the notion of a poetics is to work on a disputational system of erecting monomyths in order to destroy them. Yet there must be a method to the mania (whether aristotelian or not) that enables the writer to satisfy the expedients of the fissures of the soul in order to mollify the anguish which disturbs one, perturbs one, to write. In addressing the notion of ‘the arduous labor of style’, Barthes writes of Flaubert that ‘the dimension of this agony is altogether different; the labor of style is for him an unspeakable suffering (even if he speaks it quite often), an almost expiatory ordeal for which he acknowledges no compensation of a magical (i.e. aleatory) order, as the sentiment of inspiration might be for many writers: style, for Flaubert, is absolute suffering, infinite suffering, useless suffering…it requires an ‘irrevocable farewell to life,” a pitiless sequestration.’\” 3. And for Beckett, writing was ”the only thing left for [me] to do.” 4
What then might be the method of a new 21st century poetics? Or are there methods? Are there approaches that coexist with the verities of the script? From whatever storehouse of methodologies that exist? Can there be a “poetics of the novel” at all? Or a poetics of fiction? Or merely “poetics of novels and fiction?” Is there a way to apply the standards of a ‘poetics of the novel’ to texts as disparate as Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy, Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Braz Cubas, La Hora de la Estrella and Company, and, of course, Diderot’s This is Not a Story to David Markson’s This is Not a Novel? Can we take Henry James seriously when he writes in his ‘The Art of Fiction’ that “The only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does attempt to represent life. When it relinquishes this attempt, the same attempt that we see on the canvas of the painter, it will have arrived at a very strange pass?” 5 Actually, no. Theories of the novel from Lukács to Leavis, Lubbock to Stevick, McHale to Hutcheon and even the allusions of Derrida to Baudrillard the art of fiction from James to Kundera all tend to homogenize the beast into a senescent organism capable of ‘swallowing its own’. What motivates an individual writer to write their way is a mélange of ascendancies. In other words, a carnival of a different color which absorbs a writer in the exploration of the finiteness of their ability. Balzac, even in his majestic sloppiness, is equal to Beckett in the respect given to his signature on the page. Most of the time.
A notion of a poetics of fiction engages the heretofore unengageable. Or at least the heretofore unmanageable. An awkward notion in light of the panoply of scientific discourses from French and German scholarship. That is, to return to those thrilling days of Shklovksy, Tomashevsky, Eichenbaum and Robbe-Grillet, to minimize archaeologies of knowledge and vials of semiosis and return to the architectonics of the texts themselves, because in the final analysis one is merely left with two things: the text qua text and the person who wrote it. As my late friend Ronald Sukenick wrote: “The truth of the page is that there’s a writer sitting there writing the page…’and the reader ‘is forced to recognize the reality of the reading situation as the writer points to the reality of the writing situation, and the work, instead of allowing him to escape the truth of his own life, keeps returning him to it but, one hopes, with his own imagination activated and revitalized.”6 This is not to say the politics in the text is less important than the politics of the text; it is meant to say in dealing with notions of poetics the content will pay homage to its parent structure and implied in the structure is a politics that may even transcend the content. This is the concept of politextuality (i.e. political content by virtue of the manner in which it is written rather than the content itself) that I wrote about in a book of mine in that the structure of a text has an implied politicality to it and that politicality is related to a large degree on what publishers will publish. As Valéry has written: “The art of literature, derived from language and by which, in turn, language is influenced, is thus, of all the arts…the one which engages and utilises the greatest number of independent parts (sound, sense, syntactic forms, concepts, images…). Its study…is basically…an analysis of the mind executed with a particular intention.” 7 To that end, writers exist in the text whether we want to accept that or not.
We find that poetics can involve a number of aspects devoted to the novel, but in order to deal with these on multiple planes, from different angles of reading, as Breton might have said in referring to Nadja, we have to acknowledge the approaches to each of these novels will be both the same, yet different. What will be similar is the presumption, a presumption hedged in the formulation that writers write to say something (whatever that something may be) and execute it in a particular way. Though there may be a mania ascribed to the possibility of multiple readings/meanings of a text, there is no mistaking the politextualness by which an individual writer structures their work. In other words, a text by Marinetti or Tzara doesn’t necessarily need to “be political” to “appear political.”
That compositional poetics may be based upon a clearly defined social, economic or political perspective that may be ‘reflected’ in the manner of the madness or as a way of placating the madness, there is no question. From the cartographic journeys of Quixote to the epidermal ones of Braz Cubas to the suspicious autobiographical ‘ramblings’ of Company’s voice, the poetics of novels seek to reify a particular structure suitable to the behavior of the text and the person executing it.
What appears more and more likely with the innovations of ipads, amazon’s Kindle, Barnes and Noble’s Nook, ad nauseum is that the way books are read will change completely. Gone will be the days of actually writing in a text (unless technology alters those electronic books for that capacity) and gone may be any true innovation in novel writing and in length due to the prevailing socioeconomic conditions of the time and the pandemic disease of ADD. For example, Kindle will allow anyone to publish a novel of any length, but the royalties on said text would differ from 30% to 75% relative to the cost of the text. If the text is under $9.99 then one can receive 75% of the cost; if over $9.99 then the author will receive 30%. Given the significant difference in royalties, one would be more inclined publish the first option rather than the second. Coterminous with that is that no one will be submitting a novel of, say, 1000 pages for a royalty of 30% and no average Kindle reader would, I believe, want to read a text of 1000 pages especially on a Kindle. Alas, poor Tolstoy I knew him well. The exponential increase in cable/dish television viewers has, I’m assuming, resulted in an exponential decrease in readers. Readers don’t have “time” to read long novels and the age of long novels is destined for the “trash heap of history” unless, of course, we return to serial novels in which that 1000 page novel can be sufficiently disguised as a series of stories written over a period of months by a new Boz Dickens.
As I alluded to, in the course of the past few decades, the number of publishers has diminished due to mergers, acquisitions and bankruptcies. Gone are the days when a writer could submit a manuscript “over the transom” since the transom has disappeared and been replaced by literary agents. With the decrease in outlets for writers and the increased dependency on agents to act as the “gatekeepers of literary culture,” many writers (established, ignored and emerging) have essentially been cast to the economic wind. This “new wave” of how manuscripts are treated cannot be separated from the economics of publishing and so what may seem marketable is going to take precedence over something that may seem unmarketable and, to a large extent, that decision will be mediated by an agent.
Perhaps, there will be success stories of those who have written a “first novel” and published in on Kindle and made loads of money; however, that achievement will be the exception and not the rule since for that to happen one will not only have to write the novel, but market the novel as well. One needs to use Facebook and Twitter and My Space and YouTube and Linked In and whatever other social networks past, present and future are out there and who really has time for all of that if one is serious about writing?
What has also become prevalent is that the content of fiction has taken precedence over the manner in which it is written. In other words, the art of fiction writing and especially novel writing has seemingly given way to the craft of fiction writing and one can purchase any number of books devoted to “how to write a (fill in the blank)” which tends to homogenize the content if not the process. So, there seems to be a confluence of things happening at the beginning of the 21st century that doesn’t seem to bode well for the future of fiction/novel writing and for a poetics of fiction: decreased publishing outlets, increased dependence on agents, emphasis on craft rather than art, the role of writer as marketeer, and the Kindlefication of the written word which inevitably leads me to Walter Benjamin and his notion of the ‘aura’ as it related to the age of mechanical reproduction. "…Was im Zeitalter der technischen Reproduzierbarkeit des Kunstwerks verkümmert, das ist seine Aura," writes Benjamin. “That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art." 8 So, how might that aura be attenuated vis-à-vis the dissemination of a text over the internet or by Kindleization? And how might that affect a notion of poetics?
One can attempt to deconstruct what Benjamin talks about in relation to the aura and how it withers. Semiotically, it conjures a number of different referents all of which have their basis in something thinly veiled, often religious, sacred, and generally mysterious. Certainly Benjamin was clearly knowledgeable about Jewish mysticism as his letters with Gershom Scholem would attest. We can deal with the notion of aura on two levels: a Kabbalistic one and a presumably less cosmic Physical one. On a Kabbalistic level, the "aura" is the essence of the creative spirit and is also an expression of the divine nature of man not unlike the Torah which is "to be regarded as the living incarnation of the divine wisdom which eternally sends out new rays of light…it is (rather) the cosmic law of the Universe, as God’s wisdom conceived it."9 On this level, as we shall see, there is a natural relationship between the spiritual and the origin of a work of art since the work of art is a uniquely derived personal expression of the human condition mediated by the artist. But, as Scholem has written, "What kind of direct relation can there be between the Creator and His creature, between the finite and the infinite; and how can words express an experience for which there is no adequate simile in this finite world of man? Yet it would be wrong and superficial to conclude that the contradiction implied by the nature of mystical experience betokens an inherent absurdity."10 This in turn leads one to see a relationship between the aura and Kabbalism which "concentrates upon the idea of the living God who manifest himself in the acts of Creation, Revelation and Redemption. Pushed to its extreme, the mystical mediation on this idea gives birth to the conception of a sphere, a whole realm of divinity, which underlines the world of our sense-data and which is present and active in all that exists (my emphasis)."11
To return to Benjamin’s aura then, the aura of the artist is, in some measure, transferred to the original work of art, thus giving it a breath of its own, not unlike the breath of its C/c/reator. Because the human soul stems from a Divine source, the breath that the artist imparts to his/her work has a divinity to it. In that way, the aura, the breath, the soul, becomes more and more attenuated each time the original work of art is reproduced. If a work of art is reproduced enough times, then, it would seem, its authenticity, its aura-, would, eventually, expire, leaving something much, much less than even the first reproduction of the original work of art. Though one might say that each subsequent reproduction would have an aura of its own, it must, by token of its physical reproduction, lose a certain amount of its aura-ness in the process (e.g. lithographic plates are broken after a certain number of reproductions are made as they cease to "reproduce" effectively; the mass production of paperbacks would only attenuate the aura of the original manuscript). What is ultimately being "withered" then is the Divine Breath of the original. To rephrase Benjamin then, the aura does not only wither (which implies desiccation) but, it also expires; and, as mechanical reproduction continues, in light of the exorbitant needs of mass consumption, there must be a concomitant decrease in the authority of the aura.
That relationship to mass consumption posits yet another relationship of the aura to that of number. If we assume the aura is original and unique, and any reproduction of the work of art must attenuate the aura, then the further one moves from the original work of art, the less valuable it is. As Benjamin writes, "…the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence." 12 And, for Benjamin, that uniqueness is its aura. This is seen most clearly in signed and numbered reproductions of artwork, in which the smaller the number (i.e. the closer it is to the original plate) the closer it is to the original and, therefore, the closer it is to "Divinity." Hence, the most valuable of reproductions would be the "artist’s proof" since it has no number. "This image makes it easy to comprehend the social bases of the contemporary decay of the aura. It rest on two circumstances, both of which are related to the increasing significance of the masses in contemporary life. Namely, the desire of contemporary masses to bring things ‘closer’ spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction." 13 Any technological process that capitalizes on copying works, on reproducing works, fundamentally operates in the same manner, so, in simplified terms, the more often a work of art becomes reproduced, the less sacred and the more profane it becomes; and the more profane it becomes, the more diffusive it becomes and, the more diffusive it becomes the more it is only fit for mass viewing, mass marketing, and mass consumption. Signed copies or limited editions of artwork and books is another example in which the aura is attempted to be maintained in spite of the fact the original has ceased to exist in any spiritual way that would be commercially viable in an age of mechanical reproduction.
Clearly, the link between the spirituality of the aura of a work of art and the economics of a work of art is apparent and nowhere more so than in commercial film and in the commercial novel. As Benjamin writes: "The film responds to the shriveling of the aura with an artificial build-up of the ‘personality’ outside the studio. The cult of the movie star, fostered by the money of the film industry, preserves not the unique aura of the person but the ‘spell of the personality,’ the phony spell of a commodity." 14 Likewise, in the commercial novel, the form, predicated on standards of nineteenth century "Realism," established by Scott and Balzac, has become the benchmark for commodified fiction as well, so both the aura of fiction and the aura of film have become attenuated in the constant repetition of what Robbe-Grillet speaks of when he writes in relation to "new novels," "…the expression is merely a convenient label applicable to all those seeking new forms for the novel, forms capable of expressing (or of creating) new relations between man and the world, to all those who have determined to invent the novel, in other words, to invent man. Such writers know that the systematic repetition (my emphasis) of the forms of the past is not only absurd and futile, but that it can become harmful: by blinding us to our real situation in the world today, it keeps us, ultimately, from constructing the world and man of tomorrow."15
One then could make a case, as Benjamin does, that there is a relationship between economics and art vis-à-vis the aura. Though he contends communism "politicizes art," capitalism does as well by advocating a particular form as a standard to be emulated by the respective "industry" of film or publishing. Hence the form becomes a political instrument in the formation of that art, and that form, which has lost its aura over time, is somehow revivified by a capitalist tendency to augur commodified products at the expense of the new thus reducing what little remains of the life of an aura that has long-since withered and which, ultimately, shall have little chance of survival.
This withering of the aura is exactly what seems to be happening with texts on the internet, with the potential of internet publishing and with Kindle fiction. At some point, there may be an actual manuscript assuming the author writes on paper. But if the author does not, if the author creates on a word processor, then the manuscript only exists by virtue of what the author sees on the computer. Printing out the manuscript would, in effect, create a manuscript, but without the author’s hand. To that end, there is no Benjaminian aura related to the manuscript since there has been no direct correlation between the author and the page. The relationship between a writer and the manuscript is a relationship between the author and the page. If, by virtue of the “progress” of internet publishing and computer generated texts, the manuscript “disappears,” then so does its aura. With the withering of the aura and the economic necessity of repeating what sells, comes the inevitable disappearance of any kind of poetics, the disappearance of anything “novel,” since the all consuming need to produce texts that are iterations of other texts will inevitably subsume any notion of what’s “creative.”
For Benjamin, the oracular and mystical qualities of art were clearly bound up with the economic. Benjamin’s notion of the work of art as a symbolic vision of a cosmic mandate was prescient and as applicable today as it was when he first wrote it. He was correct about the debilitating effects mass consumption has on a unique and original work of art; ironically, what only gives "value" to a work of art that has been reproduced is the uniquely original breath of the artist: the autograph, which as its own aura breathes alone what little life there may be into any reproduction.
Beyond the fact the Kindle experience eliminates the tactile experience of turning pages and writing in the margins (which for many readers is the sine qua non of the reading process) Kindle homogenizes all types of writing. For example, I’m not sure how they would reproduce something written by Tzara or Apollinaire or Breton and by virtue of that homogenization process, the visual aura has been attenuated. Not only that, Kindle will not become an all-encompassing medium. A recent Kindle commercial has a Kindled person touting the virtues of the Kindle to an unKindled person who’s carrying around a sack full of books. The Kindled person says his Kindle weighs around 10 ounces and at about 8”x5” holds 3500 books, periodicals and magazines. Just stating those facts makes the unKindled person suddenly change her mind about carrying books and want to be Kindlefied. 3500 books? Can one imagine what those books are? Hunger? The Dwarf? Dead Souls? Oblomov? Sot Weed Factor? Metamorphosis? Day of the Locust? What exactly are those unspecificed 3500 books that would make the unKindlefied suddenly want to be Kindlefied? A glance at the top 100 Kindle bestsellers include The Help as #1. One then has to scroll down to #47 before we see the Scarlet Letter to #60 before one finds Tale of Two Cities and to #73 before one discovers War and Peace. I imagine Hawthorne, Dickens and Tolstoy would all be scratching their heads at those rankings as would Austen at #83, but it’s really not surprising to see those popular titles appear on Kindle since they’re considered “classics.” Yet, one would never find their not so well-known fiction exposed. Where might one find “The Gold Bug” or “The Kreutzer Sonata” or “Northanger Abbey”? So, what does that say about Benjamin’s aura? What happens when these books suddenly become Kindlefied?
Of course, one can make the argument that mass produced paperbacks diminish the aura of the work of art as well since the original aura has been attenuated. True enough, but there is something tangible, palpable about reading a text regardless of its diminished aura that cannot be duplicated by Kindle. If, as some suggest, the future of books as books will, like checks, disappear leaving us with only Kindles and computer screens then the auras of those books will disappear as well. As Mike Edwards, president of Borders Books, stated relative to its demise: "We are saddened by this development. We were all working hard toward a different outcome, but the headwinds we have been facing for quite some time, including the rapidly changing book industry, eReader revolution, and turbulent economy, have brought us to where we are now." But what do I know. I’m a writer and not a fortune teller.
Mark Axelrod, Waiting for Beckett (New York: Irish America Magazine, 2/22/2005).
Roland Barthes, A Barthes Reader (New York: Hill & Wang, 1983)
Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969)
Jean Hytier, The Poetics of Paul Valéry, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Anchor Books, 1966)
Henry James, The Art of Criticism, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986)
Tom LeClair and Larry McCaffery, Anything Can Happen: Interviews with Contemporary American Novelists (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983)
Brian McHale, Pöstmödernist Fiction (London & New York: Routledge, 1987)
Alain Robbe-Grillet, For A New Novel, trans. by Richard Howard (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1989)
Gershom Scholem, Kabbalah, (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1974)