News as literature


I like going to bookstores wherever I go. Mostly I just like books, but bookstores also serve as a quick measure of a nation’s pulse – who speaks for the nation, what books are selling best, which ideas matter most. In that regard, Singapore, is stoutly practical in the way literature is not, or at least, perceived so.

This is why I enjoyed this piece on the New Yorker on whether the news is replacing literature. Taking the Woody Allen-Dylan Farrow scandal as a starting point, the piece makes the point for the news format leaving room for the indeterminate questions of life that we associate with the most serious pieces of fiction:

No sooner are you convinced that Farrow is telling the truth than you are persuaded by Allen, only to return to Farrow, then back to Allen and back to Farrow, and on and on. The alleged abuse is heinous—there’s nothing “artistic” about it—yet the arguments of each party are suffused with the kind of rich, if indeterminate, emotional, psychological, and intellectual twists and turns that literature seeks to delineate. No less than if you were reading Ford Madox Ford’s magnificent fugue of perspectives, “The Good Soldier,” you try to weigh the arguments of Farrow and Allen, their defenders, and the legions of commenters by applying all you know about being human to the story.

This is not just “the news.” This is a piece of reality so dense that it goes beyond art in illuminating just how nebulous reality is. (But, then, the news stopped reporting reality and started to constitute a new layer of reality years ago.)

This immediately reminded me of the Straits Times – the news being a very partial narrator of the story of a nation. But beyond that – I do find myself impatient when starting a novel these days – its tidy descriptions of a setting for a few actors to play along to a story arc that is often immediately identifiable in its accumulation. The world of the novel now seems small, quaint, and faintly ridiculous.

It may be because many authors are now encouraged to write in a certain style – the MFA pieces that have been workshopped to death; the world literature that often do more to affirm stereotypes than bust them – whence they have something to say, it often feels trite – saying something that’s already been said, in a way that’s been said before.

Egan powerpoint

Zadie Smith, Geoff Dyer, Tim Parks, and other writers, have expressed a sense of the same novel-nausea. The fault is not the novel so much as its form, which is increasingly ill-contemporaneous with the world it lives in. Applauding Jennifer Egan’s inclusion of a chapter written in PowerPoint form 20 years after its launch feels absurdly self-congratulatory.

If not the novel, then what? The collected writings of Lydia Davis? The Twitter stories by Teju Cole? The novel – if we can call it that – S by J.J. Abrams? The scribbles of graffiti artists in subway stations? Not every story should be the next Finnegan’s Wake (“Margaritomancy! Hyacinthous pervinciveness! Flowers. A cloud. But Bruto and Cassio are ware only of trifid tongues the whispered wilfulness (’tis demonal!) and shadows shadows multiplicating (il folsoletto nel falsoletto col fazzolotto dal fuzzolezzo), totients quotients, they tackle their quarrel. Sickamoor’s so woful sally. Ancient’s aerger. And eachway bothwise glory signs. What if she love Sieger less though she leave Ruhm moan? That’s how our oxyggent has gotten ahold of half their world. Moving about in the free of the air and mixing with the ruck. Enter eller, either or.”) – no, readers still crave meaning and structure from a story the way they cannot from real life – but to not aspire to shake the novel from its ways… when we fear the death of books versus the rise of radio, television, and the internet, it is not for a lack of writers and readers, but for a lack of imagination on what can be achieved on the page.