There is a sort of old-fashioned conception of the novel as the “great book of life”: a synthesis of scientific, philosophic, and poetic speculation.
Certainly Tolstoy saw War and Peace as more than just a fictional work, and modernist authors like Joyce, Robert Musil, and Proust all expanded the techniques of typical storytelling by applying themes and idioms from psychology, opera, Greek myth, philosophy, and drama…among many others. Writing a novel wasn’t an enterprise equal to others in the humanities—at least for the most talented and ambitious—but a master-task that synthesized humanistic learning through verbal innovation: in other words, great writers had balls, and they backed it up with intellectual hunger and erudition.
This tradition of novelist is one that I can’t say is dead—but it is one that is decisively waning. The generation of writers of which I am a part (let’s say under 28) is the first generation that can say that it grew up with the internet—that is, that grew up with our brains wired for short bursts of information.
In one sense, we are perfectly suited to write the Musil-type novel– the novel of the polymath and philosopher–because we have access to so much more information than ever before. In another sense, while we do read widely, we are inclined to skim, meaning that we tend not to read deeply enough to really meditate on what we’re reading. I’m afraid, in other words, that my generation is too damned impatient to do the concentrated labor that great synthetic novels take—that we’re losing the tradition of intellectually rich writing.
The decline in—I won’t say serious, but rigorous—reading and writing, has coincided with a rise in the accessibility of audiences and markets for aspiring writers. Every form of social media, from blogs to Facebook or Tumblr or Twitter, presents a medium for public, written expression, and a program like CreateSpace lowers the cost of selling books online to almost nil—and the skills required to make a CreateSpace book are now familiar to any teenager with Adobe software.
The paradox of the situation I’m outlining is that my generation of writers is the one most capable of disseminating their writing, and the one most intellectually incapable of writing anything worth disseminating. This statement might seem hard to justify, but I’m willing to wager that a representative novel from a young, lauded novelist simply won’t show the same density of reading or thinking that it might have even fifty years ago. And while it might be an ironic funny riff on pop culture, or maybe just be an erotic-sci-fi-vampire-novel, it wouldn’t betray the surplus of existential or spiritual or psychological profundity that is the result of a long meditation on life and literature.
I do hope that this article gets its readers, especially its readers around my age (early twenties) a little angry—and admittedly, I would have to go through some contemporary writing at length to really prove my point—but I don’t think it should take much reflection to accept that our typical intellectual diet is not always so nutritious, and that chances are this is reflected in our fictional production. The reason I do hope that my readers (presumably independent-minded writers) do get angry, is that I do want to be proved wrong: as Emerson said, each generation must write its own books, and I want mine to be damned good.
We just can’t assume —and this ultimately the crux of what I’m saying—that it has gotten any easier to write great novels than it was for writers in the past, that the cognitive demands of learning to write through reading the classics haven’t lessened, and that the need for scope and variety (and in multiple languages, when possible) of learning haven’t gone away—that while how we process information has changed, what we process shouldn’t. Young writers can’t just fall back on the easy excuse that we’ve learned to think in different ways, but rather, that unless we give our literary standards and our personal standards for a literary education a serious redress, that the expanded access to publishing markets and mediums that we do have now, will have gone to waste.