Sunday, November 17, 2013

Novels, Screens And Reality

This fortnight's Sunday Guardian column.

In an interview some years ago, Zadie Smith remarked that one of the challenges facing a novelist today was that of how to capture the reality of a person’s life at a time when he or she spent hours daily gazing into computer or phone screens and communicating via e-mail and text messages. In a hard-hitting piece in Slate this week, Daniel Sarewitz called this dependence “a problem we are powerless to resolve”; it’s time to acknowledge that “the moment you and your date finish ordering dinner you pull out your smartphones and start texting so you don’t have to face the possibility of silence; that you have come to believe that you more-or-less actually have read War and Peace because you read the plot summary on Wikipedia; that you find out what your kid is up to not by talking to her but by monitoring her Facebook page; that at work you simply cannot go more than 10 minutes without surreptitiously checking email no matter how much else you have to do”. Quite so.

Given that fiction is supposed to have the advantage of being able to create and map interiority -- our mental lives -- how does it do so convincingly at a time when so much of this interiority is informed and shaped by digital communication?

Some writers, mirroring the epistolary novels of the past, have simply incorporated e-mails wholesale – such as Matthew Beaumont’s e. Others have inserted e-mail messages into their narratives, as with David Gilbert’s recent & Sons. Such efforts seem forced – too obvious attempts to mirror new ways of communication. The problem is that such forms are so rooted in their own contexts that it’s hard, if not impossible, to knit them seamlessly into longer narratives. This is especially marked when you look at instances when text messages appear in novels – Gilbert’s & Sons again being one such. Then again, a new story by Jeffrey Eugenides in the latest New Yorker has a character playing Words with Friends on his phone, and this is more efficiently done, possibly because describing it is like recounting a game of Scrabble.  

One way out would be to take a leaf from the way we write reported speech – to write, for example, that a text message informed a character that he would be late, or that her Facebook status indicated that she was depressed -- instead of actually replicating content. But this, obviously, would create distance and lack the immediacy of direct dialogue.  Perhaps someone needs to come up with the equivalent of quotation marks for all digital communication.

It's an issue that can't be side-stepped, because it's going to come across as increasingly quaint to have novels of contemporary life peopled by characters who aren't engaged in periodic bouts of exchanging notes and gleaning information via screens. (Those writing historical novels must be heaving sighs of relief.) Movies, of course, face the same issue, and they're also going to have to deal with it in ways that fit into that medium -- one can't have, for example, a modern-day romantic comedy in which the protagonists don't exchange text messages or check Facebook pages obsessively. The next Richard Curtis film could well be titled Four Weddings, a Funeral and Several Tweets.

As for an allied issue, that of being unable to sustain attention because of digital distraction, there seems to be a mystifying rearguard action by novelists of simply writing longer works. After Richard House’s The Kills, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, to mention just three, comes the news that Knopf has paid close to $2 million for City on Fire, a debut novel by Garth Risk Hallberg that’s 900 pages long. One hopes it’s a worthwhile investment. As for me, I’ve found succour from such distractions in the pages of crime novels. So if you’ll excuse me, I need to return to the squares of Venice and the continuing exploits of the valiant Commissario Brunetti.

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