The newest issue of M/C, the Journal of Media and Culture, is out, and it’s focused on a topic near and dear to my heart: the Obsolete. There’s an excellent cluster of articles there, and the editors invite active discussion, as they have a larger series of projects focused on obsolescence in the works.
While I certainly agree that reports of the ‘death of the novel’ have been greatly exaggerated, and anxieties about new media technologies and the threats they allegedly pose to literature may reflect fears about larger societal changes, it is difficult to accept the conclusion that critiques of technology always function as covert attacks against identity politics. (Enns)
When I first read Anthony Enns’ extremely long review of my book, published early in March on electronic book review, my initial thought was that he just hadn’t read it very closely, and therefore mistook carefully qualified claims for gross generalizations. But gradually it began to dawn on me: his review may be less a misreading than an enactment of precisely the anxious response that I outline in the book. It’s the best explanation I can come up with for the many conflations, reductions, and misinterpretations in the review: I think I touched a nerve.
As hinted yesterday, I spent part of last week working on a response to some reviews of The Anxiety of Obsolescence. Those reviews (five of them!), and my response, are now up at the Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies, where mine is one of three books-of-the-month. (And I’m happy to find that I’m in good company; the other two books under review this month are by Alex Galloway and Lori Kendall, both of whose work I admire greatly.)
Pop by, take a look, and if you have responses, I’d love to hear them!
I had a great IM chat with Stephanie Booth this morning. I met Stephanie at Blogtalk back in October, and she pinged me today to tell me about an article of hers that’s just gone up, on MySpace and online predator paranoia. In the course of our conversation, she mentioned her attempts to find journalists in Switzerland who were interested in covering such issues from angles other than the “my god, won’t somebody think of the children?” tactic that the vast majority of coverage adopts. I linked this to what Bryan Alexander has referred to as the “[Fill in Name of Web 2.0 Phenomenon]: Threat or Menace?” narrative that abounds in most news venues these days — and then realized that the argument I made in The Anxiety of Obsolescence may in fact be more applicable here than it was to the novel’s relationship to television. As traditional, mainstream sources of information — newspapers, radio, television — feel themselves being eclipsed by the newer forms of communication that the digital provides, their characterizations of those new forms reveal far less about the digital itself than they do about old media’s anxieties about its future.
Interestingly, just yesterday I found out about what I believe to be the first review of The Anxiety of Obsolescence, which appeared in the June 2007 issue of Choice. I’ve, erm, quoted rather liberally from the review here. Needless to say, it’s gratifying to have the book be referred to as “essential”…
Poor, poor beleaguered experts. How can one possibly survive the onslaught of the unwashed (and uncredentialed) blogospheric masses?
Thanks to Aunt B. for the reference, and for the citation, as well. It’s no accident that the first chapter of The Anxiety of Obsolescence cites Schickel’s article on the death of film, but I hadn’t realized that we were also facing the imminent death of film reviewing…
Ben has opened a discussion over at if:book about Gore Vidal’s recent BookForum interview, in which, among other things, he laments the death of American readership. I’ve taken this as an opportunity to rant a bit about the presuppositions of this kind of death-discourse, which I’ve gone on at length about in The Anxiety of Obsolescence. I feel strongly enough about this comment to republish it here:
Oh, boy. Don’t get me started. I’ve got an entire book’s worth of arguments about this. These sorts of declinist arguments (no one reads anymore, and reading used to be so important; there are no famous novelists anymore, and novelists used to be stars!) nearly always seem to me led by two incorrect premises: a nostalgic over-estimation of the past importance of reading/the novel/the novelist to mainstream US culture, and a pessimistic, overly narrow underestimation of what’s happening in contemporary culture. Yes, reading was very important, and the novel was a key cultural form, and novelists used to hit the talk-show circuit, but all of that was a far more limited phenomenon than it seems. Reading, particularly of fiction, has generally been the province of an educated segment of the population with an adequate supply of leisure time and the desire to fill that leisure time with an imaginative, edifying experience. It’s arguable that in the 1950s economic and social forces combined to make that segment of the population seem both extremely large and central, but it was far from universal. (In a similar vein, one might revisit who the audience for talk shows such as Jack Paar and Johnny Carson was, and how that audience — and thus the nature of the talk show — has shifted in the last fifty years.)
But, on the present: anyone who suggests that there are no famous authors today has a very narrow definition of fame. Making such a statement requires never having shown up at a David Foster Wallace reading, or a similar appearance by any number of other writers. And even writers who don’t appear are famous: Pynchon has been on The Simpsons! Can you imagine the mob scene if he ever decided to show up in public? It’s of course arguable, as I think Vidal is suggesting, that this kind of fame isn’t mainstream, that these audiences are somehow on the fringe of contemporary culture; I’d argue that such readerships have always been more removed from the mainstream than they might have seemed, and that, in fact, the construction of this audience as “marginal” within US culture has been part of a conscious attempt to protect the novel’s audience by creating a sort of cultural wildlife preserve, away from the depredations of more contemporary media forms.
And on those contemporary media forms: it’s my sense that people aren’t doing less reading than they used to, but rather that they’re doing far more; it’s just that the scene of reading no longer involves a retreat from the general flow of life into a quiet space with a discrete, printed object. Now the scene of reading is everywhere: public, communal, wired. And the form of reading looks quite different: sometimes it involves the interpretation of visual images and embodied performances rather than simply the processing of text. The book is not alone, and won’t ever be alone again; authors have got to start thinking about the ways that new forms of reading might be used to their advantage, rather than retreating into nostalgia.
After publishing which, I realized what I’d left out:
(I failed to mention the first time out that all of this has echoes of Norma Desmond reverberating in my head: ‘Reading is big. It’s print that got small.’)
Right before I left for Paris and Vienna, I did an email interview with a writer from Media Life magazine who was working on an article about The Anxiety of Obsolescence. The interview, unsurprisingly, was mostly about the television end of the novel-and-television relationship, but the questions were interesting, and the article turned out pretty well, I think. (And it may be the first time in the history of ever that a review of an academic book ended with the weekend box office report.)
Given how little of my rambling made it into the article, though, I thought I’d post the entirety of the interview, for my own future reference, if nothing else.
If you live in a market that carries Wisconsin Public Radio’s To the Best of Our Knowledge, you may be able to catch me flogging The Anxiety of Obsolescence in the coming days. The show should also be available online starting Monday.
I’m going to be a little nervous about listening to it, myself; I have never much liked my recorded voice, for one thing, and for another, I honestly don’t remember what I said in the interview. But there it is…
So, I noted some time back that I’d built a website for my book, including excerpts from the text (the introduction and first chapter, the opening section of every subsequent chapter, and the bibliography and index) and the ability to comment on them. I mentioned this to one of the guys here in NYC yesterday, saying that traffic had been pretty modest and that I’d only gotten one comment so far. He asked me how I’d publicized the launching of the site.
I said that I’d written about it on my blog.
He suggested, perhaps, you know, posting information about it to a listserv? Such as, isn’t there a Pynchon listserv?
Posted to both pynchon-l and wallace-l a couple of hours ago. As of this very minute, here’s what my statcounter looks like: