The Anxiety of Obsolescence

In preparation for the release of my book (also available here and here!), which should be out in something like a month, I’ve put some of the text online. I’d love it if you’d check it out — The Anxiety of Obsolescence — not least because the site could use a bit more hard testing. As the front page will tell you, I’ve optimized the site for Firefox 1.5 (for Mac), and it looks swell in Safari and Camino, too. It’s a bit wonky in Netscape 7 for Mac (the footer wants to show up a mile down the page rather than right after the main text ends) and it’s absolutely, irretrievably broken in IE for Mac. (Please tell me you’re not still using IE for Mac!) If some of you Wintel types wouldn’t mind giving me a bit of feedback here on what’s going on on your screens, I’d appreciate it.

And, if you’d like to comment on the text, there’s room for that over there. I’ll look forward to hearing from you.

Anxiety, Obsolescence, Etc.

So the forthcoming book now has a page at B&N.com and Amazon. Which seems to suggest it’s actually going to come into physical being in the world at some point between now and May 30. Which is awesome.

But: I’m still waiting on the page proofs. Which means that said book still has no index.

And: I’m quite amused by B&N’s “more on this subject” classifications for the book. “American fiction -> History and criticism,” yes. “Popular culture -> United States,” of course. “Literacy -> United States,” by all means. But “Archaeology -> Guatemala”? Mighty curious what produced that link.

Update Number Two:  The Contract

I’d heard this was coming about a week and a half ago, but like the Jewish taboo on pre-birth baby gifts, I couldn’t celebrate it until hard copy was well in hand: I have a contract for my book!

I don’t have an estimated publication date yet, but at some point in the not ridiculously distant future, The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television will be published by Vanderbilt University Press. I’m thrilled with the press, and particularly my editor, who is a dream: Vanderbilt doesn’t really have a full line in my field, but she just liked the book so much she wanted to publish it. And the press is asking for only very minor revisions. And they have moved with lightning speed throughout the review process, as compared with other presses that shall remain nameless.

More details, no doubt, as they arise, but my readers here were so supportive and kind through the sucky period of rejection that I wanted you to be among the first to know. Raise a glass with me this evening, if you get a chance — and thanks for helping me not give up.

Hype, Literary Anxiety, and Cultural Studies

Bill directs our attention to a pretty hefty MeFi discussion of A. S. Byatt’s rather persnickety thoughts about the popularity of the Harry Potter series among adult readers. Byatt seems, in some utterly inexplicable fashion, to blame “cultural studies” for Potter-mania, suggesting that the “leveling effect” of cultural studies is a result of such scholars being “as interested in hype and popularity as they are in literary merit, which they don’t really believe exists.”

There’s a lot to argue with there — does the study of the popular automatically suggest a failure in merit? Does an interest in media culture of necessity imply an uncritical celebration thereof? And what on earth does cultural studies have to do with the average Harry Potter-reading adult? — and the good folks at MetaFilter do lots of that arguing. And then some.

What can I bring to the table? First, I have to admit that I have not yet read volume 5, though I did advance-purchase it, and did have a minor conniption fit when I realized that, since I can only receive mail in the office (living in an address-less faculty residence on campus), and since the office is closed on Saturdays, and since we had in fact just moved out of our office and into temporary quarters so hidden from the FedEx guy as to be deemed undeliverable, my delivery would be delayed by Three Whole Days. After some anxious phone calls and some running around on the part of our summer student worker, I got my Harry 5.0, and happily placed it on my desk, where it remains, waiting patiently for me to finish the other reading I’m doing before plunging in.

In short: have it; dying to read it; have not yet done so.

I am, however, a student of hype, as Byatt would no doubt consider me, and find myself just as suspicious of those Keepers of the Culture who take such apparent joy in pooh-poohing the popular as I am of obviously market-driven cultural phenomena. Which is why I was overjoyed to find Charles Taylor’s article, “A. S. Byatt and the Goblet of Bile.” Taylor has the insight to point out that “nothing deserves our respect (or scorn) simply because it’s popular, no matter how popular,” and to suggest that “the literary novelists who get themselves worked up over popular fiction never stop to consider what it is that readers are responding to except, like Byatt, to put it down to the stupidity of the masses.”

These points bear much in common with the argument of my first manuscript, which I recently laid out in part in George’s comments:

The title, at least at the moment, is “The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television,” and the central argument focuses on the apparent conviction embedded in the postmodern novel that it is a form under siege, obsolesced by more flashy contemporary media forms.

But what I’m interested in in that manuscript is not whether the anxiety is warranted — whether the novel is in fact becoming obsolete as a cultural form — but rather what discursive purposes the manifestation of such anxiety serves. One such purpose is of course the novel’s own continuation; as John Barth suggests in “The Literature of Exhaustion,” one way to deal with such anxiety might be to write a novel about it. But another such purpose is the intentional self-marginalization of both novel and novelist, such that, as an “alternative” culture, the product and the cultural producer can both benefit from the cachet of edginess — and, not incidentally, appropriate the mantle of marginalization from racial or ethnic or gendered or sexual “minorities.” There’s thus equal parts, in my argument, of nervousness and pleasure in this particular form of anxiety.

Byatt’s somewhat hysterical denunciation of the pleasures of the popular (and, even more importantly, the critical consideration of the popular) suggests that such anxiety might be operative not simply across media boundaries but even within the print form. The “serious” novelist feels obliged to create distance between her own work and that of her more plebeian but also more successful competitors (what Hawthorne famously referred to as “that damn’d mob of scribbling women”), hinting that her more difficult texts are happiest in their position on the margins of our culture because the mainstream reader is ill-equipped to understand them.

Such bald elitism is pretty difficult to take; hence the uproar on MeFi, Salon, and elsewhere. But, as Taylor reminds us, there is consolation to be found in the durability of the popular: Leslie Fiedler, in an interview he gave a few weeks before his death early this year, told of a meeting with a group of “postmoderns” in which he horrified his audience by proclaiming, “Look, let’s be frank with each other: When all of us are forgotten, people will still be remembering Stephen King.”

Academic Obsolescence, Indeed

Mail is taking a while to catch up with me these days, given that it’s got to go through the postal service, campus mail, my department, campus mail, and the postal service again before it gets to me. So needless to say, I’m a little behind on some things. But I last week received this letter [Edited to remove link, as target is now long gone. Suffice it to say that this was a link to the Greenblatt letter. –KF], which was apparently sent to all members of the MLA.

Having just completed (yay!) a first full-length scholarly manuscript (known in various stages of its composition as My Stupid Book, and at others demarked by other adjectives), I’m uncertain whether to be relieved by the import of this letter — whew! perhaps this manuscript getting accepted or not won’t be the turn of fate that drives my tenure decision — or deeply chilled. Have I spent the last six years on a project that will never see print?

When I’m able to escape my own self-involvement, however, I can see that there are some deeper issues to be pondered here. Is academic publishing obsolete? Aside from those of us still trying to get tenure, will anyone miss it if it is? And if it’s not, how can it escape the fiscal crisis in which it’s mired? Certain refereed journals on the web have begun to make inroads into that avenue of academic publishing, such that having an article in Postmodern Culture, say, has the something of the same clout as having an article in Representations would. Can the same be done for the monograph? Will anyone stand — er, sit — for reading a monograph on the web? Or is the scholarly monograph all but dead?

Influence, Part II

Previously, on Planned Obsolescence: the book list, not as designator of “quality” or “greatness,” but rather of “influence,” which one intrepid reader understood to be the fluidity with which a book’s central concept made itself available to cocktail party chatter.

Now, another list, this one voted upon by “around 100 of the world’s top authors,” in an attempt to determine the “most meaningful book of all time.” The winner: Don Quixote.

I return to the question of the list today because the Chronicle of Higher Education (sorry, subscription required) reported the same story this week, but described the list as that of “the 100 most influential works of fiction.” So I started thinking that perhaps this list might help me understand this business of literary influence a bit better than I presently do. Are “influence” and “meaningfulness” related? Or is the entire list-making hoo-ha (which frankly I thought we’d seen the end of for a while) up to some other goal?

While I ponder, a few observations:

1. Europeans are more influential than Americans, 2 to 1.

2. Men similarly out-influence women, almost 8 to 1.

3. While the Boston Public Library was not apparently particularly influenced by Invisible Man, around 100 of the world’s top authors were.

4. Morrison, yes. Pynchon, no.

5. I’ve read an embarrassing 41 of 100.

A final thought: who drew up the list of around 100 of the world’s top authors, who then drew up the list of the 100 most meaningful/influential books? Could it be argued that the creator(s) of that list are in fact the most influential of all?

True Confessions

Okay, time to come clean. I’m in (what I most sincerely hope to be) the end stages of writing a book that focuses on this question of obsolescence, particularly the anxieties that literary culture seems to exude any time it considers its relationship to newer media. In this book — and believe me, the ironies of considering the obsolescence of the book in a book are not lost on me — I focus primarily on the novel’s relationship to television, though (as this site may suggest) my interests are slipping toward the relationship between traditional fiction and the new forms of writing developing on the net.

The thing I’m writing about right now, though, in the book’s conclusion, is the Franzen/Oprah dust-up. It seems to me everyone’s got an opinion on this — Franzen’s burdened by an overdeveloped sense of his own talent; Oprah’s similarly guilty of overvaluing her culture-making power; Franzen’s a boor; Oprah’s a vacuum — but few seem to have paid much attention to the fundamental conflict at the heart of the matter. Are the novel and television genuinely incompatible forms? Is it impossible to consider oneself simultaneously a literary intellectual and a fan of the weekly set-em-up and knock-em-down sitcom?

I’ll confess: I love television. And I don’t just mean the highbrow Sopranos / Six Feet Under / {insert other self-consciously experimental program here} stuff, though those programs seem to wind up my favorites.

I mourned the passing of Homicide much as I would if I knew that David Foster Wallace had stopped writing and instead taken up bond sales. Are those two loves so very incompatible?

One last note, while I’m on the subject: While I’m infinitely grateful to HBO for rescuing Sunday evening from the pit of end-of-weekend depression, I beg that someone, similarly, somewhere, find a way to make Friday nights worthwhile again, for losers like me who are too often home with the machine for company.

Opening Day

Here’s the main issue: obsolescence. A forum for exploring it, and for producing it. A space in which to think about the intimate interrelationship of new media and old media, and the ways in which newness and oldness are inevitably predicated on one another.

This is — does it even need to be said? — a work in progress. I haven’t a clue where it’s going, but I’m looking forward to finding out.