Ed Finn

In my first post on Arcade I’d like to respond to the important questions about time that Lee raises in his introduction to the contemporary novel colloquy. He writes: “We have long presumed that synchrony conceals a cultural logic—an episteme, a Zeitgeist, a generational affiliation, whatever collective term we wish to employ to describe a moment—in need of analysis or exposure by the astute critic.” This impulse is, of course, almost irresistible and a central function of literary history—to draw a text outside itself and make it a symbol for broader meaning. Responding to the expansive spirit of Lee’s post, this is a freewheeling take on the novel in Internet time.

When we talk about the contemporary novel, we first need to think hard about our sense of time in the present. While the experience of reading a print novel has not changed significantly for well over a century, our sense of temporal place, the horizon of the Zeitgeist, has shifted dramatically with the advent of the Internet.

I’ve been interested in this question for quite a while in my own work on perceptions of the contemporary novel. I started from the observation that we are living more and more of our literary lives through online media: shopping for books, reading criticism and engaging in discussion on websites like Amazon, NYTimes.com, and even Arcade itself. We’re all familiar with the deluge of information now available, but what we rarely consider is how these changes redefine the concept of the “new.” On Amazon (or Oprah), readers looking for books might find Jonathan Franzen and Leo Tolstoy situated in the same context; books spanning decades and genres are regularly linked together. The “long tail” extends the space of cultural possibility, making millions of cultural works newly available. Most of us in the academy have had this experience before—the first time we started using a large research library. Terry Pratchett had it right when he described the potent “L-space” that emerges when enough books are shelved together, creating an immediate context that spans centuries or millennia.

In fact, the increasingly social nature of these new virtual catalogs, with their recommendation engines and review systems, is leading to an active, collective investment in the newness of things that goes well beyond the library’s static rhetoric. When we add our own thoughts and ratings to a book on GoodReads or Amazon, we lend it a little bit of contemporaneity, drawing it back into the present no matter how old it is. A teenager exploring Austen for the first time can easily discover a textual community of others going through the same experience in the accumulated reviews of Pride and Prejudice. The asynchronous, ubiquitous archives of the web bring us the aggregated new experiences of thousands, channeled into products and topics organized so that we will encounter novelty everywhere.

This system effectively reorders literary encounters with the new. Sure, in the pre-Web days you could always dig up critical reviews of a novel that was published ten years ago. But those periodicals and reviewing publications would themselves be dated, perhaps even weathered, and their interpretations would be physically and conceptually bound to the past. Now, between blogs, reviews and our own continually extending social media conversations, it is possible to create clusters and conversations of newness around any book, no matter how old. The moment of initial surprise and inspiration is captured (well, a pale shadow of it anyway) through those architectures of literary connection, and then reproduced for the next browser in search of, well, the novel.

Right: novelty everywhere, but what about the novel? Near the end of his introduction Lee asks if “newer technologies, media, and genres more effectively give us a taste of the Zeitgeist than the stale conventions of realism and metafiction?” I’ll take a stand here to say that novels will rise above new technologies and media just as they will rise above those stale conventions, for one simple reason. Novels are always new. That is their defining characteristic (maybe this is really the stand I’m taking). Just like the accumulated reviews on Amazon, they are characterized by their sustained engagement with new experience. To be sure, some accomplish this better than others…there are horribly dated novels, unreadable texts filled with archaic jargon, romans à clef whose keys have been lost. But thousands, millions rise above, floating in the eternal consumer present of the web. As digital reading platforms evolve I think the novel will change with them, and I hope we can discuss those possibilities here, but at the outset it seems important to remember that the “contemporary” is a much bigger place than it used to be.

I’m going to stop here, on the precipice, but I look forward to expanding on what this shifting sense of novelty means for contemporary fiction, where time is, more than ever, something we cannot take for granted.