The Death of the Novel and Ryan Holiday’s “Trust Me, I’m Lying”

“As Chris Hedges, the philosopher and journalist, wrote, ‘In an age of images and entertainment, in an age of instant emotional gratification, we neither seek nor want honesty or reality. Reality is complicated. Reality is boring. We are incapable or unwilling to handle this frustration.’

As a manipulator, I certainly encourage and fuel this age. So do the content creators.” (67-8)

We have met the enemy, and he is us.

Trust Me LyingI have read a million essays, most dumb, about the Death of the Novel or the Death of Literature; “Anxiety of influence: how Facebook and Twitter are reshaping the novel” is one recent specimen, though there will no doubt be others: the topic seems as attractive to the essay writing set as cat pictures and porn are to Internet users. Yet the quoted passage from Ryan Holiday’s Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator resonates more than most samples in the genre. Reality is complicated and the best novels, and narrative art generally, strives to capture that reality. Does a novel make a cultural sound if no one is there to read it?

“In an age of images and entertainment” it might also be useful to recall the Stephenson quote posted a few days ago:

Literate people used to spend a lot of time reading books, but during the Internet years those have begun to seem more and more like a distinct minority: a large and relatively well-off minority, to be sure, but one that simply doesn’t register in the electronic media, as vampires are invisible to mirrors. [. . .] Books, though, and the thoughts that go through the heads of their readers, are too long and complex to work on the screen—but it a talk show, a PowerPoint presentation, or a webpage. Booksih people sense this. [. . .]

If bookishness were just a niche pastime, like stamp collecting or waveboarding, none of this would really matter. But it’s more than that. It is the collective memory and accumulated wisdom of our species.

Not all hobbies are created equal. I wonder too if bookishness makes one less susceptible to the media manipulations Holiday describes in Trust Me, I’m Lying. “Less susceptible” is of course not the same as “immune.” Nonetheless, I would take from the book several lessons:

1. Beware the cheap, faux outrage that is seemingly everywhere online.

2. Realize that people are still herd animals—a point Holiday makes—and that while this is often adaptive (if everyone is literally running in one direction, there’s probably a reason) it has many drawbacks. Intellectually and economically it is often not good to be part of the herd.

3. Most people don’t separate news and entertainment, though few think explicitly about this point. Whatever larger cultural structures might have existed to enforce this separation at one point are if not gone altogether then mostly gone, and Trust Me, I’m Lying is a eulogy of sorts.

4. The environment in which we evolved for tens of thousands of years or more is very different from the one in which we live now; though that’s an obvious point, the many ways in which now and then are different still surprise me. Consider:

the public is misinformed about a situation that we desperately need to solve. But heartbreaking sadness does not spread well. Through the selective mechanism of what spreads—and gets traffic and pageviews—we get suppression not by omission but by transmission.

5. Trust Me, I’m Lying raises my estimation of academia, at least slightly.

What makes interesting fiction: Stephenson edition

In his Salon interview,* Neal Stephenson says this about “the broader vision of what science fiction is about:”

[Science] Fiction [is fiction] that’s not considered good unless it has interesting ideas in it. You can write a minimalist short story that’s set in a trailer park or a Connecticut suburb that might be considered a literary masterpiece or well-regarded by literary types, but science fiction people wouldn’t find it very interesting unless it had somewhere in it a cool idea that would make them say, “That’s interesting. I never thought of that before.” If it’s got that, then science fiction people will embrace it and bring it into the big-tent view of science fiction. That’s really the role that science fiction has come to play in literature right now. In arty lit, it’s become uncool to try to come to grips with ideas per se.

The implied vacuousness of “arty lit” is clear and, more depressingly, accurate. It’s something a lot of people who like to read but who don’t care much for a lot of contemporary lit fic feel but don’t always articulate. It’s a tendency I’ve been been noticing in one form or another for years. It helps to account for why nonfiction may be winning the perceived quality race. A lot of highly praised fiction is, at bottom, boring, and about boring people.

Many self-consciously literary novelists and critics don’t seem to mind. So lit-fic books accumulate blurbs that make them sound like the next coming of Shakespeare when they’re actually about dull people leading dull lives, but with interesting language that is supposed to elevate dull people above their surroundings. Sometimes this works (Raymond Carver, Ulysses). More often it doesn’t, or, even if it works, who cares? Murder mysteries are popular for many reasons, but one may be that there’s automatically at stake. Per Megan McArdle:

Eventually I decided the truth is this: We watch so many crime dramas because there are no big stakes in middle-class American life. The criminal underworld is one place where decisions actually matter — and can be shown to matter, dramatically”).

Science fiction also tends to focus on encounters with aliens, threats to the human race, jarring technology changes, and so forth. The stakes are high. Literary fiction writers might want to take some cues from Stephenson and, strangely enough, TV.**


* Collected in Some Remarks, which is a way of collecting previously published pieces in one convenient place and turning them into money.

** Stephenson is also fond of novels with plot:

What I’m doing here is writing novels, and novels — never mind what anyone else might tell you — novels are pop entertainment, and they have to tell a story and they have to engage the emotions. There are a few basic tricks they use to do that. One is to tell a good yarn and the other is to make you feel empathy for the characters involved in the doings of that yarn, but you’ve got to have that yarn. That’s what I seize on first. That’s what gives me confidence that I’ve got a pony I can ride. Characters tend to come out of that, and ideas — I don’t know where they come from. The yarn that got me going on “Quicksilver” was Newton pursuing and prosecuting an archvillain in London at the same time as the dispute with Leibniz is at its peak.

Well, there goes the weekend, thanks to Neal Stephenson's Reamde

I have a late Henry James novel to finish and a paper to write about it. And  paper to write on John Updike. Plus some miscellaneous other writing I should be doing. But then the UPS guy shows up with this:

And I realize: thanks to Reamde, my plans have changed. If you’re reading this and thinking, “What’s the big deal?”, I’ll just say: start with Cryptonomicon.

Well, there goes the weekend, thanks to Neal Stephenson’s Reamde

I have a late Henry James novel to finish and a paper to write about it. And  paper to write on John Updike. Plus some miscellaneous other writing I should be doing. But then the UPS guy shows up with this:

And I realize: thanks to Reamde, my plans have changed. If you’re reading this and thinking, “What’s the big deal?”, I’ll just say: start with Cryptonomicon.

Early July Links: Neal Stephenson’s Remade, Amanda Knox, procrastination, sex / violence double standard, marriage (with infidelities), the Rolling Stones and art, and more

* How did I miss this?! Neal Sephenson has a new novel coming out in September, this one called Remade. I only discovered it through Amazon’s see-also feature from The Magician King‘s page.

* The Neverending Nightmare of Amanda Knox: How a naive kid from Seattle was coerced into confessing to a brutal murder and wound up sentenced to 26 years in an Italian jail. The story of justice gone wrong is, frankly, bizarre.

* From “What does procrastination tell us about ourselves?

. The philosopher Mark Kingwell puts it in existential terms: “Procrastination most often arises from a sense that there is too much to do, and hence no single aspect of the to-do worth doing. . . . Underneath this rather antic form of action-as-inaction is the much more unsettling question whether anything is worth doing at all.” In that sense, it might be useful to think about two kinds of procrastination: the kind that is genuinely akratic and the kind that’s telling you that what you’re supposed to be doing has, deep down, no real point. The procrastinator’s challenge, and perhaps the philosopher’s, too, is to figure out which is which.

* Court reaffirms: Sex much worse than violence, and Americans are afraid of sex. Not that you needed a court to point this out.

* Browse the Artifacts of Geek History in Jay Walker’s Library.

* Marriage, with Infidelities, an NYT discussion of Dan Savage.

* The bicycle dividend, which may occur in part because there’s lots of low-hanging fruit, so to speak, in creating bike lanes, while pretty much every area that could be efficiently paved for car traffic already has been.

* Transformers negs delivered by critics are hilarious; my possible favorite: “To [Bay’s] credit, during the first hour and a half or so of this two-and-a-half-hour epic, there are several lucid stretches … At times, the chaos he creates within the film frame is so abstract and exaggerated — think of him as Action Jackson Pollock — it can feel exhilarating, but the relentlessness is exhausting.”

* Cisco helps China spy on its citizens. I wonder what it would’ve done during the Holocaust.

* Another critique of a dumb WSJ editorial.

* Robin Hanson:

[. . . ] movies usually focus more on whether characters have the strength of will to do what is obviously right than on whether they have the wisdom to discern what is right. And movies usually show key associates as supporting the moral action, so characters rarely have to choose between praise of associates and doing the right thing.

* Final thought: is the culture of spurious credentialism is toxic to intellectual exploration? Discuss. Charlie Stross, hilarious.

* There’s a fascinating WSJ article about the Rolling Stones that’s really about the artistic temperament. I noticed two bits:

As for Mr. Richards, he wasn’t much interested in toying with history. “My point of view on the new stuff,” he said, “is I didn’t want to repaint the smile on the Mona Lisa.”

In other words, you’re not beholden to the past, even if you should be aware of it. The other:

“Once the band got to work,” he said, “it never mattered to me or the other guys.”

Working through the night, recording songs, partial songs and riffs that had the potential to develop into a song, the Nellcôte sessions dragged on. Said Mr. Chess, “The way the Rolling Stones works is the opposite of deliberate.” Reconnecting with their musical influences at times provided a sort of focus. “They were reacting to soul music. All of their influences are in there.”

In other words, be productive. If you keep doing whatever your art is, you might be surprised by what you find in your own work.

* Apartment developers bypass suburbs, target Seattle.

* CIA’s ‘Facebook’ Program Dramatically Cut Agency’s Costs.

Early July Links: Neal Stephenson's Remade, Amanda Knox, procrastination, sex / violence double standard, marriage (with infidelities), the Rolling Stones and art, and more

* How did I miss this?! Neal Sephenson has a new novel coming out in September, this one called Remade. I only discovered it through Amazon’s see-also feature from The Magician King‘s page.

* The Neverending Nightmare of Amanda Knox: How a naive kid from Seattle was coerced into confessing to a brutal murder and wound up sentenced to 26 years in an Italian jail. The story of justice gone wrong is, frankly, bizarre.

* From “What does procrastination tell us about ourselves?

. The philosopher Mark Kingwell puts it in existential terms: “Procrastination most often arises from a sense that there is too much to do, and hence no single aspect of the to-do worth doing. . . . Underneath this rather antic form of action-as-inaction is the much more unsettling question whether anything is worth doing at all.” In that sense, it might be useful to think about two kinds of procrastination: the kind that is genuinely akratic and the kind that’s telling you that what you’re supposed to be doing has, deep down, no real point. The procrastinator’s challenge, and perhaps the philosopher’s, too, is to figure out which is which.

* Court reaffirms: Sex much worse than violence, and Americans are afraid of sex. Not that you needed a court to point this out.

* Browse the Artifacts of Geek History in Jay Walker’s Library.

* Marriage, with Infidelities, an NYT discussion of Dan Savage.

* The bicycle dividend, which may occur in part because there’s lots of low-hanging fruit, so to speak, in creating bike lanes, while pretty much every area that could be efficiently paved for car traffic already has been.

* Transformers negs delivered by critics are hilarious; my possible favorite: “To [Bay’s] credit, during the first hour and a half or so of this two-and-a-half-hour epic, there are several lucid stretches … At times, the chaos he creates within the film frame is so abstract and exaggerated — think of him as Action Jackson Pollock — it can feel exhilarating, but the relentlessness is exhausting.”

* Cisco helps China spy on its citizens. I wonder what it would’ve done during the Holocaust.

* Another critique of a dumb WSJ editorial.

* Robin Hanson:

[. . . ] movies usually focus more on whether characters have the strength of will to do what is obviously right than on whether they have the wisdom to discern what is right. And movies usually show key associates as supporting the moral action, so characters rarely have to choose between praise of associates and doing the right thing.

* Final thought: is the culture of spurious credentialism is toxic to intellectual exploration? Discuss. Charlie Stross, hilarious.

* There’s a fascinating WSJ article about the Rolling Stones that’s really about the artistic temperament. I noticed two bits:

As for Mr. Richards, he wasn’t much interested in toying with history. “My point of view on the new stuff,” he said, “is I didn’t want to repaint the smile on the Mona Lisa.”

In other words, you’re not beholden to the past, even if you should be aware of it. The other:

“Once the band got to work,” he said, “it never mattered to me or the other guys.”

Working through the night, recording songs, partial songs and riffs that had the potential to develop into a song, the Nellcôte sessions dragged on. Said Mr. Chess, “The way the Rolling Stones works is the opposite of deliberate.” Reconnecting with their musical influences at times provided a sort of focus. “They were reacting to soul music. All of their influences are in there.”

In other words, be productive. If you keep doing whatever your art is, you might be surprised by what you find in your own work.

* Apartment developers bypass suburbs, target Seattle.

* CIA’s ‘Facebook’ Program Dramatically Cut Agency’s Costs.

Neal Stephenson and Anathem

Jacket Copy, the L.A. Times’ book blog, just posted bits of Neal Stephenson interviews old and new.

My favorite questions relate to Snow Crash and geography:

S.T.: What made you set “Snow Crash” in L.A.?
Neal Stephenson: At the time I was living in New Jersey, and I was really in the space between Philly and New York. So I was in this place where there really was no city center: You could drive for hours in either direction and see the same landscape repeating itself, of strip malls, and…. I don’t think I’d ever lived in anything like that before. You read science fiction, and it’s always on a giant urban core, or it’s on a space station — but from where I’m sitting that’s not the future. From where I’m sitting, the future is this landscape of low-rise sprawl. I think I put it in L.A. — it’s been a long time — because it gave me more options. You have the entertainment industry there, you’ve got high-tech, the Pacific Rim factor…. It just gave me more surface area.

S.T.: You’ve been in the Northwest for a long time now — Seattle’s working for you?
Neal Stephenson: It is really working for me. I like this kind of weather. I like the neighborhoods. There are a lot of interesting people around because of the high-tech world here. And there’s a gritty, practical side to the city that’s easy to miss. But it really informs the way the city works. I think of about the time of the dot-com bubble bursting, there was a crab boat that went down in the Bering Sea — the entire crew was lost. It put everything in perspective. Nobody was whining about the high-tech [bust] anymore.

I just moved from Seattle to Tucson, and although I don’t entirely agree with Stephenson’s comment about Seattle’s grittiness, he nailed the point about interesting people and neighborhoods. Tucson, on the other hand, is vastly more akin New Jersey: endless strip malls and roads until the desert begins. Everything manmade looks pathetic, rundown, and designed to interact with other machines rather than the people who presumably operate said machines. In short, it’s like Snow Crash without the technological wonderful. The designers failed to take into account Jane Jacobs‘ lessons about cars—like many Western cities. Seattle and Portland are the two primary exceptions.

If you’re going to read Stephenson, begin with Cryptonomicon, then go back to the science fiction, and skip the Baroque cycle, which is too much idea and too little story, and what story does exist is sublimated to improbably coincidences and thin dramatizations of debate from that time. But he’s another author so marvelous that his best excuses his worst. Expect to hear more about Anathem.

If that’s not enough Neal Stephenson, see Salon’s fluffy but approving piece, the fuller piece from the L.A. Times, Wired’s preparation guide, and Discover Magazine’s discussion of ends that occurs at the beginning of its review.

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