TV had to learn everything novelists already knew: an example from The Sopranos

From Vanity Fair’s brilliant Oral History of The Sopranos:

ALLEN COULTER (director): Sopranos gave the lie to the notions that you had to explain everything, that you always had to have a star in the lead, that everybody had to be ultimately likable, that there had to be so-called closure, that there was a psychological lesson to be learned, that there was a moral at the center that you should carry away from the show, that people should be pretty, that people should be svelte. The networks had essentially thrown in the towel on good drama. It’s like changing the direction of an ocean liner. But Sopranos did it. They changed the game.

It’s strange to read this, because it feels to me like novelists have always known this, or have at least known it since the 1920s. I think of writers like Henry Miller or James M. Cain, who were experts at unlikable characters and showing the only “psychological lesson to be learned” is that there is no psychological lesson to be learned.

Later, I think of someone like George V. Higgins, who specialized in unpretty, ungainly characters. But I wonder if TV took so long to learn these lessons because a) it was a mass medium that required appealing to everyone and b) because up until recently, there were only a handful of real outlets that could afford to produce real shows. So there wasn’t the same kind of experimentation that novelists could conduct, since a novelist needed nothing but time and paper (or, today, time and a computer) and a publisher.

Today, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple, and the Internet more generally are creating another shift, to the point where you don’t even need a publisher. We’ve already seen some fruit from that shift in the form of Belle de Jour and Tucker Max. Instead of the “ocean liner” that is television, writers get to pilot skiffs and other small craft that go places the big ships can’t or won’t go. In doing so, writers chart the courses that might one day be followed by the video people, who are so encumbered by budgets and specialization and accountants and executives.

(See also Edward Jay Epstein’s Role Reversal: Why TV Is Replacing Movies As Elite Entertainment.)

Evolutionary Biology and the novel: Additional directions and William Flesch’s Comeuppance

Novels are arguably about two subjects: sex and death. This isn’t an original or unorthodox observation; Leslie Fiedler famously propagated it in Love and Death in the American Novel, which was published in 1960. The reasons why we’re drawn to those subjects over and over again are less well-developed, but some good answers come from evolutionary biology. Going back to Darwin and The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, we’ve known that organisms need to do two things to propagate themselves: survive and reproduce. Not coincidentally, those two items map neatly onto the fascination in narrative fiction with death (and who should be killed and under what circumstances) and sex (and who it should be had with and under what circumstances).

Novels ceaselessly interrogate and illuminate both fields. I think people are drawn to those subjects because the stakes are inherently high for us, our genes, and our communities. If we die, our genes go with us, and, according to Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, we’re the result of a long chain of ancestors who managed to send out genes into the future. Viewed in one light, we’re simply vehicles for propagating those genes successfully. One could argue from there that our communities are platforms—in the sense Steven Berlin Johnson develops in Where Good Ideas Come From—that allow us to survive and reproduce successfully. Communities that are more successful as platforms tend to spread; those that aren’t, whither, or are overtaken by communities that do. Historically speaking, this has often happened in the context of violence, cruelty, slavery, and the like, especially on behalf of the west against peoples of other cultures, as Jared Diamond points out in Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.

But for my argument regarding the novel, I want to focus on individuals, small groups, and genres. Regarding the latter, one can essentially map tragedies onto stories dealing with death and comedies onto stories dealing with sex and sex mores. The content of those stories change—what tragedy meant to Shakespeare is probably somewhat different than what it means to, say, Cormac McCarthy. And the sex comedies of Jane Austen, with their primness, their refusal to name the act itself, and their distaste for contemplating the act of intercourse outside of marriage (how shocking it is when Lydia absconds in Pride and Prejudice!) are quite different from those in Bridge Jones’ Diary or Alain de Botton’s On Love, both of which assume sex before marriage is normal and that marriage isn’t an essential part of life. The content of the stories change while their overall thrust and the fundamental subjects remain the similar. Unless humanity reaches a technological singularity (which seems unlikely to me; as Tyler Cowen likes to say, it’s 2011 and we still have web browsers that crash), I doubt we’re going to see a shift away from novels that focus on sex and death as the greatest issues that humans face. We’re fascinated by the shifting, dialectical rules surrounding both sex and death and how they may be deployed because they have such profound consequences for us and our genes.

So why don’t more people discuss this explicitly in novels?

Evolutionary biology offers some of the tools we need to analyze what drives humans in terms of sexuality and survival. I’m surprised more literary critics don’t want to or try to cross pollinate with evolutionary biology, since, as stated in the first sentence of this paragraph, evolutionary biology gives us another set of methodological principles with which to interrogate texts. The set of tools literary critics need has started to be developed by William Flesch in Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction. But fundamental questions remain unanswered—like how individual variation functions within an amorphous system without definite boundaries. As with psychoanalytic criticism, however, we can still take overall ideas (like: “males and females differ in their average mating strategies because women bear the greater cost of childbirth and childrearing”) and work to apply them to literature.

This doesn’t mean that we should automatically assume a one-to-one correlation between any action a character in fiction undertakes, or that characters (or their authors) are even aware of their own motivations; when Emma is trying to set up everyone in Highbury, she’s partially trying to maintain the class structure of her time, but she’s also trying to maximize the reproductive success of the individuals she knows (and herself) through finding “appropriate” matches. Since Freud, the idea that people (or characters) understand their motivations has been a suspect premise anyway. And since Derrida, if not earlier, the idea that one can neatly create separate categories like “death” and “sex” has become suspect. But that both drive characters and intertwine in unusual, fractal, and unpredictable ways is true. We need to track, understand, and evaluate those ways better. Psychoanalytic criticism gives us a set of tools to do so.

Characters’ underlying drives can’t be ignored. Nor can what readers find most rewarding in fiction be ignored. When in doubt, ask what is at stake regarding sex, death, or both. It would be a mistake to create a reductive algorithm that merely says, “everything a character does is related to their biological reproduction or their survival.” It would also be a mistake to think that every character interprets the drive to survive and reproduce in the same way, or that evolutionary biology itself has a single, underlying set of rules: its own rules are under constant interrogation as new evidence emerges to support or refute existing claims. But the answers that emerge from asking questions about why characters are so tuned in to the sexuality of others goes beyond economic exchange, mate value, and culture, and into what a given character thinks a set of rules will do to his or her own chances at reproducing and thriving.

To use Emma again, the characters in that universally or almost universally believe that marriage is in their best interests and therefore the best interests of those around them. They do not question the value of the institution, as later writers will do; by the time we come to George Eliot and Flaubert, novelists have begun to do so in earnest (as Tony Tanner points out Adultery in the Novel: Contract and Transgression). By now, novels are asking questions about what happens to relationships when marriage is an option, not a given, and when virtually any life course is open to people as far as sexuality is concerned. If you write a contemporary novel that deals solely with the momentous decisions around who a woman will marry (as in Jane Austen), you won’t be engaging the world in which contemporary Western characters live. You’re dealing with sex, but not in a way that resonates with the social fabric for most people. The drive (“reproduce successfully”) remains even if the means have changed. Whether you’re analyzing or writing novels, you better pay attention.

Evolutionary Biology and the novel: Additional directions and William Flesch's Comeuppance

Novels are arguably about two subjects: sex and death. This isn’t an original or unorthodox observation; Leslie Fiedler famously propagated it in Love and Death in the American Novel, which was published in 1960. The reasons why we’re drawn to those subjects over and over again are less well-developed, but some good answers come from evolutionary biology. Going back to Darwin and The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, we’ve known that organisms need to do two things to propagate themselves: survive and reproduce. Not coincidentally, those two items map neatly onto the fascination in narrative fiction with death (and who should be killed and under what circumstances) and sex (and who it should be had with and under what circumstances).

Novels ceaselessly interrogate and illuminate both fields. I think people are drawn to those subjects because the stakes are inherently high for us, our genes, and our communities. If we die, our genes go with us, and, according to Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, we’re the result of a long chain of ancestors who managed to send out genes into the future. Viewed in one light, we’re simply vehicles for propagating those genes successfully. One could argue from there that our communities are platforms—in the sense Steven Berlin Johnson develops in Where Good Ideas Come From—that allow us to survive and reproduce successfully. Communities that are more successful as platforms tend to spread; those that aren’t, whither, or are overtaken by communities that do. Historically speaking, this has often happened in the context of violence, cruelty, slavery, and the like, especially on behalf of the west against peoples of other cultures, as Jared Diamond points out in Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.

But for my argument regarding the novel, I want to focus on individuals, small groups, and genres. Regarding the latter, one can essentially map tragedies onto stories dealing with death and comedies onto stories dealing with sex and sex mores. The content of those stories change—what tragedy meant to Shakespeare is probably somewhat different than what it means to, say, Cormac McCarthy. And the sex comedies of Jane Austen, with their primness, their refusal to name the act itself, and their distaste for contemplating the act of intercourse outside of marriage (how shocking it is when Lydia absconds in Pride and Prejudice!) are quite different from those in Bridge Jones’ Diary or Alain de Botton’s On Love, both of which assume sex before marriage is normal and that marriage isn’t an essential part of life. The content of the stories change while their overall thrust and the fundamental subjects remain the similar. Unless humanity reaches a technological singularity (which seems unlikely to me; as Tyler Cowen likes to say, it’s 2011 and we still have web browsers that crash), I doubt we’re going to see a shift away from novels that focus on sex and death as the greatest issues that humans face. We’re fascinated by the shifting, dialectical rules surrounding both sex and death and how they may be deployed because they have such profound consequences for us and our genes.

So why don’t more people discuss this explicitly in novels?

Evolutionary biology offers some of the tools we need to analyze what drives humans in terms of sexuality and survival. I’m surprised more literary critics don’t want to or try to cross pollinate with evolutionary biology, since, as stated in the first sentence of this paragraph, evolutionary biology gives us another set of methodological principles with which to interrogate texts. The set of tools literary critics need has started to be developed by William Flesch in Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction. But fundamental questions remain unanswered—like how individual variation functions within an amorphous system without definite boundaries. As with psychoanalytic criticism, however, we can still take overall ideas (like: “males and females differ in their average mating strategies because women bear the greater cost of childbirth and childrearing”) and work to apply them to literature.

This doesn’t mean that we should automatically assume a one-to-one correlation between any action a character in fiction undertakes, or that characters (or their authors) are even aware of their own motivations; when Emma is trying to set up everyone in Highbury, she’s partially trying to maintain the class structure of her time, but she’s also trying to maximize the reproductive success of the individuals she knows (and herself) through finding “appropriate” matches. Since Freud, the idea that people (or characters) understand their motivations has been a suspect premise anyway. And since Derrida, if not earlier, the idea that one can neatly create separate categories like “death” and “sex” has become suspect. But that both drive characters and intertwine in unusual, fractal, and unpredictable ways is true. We need to track, understand, and evaluate those ways better. Psychoanalytic criticism gives us a set of tools to do so.

Characters’ underlying drives can’t be ignored. Nor can what readers find most rewarding in fiction be ignored. When in doubt, ask what is at stake regarding sex, death, or both. It would be a mistake to create a reductive algorithm that merely says, “everything a character does is related to their biological reproduction or their survival.” It would also be a mistake to think that every character interprets the drive to survive and reproduce in the same way, or that evolutionary biology itself has a single, underlying set of rules: its own rules are under constant interrogation as new evidence emerges to support or refute existing claims. But the answers that emerge from asking questions about why characters are so tuned in to the sexuality of others goes beyond economic exchange, mate value, and culture, and into what a given character thinks a set of rules will do to his or her own chances at reproducing and thriving.

To use Emma again, the characters in that universally or almost universally believe that marriage is in their best interests and therefore the best interests of those around them. They do not question the value of the institution, as later writers will do; by the time we come to George Eliot and Flaubert, novelists have begun to do so in earnest (as Tony Tanner points out Adultery in the Novel: Contract and Transgression). By now, novels are asking questions about what happens to relationships when marriage is an option, not a given, and when virtually any life course is open to people as far as sexuality is concerned. If you write a contemporary novel that deals solely with the momentous decisions around who a woman will marry (as in Jane Austen), you won’t be engaging the world in which contemporary Western characters live. You’re dealing with sex, but not in a way that resonates with the social fabric for most people. The drive (“reproduce successfully”) remains even if the means have changed. Whether you’re analyzing or writing novels, you better pay attention.

How could Twitter not change how protests happen?: Egypt and the history of the novel

There’s been a lot of talk about the role Twitter, text messaging, and other communication mediums are playing in the unfolding drama in Egypt. Malcolm Gladwell basically says the role isn’t great: “People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other. How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place.”

But I am not convinced this is true: by lowering the friction of communication, thus making it real-time and instantaneous, Twitter and other technological tools are almost certainly changing what is said. Quantity has a quality all its own, and how we speak has a habit of changing what we say.

Gladwell’s post (and others) remind me of the arguments in English literature the field around the development of the novel as a genre (see, for example this post on Steven Moore’s The Novel: An Alternative History). Basically, a lot of people want to argue about the development of the novel without taking into account the printing press.

To me this is silly because mass cheap printing was a precondition to the novel as we know it. Without that, we would have fictional prose narratives of some length, but we probably wouldn’t have them alluding to one another, we wouldn’t have large portions of the population reading them, and we wouldn’t have (relatively) large portions of the population with enough disposable income to avoid them. If you look at surviving works that we would now classify as fiction that were written prior to ~1600, almost all of them are religious in nature because only the church had the resources to fund writing, maintain large collections of writing, and bother writing anything down.

After ~1600 (or ~1500, if you prefer, but that’s about it), you have a lot of things written that would previously not have been considered “worth” writing down because writing and copying manuscripts was so expensive and time consuming. Technology did change what was said. How something was said changed what was said. Technology is doing the same thing now. I don’t know how the current drama will play out; if you looked at the printing press around the time it was first created, it was mostly used to print religious stuff (hence the “Gutenberg Bible”). Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change describes some of this. By the nineteenth century, however, writers are grappling with the idea of a world without God, per J. Hillis Miller’s Form of Victorian Fiction, or a world where “God is dead,” to use Nietzsche’s famous and misunderstood proclamation: he wasn’t saying that people would stop believing in God or that would religion would stop being a force society, but rather that religious studies were a dead end and people would cease to attribute everything in their life to God or God’s will.

In 1500, the material published via printing press looked basically continuous with what came about in 1400. By 1850, things are looking pretty different, and the diversity of printed materials has fundamentally changed what people could say. The printing press allowed people with grievances, to use Gladwell’s formulation, to communicate with each other much more efficiently than they previously could, which leads to a lot of political, social, scientific, and philosophical developments that most of us living today approve of. How many of us want to return to being illiterate serfs toiling in fields for distant masters?

Gladwell is right in one sense: the media is probably overstating the importance of Twitter and SMS. But both of those still play an important role in what’s going on. Somehow, people with grievances against monarchs and dictators weren’t all that successful on average in the years prior to ~1600. After that, they got more and more successful, to the point where a fair bit of world’s population now lives without dictators. Part of the reason is because ideas about freedom and good governance could be disseminated cheaply, where before they couldn’t, and everyone spent most waking hours covered in shit, farming, and hoping they’re not going to starve to death in late winter / early spring.

Mark at the computing education blog says, “A particularly interesting anecdote for me is the below: That the Internet was turned off in Egypt, but the protests continued. So what role was Facebook and Twitter playing, really?” Depends on the timeframe. Various technological tools helped people initially organize and helped the conditions for organization come about. They will probably do so again in the future. In the long term, such tools will probably create the conditions for much larger projects that we only dimly perceive now. I would predict what those will be, but things have a habit of turning out much stranger than random prognosticators like me can predict.

Richardson proclaims Clarissa is boring before you even start the novel

Here’s what Samuel Richardson wrote about his novel Clarissa (1748) in its “Preface:”

From what has been said, considerate readers will not enter upon the perusal of the piece before them as if it were designed only to divert and amuse. It will probably be thought tedious to all such as dip into it, expecting a light novel, or transitory romance; and look upon story in it (interesting as that is generally allowed to be) as its sole end, rather than as a vehicle to the instruction.

I don’t think I’m a “considerate reader,” since novels that don’t “divert and amuse” on some level are, in fact, “tedious.” The novel is a 1,000-page deferral regarding whether and who with the title character is going to do it. Although I understand intellectually that this matter was of great import at the time it was written, I can’t quite build up the need to care. Reading about Clarissa is better than reading the novel itself.

Consider this comment, which Keith thinks in The Pregnant Widow:

It sometimes seemed to Keith that the English novel, at least in its first two or three centuries, asked only one question. Will she fall? Will she fall, this woman? What’ll they write about, he wondered, when all women fall? Well, there’ll be new ways of falling . . .

Notice that Keith doesn’t assert that the central question of the novel is will she fall: only that it “sometimes seemed to Keith,” implying that other times the central question might seem otherwise. But it also asks whether we should care: if she “falls,” that means she’s a person who makes her own decisions, and if she doesn’t—then so what? What’s at stake is a question that doesn’t matter all that much except to the extent the woman involved makes it matter. This brings up an uncomfortable point alluded to by that ellipsis: if it doesn’t matter, then the novel doesn’t matter. And this novel doesn’t matter. So why should we read it?

The “it” is deliberately ambiguous, as it could refer to Clarissa or The Pregnant Widow. Various answers arise: as a historical document; to understand shifting ways we understand sexuality; to trace how the novel developed as a genre.

The Novel: An Alternative History — Steven Moore

Novels really start when an important technology (the printing press) allows novelists to respond to one another.

Steven Moore’s The Novel: An Alternative History: Beginnings to 1600 is a very alternative history that points even more than most histories of the novel to the question of what defines the genre. But it answers that question with less satisfaction: a novel is any prose work of some length that is what we would now call fiction. But the idea of fiction / nonfiction weren’t particularly well established until the late eighteenth century, as discussed in some of those conventional histories, like The Rise Of The Novel: Studies In Defoe, Richardson And Fielding and Institutions of the English Novel: From Defoe to Scott.

Without that epistemological distinction, critics lack the intellectual scaffolding necessary to really talk about fiction: you have a muddle of stuff that people haven’t really figured out how to deal with. In The Disappearance of God, J. Hillis Miller puts it differently: “The change from traditional literature to a modern genre like the novel can be defined as a moving of once objective worlds of myth and romance into the subjective consciousness of man,” but he’s getting at a similar idea: the “objective worlds of myth” turn out not to be as “objective” as they appear, and the “subjective consciousness of man” reevaluates those worlds of myth. We get at distinctions between what’s true and what’s false based on our ability to recognize our own subjective position, which the novel helps us do.

Moore discusses these issues, of course: he notes the standard history I’m espousing and his reasons for doubting it:

And today our best novelists follow in this great tradition [from Defoe, Swift, and Richardson to the 19th Century realists through Joyce and Faulkner to the present]: that is, realistic narratives driven by strong plot and peopled by well-rounded characters struggling with serious ethical issues, conveyed in language anybody can understand.

Wrong. The novel has been around since at least the 4th century BCE […] and flourished in the Mediterranean area until the coming of the Christian Dark Ages.

That’s on page three. I’ve responded to the philosophical and intellectual aspects of what I think problematic, but there’s another issue: Moore’s argument ignores the technological history that enabled the novel to occur. I’ll return to my first paragraph.

Without the printing press, it’s wrong-headed to speak of novels. They couldn’t be sufficiently read, distributed, and disseminated, to enable the “speaking to each other” that I think of in fiction. There wasn’t a “creativity revolution” along the lines of the runaway Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century (see, for example, Joel Mokyr’s The Enlightened Economy, which I discuss at the link). Books didn’t react enough to other books; that’s part of what the novel got going, and this aspect was enabled by the Industrial Revolution and the press. The two are fundamentally linked.

Some works that we would now classify as fiction definitely were written or compiled, as Moore rightly points out, but they didn’t gain the epistemological distinctions that we grant novels until much later, and novels evolved with a mass reading public that could only occur when novels were mass-produced—produced in numbers that allowed them to be read and responded to by other writers. Claiming that early quasi-fiction forms are novels is like saying that a play and a TV show are the same thing because both rely on visual representations of actors who are pretending to be someone else. In some respects, that’s true, but it still misses how form changes function. It misses the insights of Marshall McLuhan.

He almost gets to this issue:

Sorting through the various ancient writings that have come down to us on cuneiform tablets, papyri, scrolls, and ostraca (potsherds or limestone flakes), it is not difficult to find prototypes for literary fiction and what would eventually be called the novel. What’s difficult is sorting prose from poetry, and fiction from mythology and theology.

But the problem of sorting deserves more attention. Until it can be discussed with greater depth, it misses essential features of the genre. Accounts of the novel need to take two major issues into their reading: a technological one and an intellectual one. The technological one, as mentioned, is the invention and improvement of the printing press, without which the sheer labor necessary to produce copies of novels would have prevented many writers from working at all; you can read more about this in Elizabeth L. Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change The second is the growth of subjectivity and the acknowledgment of subjectivity in fiction, as also discussed above. Without those technological and the intellectual facets, I don’t think you really have novels, at least in the way they’re conceived of in contemporary times.

The other thing I’d like to note is that Moore is doing more a taxonomy than a history: it has brief sections on more than 200 books with relatively little analysis of each book. This lessens the depth of his book and makes it more tedious as we go from culture to culture without a great deal of discussion about what common items link novel to novel. But that’s part of the problem: proto-novels weren’t linked because their authors didn’t know of one another or of what made fiction fiction and nonfiction nonfiction. Moore is left with this basic shape for The Novel: An Alternative History by his material; in short, form undercuts argument. Too bad, because it’s an argument worth paying attention to if for no other reason than its novelty.

Signaling, status, blogging, academia, and ideas

Jeff Ely’s Cheap Talk has one of those mandatory “Why I Blog” posts, but it’s unusually good and also increasingly describes my own feeling toward the genre. Jeff says:

There is a painful non-convexity in academic research. Only really good ideas are worth pursuing but it takes a lot of investment to find out whether any given idea is going to be really good. Usually you spend a lot of time doing some preliminary thinking just to prove to yourself that this idea is not good enough to turn into a full-fledged paper.

He’s right, but it’s hard to say which of the 100 preliminary ideas one might have over a couple of months “are worth pursuing.” Usually the answer is, “not very many.” So writing blog posts becomes a way of exploring those ideas without committing to attempting to write a full paper.

But to me, the other important part is that blogs often fill in my preliminary thinking, especially in subjects outside my field. I’m starting my third year of grad school in English lit at the University of Arizona and may write my dissertation about signaling and status in novels. My interest in the issue arose partially because of Robin Hanson’s relentless focus on signaling in Overcoming Bias, which got me thinking about how this subject works now.

The “big paper” I’m working on deals with academic novels like Richard Russo’s Straight Man and Francine Prose’s Blue Angel (which I’ve written about in a preliminary fashion—for Straight Man, a very preliminary fashion). Status issues are omnipresent in academia, as every academic knows, and as a result one can trace my reading of Overcoming Bias to my attention to status to my attention to theoretical and practical aspects of status in these books (there’s some other stuff going on here too, like an interest in evolutionary biology that predates reading Overcoming Bias, but I’ll leave that out for now).

Others have contributed too: I think I learned about Codes of the Underworld from an econ blog. It offers an obvious way to help interpret novels like those by Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, and other crime / caper writers who deal with characters who need to convincingly signal to others that they’re available for crime but also need not to be caught by police, and so forth.

In the meantime, from what I can discern from following some journals on the novel and American lit, virtually no English professors I’ve found are using these kinds of methods. They’re mostly wrapped up in the standard forms of English criticism, literary theory, and debate. Those forms are very good, of course, but I’d like to go in other directions as well, and one way I’ve learned about alternative directions is through reading blogs. To my knowledge no one else has developed a complete theory of how signaling and status work in fiction, even though you could call novels long prose works in which characters signal their status to other characters, themselves, and the reader.

So I’m working on that. I’ve got some leads, like William Flesch’s Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction and Jonathan Gottschall’s Literature, Science, and a New Humanities, but the field looks mostly open at the moment. Part of the reason I’ve been able to conceptualize the field is because I’ve started many threads through this blog and frequently read the blogs of others. If Steven Berlin Johnson is right about where good ideas come from, then I’ve been doing the right kinds of things without consciously realizing it until now. And I only have thanks to Jeff Ely’s Cheap Talk—it took a blog to create the nascent idea about why blogging is valuable, how different fields contribute to my own major interests, and how ideas form.

The Author dies, the world yawns, and writers keep scribbling

This originated as an e-mail, but then I realized it was actually a blog post and edited it accordingly.

Roland Barthes begins The Death of the Author thus:

‘This was woman herself, with her sudden fears, her irrational whims, her instinctive worries, her impetuous boldness, her fussings, and her delicious sensibility.’ Who is speaking thus? Is it the hero of the story bent on remaining ignorant of the castrato hidden beneath the woman? Is it Balzac the individual, furnished by his personal experience with a philosophy of Woman? Is it Balzac the author professing ‘literary’ ideas on femininity? Is it universal wisdom? Romantic psychology? We shall never know, for the good reason that writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing.

It’s a powerful and irritating introduction: powerful because it contains some truth—the speaker is, indeed, ambiguous—but irritating because it stretches that ambiguity beyond its bound. Absent other information, either an omniscient speaker is narrating or free indirect speech is allowing another character to narrate. Either way, choices like “universal wisdom” or “Romantic psychology” seem more like fanciful projections that come from the critic rather than the text. Not being familial with Balzac, I’m not sure who speaks, but someone or something does, and not every voice is destroyed. To be sure, at times we might not be sure of who speaks, but so what? Teasing out the logical bounds of who could be speaking is one of the novel’s pleasures, and James Wood shows how such literary techniques work in How Fiction Works. On page 8 of my edition, he writes:

So-called omniscience is almost impossible. AS soon as someone tells a story about a character, narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character, wants to merge with that character, to take on his or her way of thinking and speaking. A novelist’s omniscience soon enough becomes a kind of secret sharing; this is called free-indirect style, a term novelists have lots of different nicknames for – ‘close third person’, or ‘going into character.’

(Italics in original.)

From there Wood goes on to define by example what he means by free-indirect speech via example. He says he admires Barthes on the first page of How Fiction Works, and it’s worth noting that in this admiration, Wood in part refutes him—or, rather, if not refutes, then goes on a different and more productive tangent: to attempt a partial explanation of realism, rather than to try and deny its existence altogether. He says that How Fiction Works “asks a critic’s questions and offers a writer’s answers,” in contrast to critics like Barthes and Shklovsky, who “thought like writers alienated from the creative instinct.” (For another example of someone who magnificently asks critics’ questions and gives writers’ answers, see John Barth’s The Friday Book.) The description of Barthes and Shklovsky is apt: reading Barthes is frustrating because he so often seems right and then oversteps the conclusion that his premises will support.

At the start of The Rise Of The Novel: Studies In Defoe, Richardson And Fielding, Ian Watt writes:

There are still no wholly satisfactory answers to many of the general questions which anyone interested in the early eighteenth-century novelists and their works is likely to ask: Is the novel a new literary form? And if we assume, as is commonly done, that it is, and that it was begun by Defoe, Richardson and Fielding, how does it differ from the prose fiction of the past, from that of Greece, for example, or that of the Middle Ages, or of seventeenth-century France?

Although Barthes and Watt wrote decades ago, they still seem relevant in part because the issues of perspective and representation are unlikely to ever leave us in art. We perpetually expand what it means to be real or not real or how we should see the world, but that expansion can never encompass all possibilities, or all stories. Hence the continual reshaping of not only what we read and find valuable, but also who we are.


This debate about authorship is intensified by blogs and other electronic media, where copying is easier than ever and links can, if used well, show the tentacles of other thinkers reaching into one’s own thinking. You can see aspects of the online debate in innumerable places; a small recent sampling from my own links might include Mourning Old Media’s Decline, If you’re online, are you really reading?, book blogs over search engines, and Twilight of the Books. Personally, I’m not all that worried about blogs and other forms of online media; technological innovation helped produce the novel by making reproduction of written relatively inexpensive, and the Internet is doing the same only moreso. A change in orders of magnitude in the dissemination of information will probably lead to eventual changes we haven’t even pondered yet, and I assume that change will ultimately expand the possibility of how we communicate, just as the novel helped expand the way we see consciousness. Besides, as Andrew Sullivan argues in “Why I Blog” (published in The Atlantic):

Every writer since the printing press has longed for a means to publish himself and reach—instantly—any reader on Earth. Every professional writer has paid some dues waiting for an editor’s nod, or enduring a publisher’s incompetence, or being ground to literary dust by a legion of fact-checkers and copy editors. If you added up the time a writer once had to spend finding an outlet, impressing editors, sucking up to proprietors, and proofreading edits, you’d find another lifetime buried in the interstices. But with one click of the Publish Now button, all these troubles evaporated.

“Why I Blog” rambles even more than this post, but it’s one of the more coherent explanations of blogging I’ve seen—perhaps because it doesn’t come in the form of a blog post. Most writers since before the printing press have probably also dreamed of getting paid for their writing, and it’s not obvious how that’s going to happen online. It’s an important question and one that hasn’t been answered satisfactorily: despite all the talk about the death of print, authors, and various other “traditional” or “old” forms and whatever, I’m still interesting in writing fiction and long nonfiction that’ll be published in print with my name on it, chiefly because that’s the only way to get paid for it in a real sense of the word, and it’s the best way to get professional editing (bonus points to commenters who observe typos in this post). Granted, blogs pay in non-monetary forms like social status and satisfaction. But status doesn’t cover rent or put food on the table, so it’s an imperfect system, and what kind of payment method writers will devise in the future isn’t obvious to me. Writing as a form of advertising or display mechanism for other skills is one possibility, as that’s (a small) part of what Grant Writing Confidential does, even as it provides other benefits, like increasing overall knowledge of how to write proposals, deal with bureaucracies/bureaucrats, make individuals aware of funding opportunities, and the like.

Still, blogs seem here to stay, and authors are likely to continue writing, whether their writing destroys the point of origin—whatever that means. One reason I write blog posts is because the marginal amount of extra effort is just that: marginal. I obviously spend a lot of time reading already, and I do so chiefly because I enjoy it. If I spent 5 to 25 hours on a book, spending another 1 to 3 on a post isn’t difficult, especially if the book is powerful enough to keep me thinking when I’m not reading it. And when I write, I often find that ideas emerge that I didn’t realize I had previously—which is not an experience unique to blogging, I realize, but sometimes the immediacy of the experience can help me bring them out.

As stated above, this post began as an e-mail, and I decided that I’d written enough to create a post on what I originally thought would be on authorship in the Internet age, although it’s turned out somewhat differently than I conceived it. Still, much of the idea and expression work was already done, both on my own (through the e-mail composition process) and through the writing of others (Foucault, Barthes, Wood). The question becomes, why not do the marginal amount of extra work and make whatever thoughts I have available to the rest of the world? And hence, blogging. Maybe it is a useless activity, but if so, I doubt it’s any more useless than the numerous other activities we engage in. And in writing, I realize that I had more thoughts on the subject of blogging, authorship, and incentives than I realized before I started, when I thought I was just going to dash off a quick note about the connection between a conversation in class and reading more generally. Now I’m 1,000 words in before I realize it that letters were to Keats and others might be what blog posts and e-mails are to the great writers of today whose names we don’t yet know.

I say “might” because predicting the future has always been a fool’s game, and the increasing rate of technological change only makes it moreso. But the past does offer a guide, however limited, to the future, and my betting is on cultural production changing around the nature of technology and how we use it. I doubt that will make the novel as such obsolete—perhaps the form will become still more important as a haven of deep thought amid the swells and chatter of blogging—but it might change it, and our conception of who the author is. I don’t think the change, when or as it occurs, will be as profound as some suspect.

To return to the beginning of this essay, maybe the book as an object will survive, and maybe writing fiction and criticism, like all forms of art, is naturally a self-referential activity that causes its practitioners to, in the act of creating, to speculate on why and how they do what they do. In that vein, maybe Barthes is so obsessed with the author and with realism because he cannot escape either or their perpetual pull on the novel. As such, he attacks them out of love and out of love and frustration, the latter because try as he might he can’t escape realism and still be in the novel. So he thrashes about, like someone holding his breath and thinking that doing so for as long as possible proves that one can live without oxygen, while writers (whether of blogs, books, or scholarly detritus, or whatever) continue producing the stories, just as people do to define themselves. We cannot separate the content of the stories from how we tell them or draw a perfect line between the authors we read and the text we produce, causing the endless debates about the nature of writing and expression. At times, the participants fail to see the larger, paradoxical picture of the infinite literary firmament, which is, as I said earlier, greater than any attempts to capture it.

Walter Scott's Waverley, the intrusive narrator, and showing, not telling

In Walter Scott’s Waverley, a representative passage states:

Now I protest to thee, gentle reader […] and hold it the most useful quality of my pen, that it can speedily change from grave to gay, and from description and dialogue to narrative and character. So that, if my quill display no other properties of its mother-goose than her mutability, truly I shall be well pleased; and I conceive that you, my worthy friend, will have not occasion for discontent. From the jargon, therefore, of the Highland gillies, I pass to the character of their Chief. It is an appropriate examination, and therefore, like Dogberry, we must spare no wisdom.

I would have preferred to be spared much wisdom, and perhaps all of Scott’s wisdom regarding the character of Fergus Mac-Ivor save that which is imparted through action and dialog. Among fiction writers, the cliché goes, “Show, don’t tell,” and though, like all such rules it should be broken when the need arises, Scott violates it doubly here: first he tells us that he’s going to tell us the character of Fergus, and then he tells us instead of showing us what that character is. We don’t need to pass “From the jargon […] of the Highland gillies […]” to Fergus, but for him simply to do so without announcing it, and his quill’s output doesn’t have the attributes of a goose, but of whatever use its author puts it to. By protesting that I should have no reason for discontent, Scott makes me discontent; he cannot control my content or dis-, and as such, he need merely tell the story, not tell me of its telling. Such protests are not cause for me to be well pleased, but cause for my own displeasure. To quote the advertising slogan of a national athletic apparel company, he should “just do it.” Basketball players can speak of their skill on the court as much as they wish, but the results we care about are on the scorecard, and authors can trumpet what they’ll do as much as they wish, but the results we care about are the stories, not the explanations. In sparring no wisdom, Scott spares us much of the novelistic wisdom of the last two hundred years.

In How Fiction Works, James Wood attributes the small-m modern novel to Flaubert in a passage that is worth quoting at length:

Novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring: it all begins again with him. There really is a time before Flaubert and a time after him. Flaubert decisively established what most readers and writers think of as modern realist narration, and his influence is almost too familiar to be visible. We hardly remark of good prose that it favours the telling and brilliant detail; that it privileges a high degree of visual noticing; that it maintains an unsentimental composure and knows how to withdraw, like a good valet, from superfluous commentary […]

This is the standard by which Andrew Hook, who wrote the introduction to the Penguin edition of Waverley, probably judges the novel when he says that it “[…] may not be the best novel of the nineteenth century.” Scholarly introductions normally extol a book’s literary as well social/political merit, but in this case the first point is conceded in order to strengthen the second. Perhaps this is in part because of the kind of thing quoted above or what appears to be Scott’s direct address in the first chapter / introduction—the two have not been fully separated yet—when he writes that he tries to avoid writing what we would now call a period piece by “[…] throwing the force of my narrative upon the characters and passions of the actors; – those passions common to men in all stages of society […]” The same issue debated today, but within criticism rather than novels. In a recent New Yorker article titled “Regrets Only: Lionel Trilling and his Discontents,” Louis Menand says that “[Lionel Trilling] was a humanist who believe that works of literature can speak to us across time […]” before describing Trilling’s steady abandonment of that position, or at least that position in its strongest form. But Trilling argued it in nonfiction, not in fiction, and Menand argues about Trilling argues in nonfiction. Scott gives many of his theories within Waverley in a way that seems paternalistic to this post-Flaubert reader.

Wood probably overstates the case for Flaubert, but my quarrel with him is one of degree rather than fundamental alignment. One thing Flaubert accomplished in his endless quest for realism, which is itself a kind of artificial representation no matter how real, is to at least somewhat relegate the most odious and intrusive passages in Waverley into books like How Fiction Works, or Kundera’s The Art of the Novel, or the innumerable other works by author/critics who save their explicit theorizing for nonfiction studying fiction, rather than fiction itself. This can be avoided, as many contemporary authors do by using writers and critics as characters. Philip Roth did so in his Zuckerman novels and Michael Chabon does so in Wonder Boys. The protagonist, Grady Tripp, reads a troubled student’s first novel and says that

… like most good first novels it possessed an imperturbable, mistaken confidence that all the shocking incidents and extremes of human behavior it dished up would strike new chords of outrage and amazement in the reader. It was a brazen, ridiculous, thrilling performance, with a ballast of genuine sadness that kept the whole thing from keeling over in the gale-force winds of melodrama.

Although I’m not certain I would agree with the generalities expressed in Tripp’s commentary, it does at the very least hearken back to older novels like Don Quixote or Waverley. The difference is that in Wonder Boys, the digression is organic and part of the characterization of the novel itself, rather than a cutting and intrusive digression. The action for the characters themselves doesn’t freeze as a lecture gets dropped in, and the literary theory expressed has some resonance for the novel’s story. Tripp and his agent, Terry Crabtree, are going to decide what to do with Leer based in part on his novel, which they evaluate in part by their own aesthetic criteria. In Waverley, the didactic tone interrupts the action instead of being part of it and focuses on the reader themself, not the characters through the reader. Both are accomplished with layers—in Waverley, with the historian, and in Wonder Boys, with Tripp—but Wonder Boys has that additional facet of integration rather than separation.

Wonder Boys also assumes at least some familiarity with novels and novel theory; notice that Tripp is critical of “the gale-force winds of melodrama,” which simplifies and flattens characters in a way that strikes sophisticated readers as weak. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory, 4th Edition, sneers that 19th Century melodrama “[…] produced a kind of naively sensational entertainment in which the main characters were excessively virtuous or exceptionally evil.” Waverley succumbs to this trap in part, with characters like Edward and Colonel Talbot, but also escapes from it with Fergus and Flora, as the former is willing to turn against Edward while the latter doesn’t swoon like a stereotypical maiden as soon as the light hero arrives. In this respect, Scott is being more modern than I might want to give him credit for, but he’s still a long way from the evolution of a novel like Wonder Boys, whether in terms of plot, characterization, or, as discussed here, knowledge of literary theory and ideas. Later in the same passage, Tripp approvingly notes that Leer has “largely abandoned his silly experiments with syntax and punctuation,” giving us further theory of what makes a good novel as stated by the character of the novel, who would probably not care for stylistically ostentatious writers who are ostentatious for its own sake, like Alain Robbe-Grillet, or, in some novels, Percival Everett.

It’s possible that novels simply can’t avoid commenting on the form to some extent, just as novels can’t seem to avoid some aspect of epistemology and mystery—even the basic mystery of “what happens next,” though a similar drive might propel readers of essays or other nonfiction. Elmore Leonard is the literary novelist I’m familiar with who gets furthest from the recursive structure of novelists on novels within novels, but even he succumbs to that urge in The Hot Kid. Before starting this response, these ideas were rolling around my mind, and I began editing the novel I’m working on, and found a passage that could be about the ability to read a character in the novel:

I looked over my notes from the previous night and found Cassie’s Facebook profile—she was the keg-stand girl—which had a note about her hangover. Otherwise, her profile contained a long list of favorite music and TV shows, but no books, and also had many semi-literate wall notes. Some from DGs empathized regarding hangovers.

The difference between Chabon, Leonard, and others, versus Scott, however, is the difference between a death metal band and Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata: subtlety and composition.

None of this essay depreciates Scott’s historical importance to the development of the novel as a genre or of Romance, which was Hook’s initial point. Scott remains historically important, however, chiefly because of influence. Some of his sins might sins of a new form without boundary, and thus Scott might have felt the need to explain the form so that it can be properly enjoyed. Two hundred years since, however, the form is much understood, and an ocean of reading exists beyond what any mortal given present expected longevity can expect to achieve. If Scott caused anxiety in through that influence, it has long been cast off because he, like any pioneer, did not reach the maximum potential of the form he helped establish. Perhaps no artist does, but others have reached further than Scott, and now the dust of archives clings to his prose, which too often offers justification when it doesn’t need to: that his “pen can speedily change from grave to gay,” and many other passages I want to strike with my own pen and write in the margins, “We know!”

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