Review: The Late American Novel

The Late American Novel

Edited by Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee

Soft Skull Press

176 pp/$14.95

Media critics have been predicting the death of the novel ever since José Ortega y Gasset wrote Decline of the Novel in 1925, thus becoming the first canary to drop dead in the coalmine of literature. Though the novel has persisted, outliving the very critics who crowded around its death bed, it’s difficult to ignore the inauspicious signs. In the last few months, Borders has gone belly up, e-books have started outselling hardcovers on Amazon, and the Kindle has only gotten faster and slimmer. The sword of Damocles looms heavy over the entire publishing industry.

In the face of such possible calamity, anthologies like Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee’s The Late American Novel can seem both timely and ill-advised. Asking the rising generation of American writers for their thoughts on the death of the book, this anthology could seem alarmingly prescient in five years time. It could just as easily seem as foolish as the urban survivalists who stockpiled bottled water in preparation for Y2K bug seem in 2011. Which is not to say that the future of the book isn’t worth these writers’ attention, merely that any sort of prognostication on the subject is a largely thankless task.

The Late American Novel begins with the appropriate amount of hang-wringing and pessimism. In the very first essay, Rivka Galchen likens the death of the book to a catastrophic plague. Later, Benjamin Kunkel writes an obituary to the “graphosphere,” perceiving the decline of the novel as a severe blow to the principles of democracy and community. Perhaps bleakest of all, Clancy Martin wonders if the death of the book might even be liberating, imagining a near-heretical future where people, freed from the civic obligations and duties of reading, are in fact happier without their books.

This doom and gloom is of course tempered by similarly predictable optimism. Be it Kyle Beachy’s faith in the novel as community or Victor LaValle’s emphatic assertion that literature is not contained within the object of the book, there are those who will not even consider the possibility that literature could ever wholly disappear from the human experience. In perhaps the anthology’s most optimistic essay, Joe Meno movingly writes that the book can never die because the book is more than it’s form; it’s a place in our hearts and minds.

But even while these positions are being drawn, there is a persistent insistence among the contributors that the future is inherently uncertain. While some writers use it simply to qualify their pontifications, there are others who make this doubt their entire philosophy, arguing that today is better spent writing rather than worrying. (The book, after all, isn’t quite dead yet.) Alongside the anxieties about marginalia and epistemological rupture is a certain thread reminding young writers that the industry is not necessarily related to the craft, that the writing life still has its spiritual rewards, that there is still art to be made. And for those readers who scoff or cringe at the repeated use of the phrase “the writing life,” there is always Deb Olin Unferth’s stark reminder that the concerns of the book seem petty next to the implications of the ecological holocaust we are perpetuating upon our planet (which is its own sort of motivation to do something more than sit around worrying about the future of the book.)

But let’s be honest: no one is picking up this anthology for encouragement and comfort. One reads an anthology titled The Late American Novel looking for blood, or, at the very least, solutions. In this sense, the most interesting essays in the anthology are the ones that are not simply reassuring or despairing, but rather the ones where writers express palpable excitement for the technological pressures being placed on the book. Emily St. John Mandel, for example, offers an enticing future where e-readers are designed as near-miraculous amalgamations of the book and the computer, a vision only slightly dampened by its (current) technological impossibility. If someone could one day realize Mandel’s device, I would buy two.

In a more pragmatic vein, Michael Paul Mason and Ander Monson suggest that in a multimedia environment, the writer must adapt and redefine his or her role alongside developments in technology. By seizing the means of productions, writers may be possible to bring about a new golden age of literature. This, of course, requires the writer to be tech-saavy, to embrace the very technology that threatens his or her livelihood. To this end, one of the most stylistically ambitious essays in the anthology belongs to Reif Larsen, who takes this opportunity to create a rallying cry for the underappreciated possibilities of hypertext, a genre of fiction which sometimes seems deader than the novel despite its prevalence in our everyday life.

If there’s any message that manages to rise above the cacophony of voices in The Late American Novel, it is that literature is going to change. But also that the form that literature takes, the changes it makes, are entirely up to us as both readers and writers. The utter lack of agreement among the rising class of American writers demonstrates that there is no status quo, no unshakable pillar, no literary institution too big to fail (though I would be bereft were my New Yorker to stop showing up.) Anything is possible right now. We can tear things down; we can rebuild things that we’ve lost. If we’re up to the challenge, we can create a literary form built to last the next 600 years of human life.

Because why not?

The book is dead. Long live the book.

–Stephen Aubrey is a writer and amateur teratologist. He can be found here.

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