Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Mutually Assured Distraction

I am not a great fan of Gary Shteyngart's fiction, but I think that, apart from some stylistic idiosyncrasies common to both, my distaste for his novels played little role in the irritation his New York Times Book Review essay caused me this weekend (the fluffy interview in the weekend's Magazine didn't help, though). Although, as we shall see, the content of this essay is, in essence, a justification of his fiction, much like Lev Grossman's ridiculous essay from about a year ago, although not nearly as ignorant or misconceived as that nadir of critical daftness.

Shteyngart writes about the personal effects of owning an iPhone or, more generally, of living among the new social media technologies, both hard and soft. The complaints are familiar:
With each post, each tap of the screen, each drag and click, I am becoming a different person — solitary where I was once gregarious; a content provider where I at least once imagined myself an artist; nervous and constantly updated where I once knew the world through sleepy, half-shut eyes; detail-oriented and productive where I once saw life float by like a gorgeously made documentary film. And, increasingly, irrevocably, I am a stranger to books, to the long-form text, to the pleasures of leaving myself and inhabiting the free-floating consciousness of another.
But as I read further down, the complaint began to sound more familiar still; a melody from the 1950s began to play—the one about The Bomb and a deep change in Human Nature—whose most glorious variation is probably to be found in William Faulkner's Nobel acceptance speech in 1950. One can practically re-write a couple of the paragraphs from that speech with a bit of cut-and-paste and it almost isn't ridiculous; it almost sounds like something we hear today.
Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical distraction so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: Has my page reloaded? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be distracted; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed - love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the digital life, the network.
How far off is that really, apart from Faulkner's consciously archaicized tone and the rather sloppy ending I gave it?

I think a number of American writers—New Yorkers, mostly—have either decided or come to some unspoken and maybe half-conscious consensus that the societal changes being brought about by social media are as encompassing and as threatening to the fundamentals of something which used to be called human nature as the threat of nuclear war was in the 1950s. That may sound extreme, and it actually is, but I am not merely trying to be provocative; there is a genuine homology between the threat today's writers perceive in social media and the way they are gathering to respond to it and the twinned discourse of the End of the Novel and the Crisis of Man that Mark Greif (of n+1) has written about and which I covered here.

In both cases, what is being described as a threat is a putatively immersive environment—in the 1950s, the fear of nuclear war; today, the distraction of social media—which is pushing humanity (seemingly as a species, although in real terms the most threatened are the most advanced societies) toward a point of crisis where what has been driven into latency or rarity—in the 1950s, the "dignity of man" or, articulated in more practical terms, the feeling of agency and choice; today, attention, which is often articulated again in practical terms either as genuine connectedness with other people or the ability to read dense works of literature—might in fact become irrecoverably lost.

But more acutely still, these discourses resemble one another because of the identity of their ultimate purposes—to advocate for the renewed importance of serious literature as a bulwark against these threats, as a source of regeneration for an embattled human race—and because they are in effect responses not so much to real material conditions, but to the fear that fiction—"serious literature"—is being outflanked and outstripped by non-fiction and other non-literary intellectual discourses, that pop and real intellectuals are absorbing more and more of the attention (and the buying power) of this country's educated audience. Bluntly and maybe a little glibly put, with essays like Shteyngart's and, to a much less dignified extent, Grossman's, we may be seeing the first skirmishes of a new, massive promotional campaign for serious fiction more energetic than any since the 1950s, when writers like Hemingway and Faulkner and Bellow and Ellison and Trilling undertook to wed the fate of the novel and the fate of the human race together in the minds of America's educated elite. It's a new arms race—can enough Important Novels be written to stave off the Great Distraction?

For what is Shteyngart saying, really? That he checks his iPhone too often? He says, "I don’t know how to read anymore. I can only read 20 or 30 words at a time before taking out my iPhone and caressing it and snuggling with it." May I suggest that before he had an iPhone, like most readers, his mind might have wondered momentarily every "20 or 30 words"—not to an iPhone screen, of course, but to some "interior" distraction? Do iPhones and the like really produce distraction, or do they just give a single physical destination for it? I suppose this is empirically testable, but for now mark me down as skeptical that Mr. Shteyngart's once formidable powers of unbroken concentration have been unequivocally obliterated by his new acquaintance with the social media landscape.

Shteyngart then uses a pastoral fantasy to drive home his point about the overwhelmingness of social media and the consequent need to de-link/disconnect/light out for the territory—not very original, but at least simple and very direct. But what this move suggests is that Shteyngart is possessed of a belief that human interaction outside of the mediasphere is equally simple and direct, that "mediation" is only ever the consequence of actual "media" interference, that we bring nothing to an "unmediated" social interaction outside of the "single malts and beers before us," that once we shed our digital shackles, we are free to be fully human. This is more than a little naive, and is probably not what Shteyngart would say if presented that idea so baldly, but it is the gist of his pastoral story. It is not a good sign for a novelist that he can let himself think of people and of interpersonal interactions as being so "naturally" straightforward; even more than we make tools to communicate, humans make reasons to foul communications up, to make our relations more complicated and more difficult. No iPhones are needed to send mixed messages, nor is Facebook required to have a public identity crisis. If Shteyngart truly knows that—and he should if he reads the Russian classics as assiduously as he claims to—then he needs to begin showing it—in his essays and in his novels.


Ondine said...

I don't mean to defend an article I haven't read, but should we (being writers of long fiction) not feel threatened by a burgeoning "sparknotes" culture? My humanity may not be threatened by Facebook, but certainly my readability disappears when my entire audience decides they can't sit still long enough to finish my three-paragraph blog entry, let alone my 300-word G.A.N. (assuming it lacks wizardry, incest, or corpses).

Was this battle for attention always a problem and I just never saw it?

Shelley said...

As a writer, I have to love a definition of literature "as a source of regeneration for an embattled human race."

Well done.

Andrew Seal said...

I have to plead ignorance and ask what a "G.A.N." is.

But yes, this battle for attention has gone on for some time--although not under our contemporary terms or with the same opponents.

David said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David said...

I'm assuming G.A.N. = Great American Novel...

I pre-ordered Shteyngart's new book because I liked the trailer and it seems to be getting decent enough reviews, but after reading his essay and a profile from some place or another, I'm much less excited to read it.

On another note, I am finding myself quite entertained by Rick Moody's new novel. Are you planning to read it Andrew? I very much enjoy your reviews, opinions, and recommendations. Thank you for your great blog!

David said...

And I would assume he meant 300-page G.A.N.

Matt Rowan said...


As someone who's just finished reading and was amused by "Absurdistan" and enjoyed Shteyngart's excerpt from his forthcoming novel in a recent New Yorker, I'm curious to know more of your specific qualms with Shteyngart's work. You said "stylistic idiosyncrasies," which I agree there are many, but which specifically bother you? Would you consider Shteyngart a follower of the tradition of writers like Joseph Heller, Vonnegut, and George Saunders, or a poser not up to their work? In other words, is it a type of absurdist writing that irks you? I apologize if any / all of this has been covered in detail already. I acknowledge I might be a bit late to the game.


Andrew Seal said...

Thanks! The 300-word thing threw me. I haven't read any Rick Moody, although that's not because I've been avoiding him--just one of those authors I've never gotten to. But another friend has been telling me great things about the new novel, so maybe I'll have to give it a try.

I guess what I am irked by with Shteyngart can be summed up in the line in the interview where he says, "Maybe we’re all wrong and there’s going to be a huge comeback in 10 years where all the kids are going to drop their iKindles and start reading like crazy."
"iKindle" performs in miniature what I find so frustrating about Shteyngart's humor: the quasi-malapropism is so telegraphed, so overperformed, so contrivedly self-conscious. It's as if Shteyngart needs to tell us that he knows we'll catch his jokes but then worries that we may not, so he overdoes them anyway. That's basically what reading Absurdistan felt like to me--not like absurdist humor, but like a comedian who's constantly asking his audience if they'd like to hear a joke.

Also, I have a thing against slobs as protagonists in literature. It's not a very fair thing, nor a well-reasoned bias, perhaps, but Misha Vainberg, Ignatius J. Reilly, Eliot Rosewater, even to some extent Eugene Henderson--can't stand them very well. But that's just me.

Matt Rowan said...

All right, all right, you make a very good point, Andrew. The quasi-malapropisms come on a little strongly at times. I suppose in the end the humorous circumstances and settings of Misha Vainberg won me over, though. I definitely have a soft spot for the slobs and even the douche bags of literature. I liked the Ginger Man (although most of Donleavy's work seems to be a poor rehashing of that territory covered completely by Sebastian Dangerfield). But I think liking The Ginger Man says it all. I will think this all over some more and hopefully craft a more cogent argument for why I enjoy Shteyngart.

Ondine said...

Good heavens! Yes, I meant "page" rather than "word." Sorry. I'll keep practicing my communication.

amy said...

certainly my readability disappears when my entire audience decides they can't sit still long enough to finish my three-paragraph blog entry, let alone my 300-word G.A.N. (assuming it lacks wizardry, incest, or corpses).

But when was this not the case? Lurid tales of mayhem and madness have always sold better than quiet family dramas. Would the Bible have ever become so popular without incest, reanimated corpses, and what might reasonably be termed "wizardry"? Humanity and its fascinations have not changed so much in 2000 years.

If authors can't bring themselves to write books that are entertaining as well as being aesthetically and conceptually challenging, then they have themselves to blame, not their readers.

John Williams said...

Putting aside Shteyngart's novels and focusing on the issue of social media, etc.: It may be stated in overblown terms by some, but I think the idea that we are changed, over time, by how and what we consume is not ridiculous at all. This may be anecdotal evidence, but I know 14-year-olds who spend nearly all of their time texting on their phones and updating their Facebook pages. On some level, of course, this is similar to kids wasting time on the phone when I was young. But the ease and constancy of it now, and the ways in which it calls on writing and reading without deepening them, feels different. And not altogether positive.

I've never had a great attention span myself, but I know that scanning my Twitter feed is a faster and more blurry brand of skimming than I've ever done before.

Further, I think the difference between an "interior distraction" and a distraction from one's iphone is a rather significant one, at least worth addressing and not zooming past.

Andrew Seal said...


I guess I don't know what the difference is between an internal distraction and checking an iPhone or my email or Twitter. Usually, this digital kind of distraction starts with my mind wandering--I think of a question I'd like to ask Google or Wikipedia, or I wonder if someone has e-mailed me or what have you. I just don't feel like anything as dire as what Shteyngart is describing has happened to me. I waste just as much time on the internet as anyone else does; I just don't think that it is time I would be "normally" putting toward something productive, or that the time I do waste there is more deleterious to me or to my faculties than time I would waste in some other fashion.

Loren said...

This is a great post, Andrew. I like your revision of Faulkner's Nobel speech and identify with the sentiment behind it.

For me, what I stand to gain from the web -- intellectually, culturally, socially -- outweighs what I stand to lose. But the sheer volume of information requires me to do some serious paring and exercise some self-discipline.

If I do not do both of these things, the line between mindful and uncontrolled surfing (i.e., seeking versus receiving distractions, and, moreover, choosing a 'healthy' amount of them) becomes blurred: I choose who to follow and what blogs to subscribe to, but not the frequency with which these sources reward me with provocative, engaging content. David Foster Wallace puts it this way:

"I received five hundred thousand discrete bits of information today, of which maybe twenty-five are important. And how am I going to sort those out, you know?" (link)

This fact belies a major shift in how people conduct their daily lives. Of course, to Wallace, T.V. represented the ultimate passive form of distraction:

"Television’s greatest appeal is that it is engaging without being at all demanding." (link)

To Wallace, a worthy piece of fiction demanded effort from the reader. But insofar as a work of art is meant to "enlighten, broaden, or reorient" its audience -- perhaps, in his case, to help the reader make sense of (or cope with) information overload -- the burden rests on the would-be artist to first make her work somehow relevant. It's up to the artist to make her art recognizable to an audience that is accustomed to getting massive daily stimulation from the internet and television. If the artist ignores these phenomena, her work is in danger of being irrelevant, and thus ignored.

Ondine said...

Great comment, Loren!

It makes complete sense that a writer could not ignore cultural shifts or technological advances and expect attention from a large audience. On the other hand, even using popular modes and genres, the taint of maturity reduces readability because the distracted audience expects pandering (300 channels and there's STILL nothing on!), and that pandering by definition limits an artist's effectiveness.

Yes, Andrew, I see an eternal struggle in there somewhere.

Andrew Seal said...

I really like what you're saying about the artist's responsibility; I think that's a very crucial point that I neglected. And while I very much appreciate what you're saying about the information overload, I do think that Wallace's ideas about television (which I agree much more with) don't apply perfectly to social media--there's a quite different quality or texture to the information overload we get through Web 2.0-type interfaces. I think there's a very good discussion to be had here, though, about whether that's the case--I'm mostly just speaking from my own experience and some conversations with others. But I tend to think that we give Wallace a little too much credit if we think that he "predicted" the current form of the Internet in Infinite Jest (I touched on this a little bit here). Not that his predictions are your point here, but I think that we have to be cognizant about what terms we have to change and what we have to add in order to use an attack on television or on an earlier point in time to address the current moment.

Loren said...

@Andrew: Yes, the Internet and T.V. should be kept distinct.

I brought up television because I think it may continue to present a greater challenge to artists than the web: at least on the internet Joe Briefcase can be something more than a viewer.

The web has its own limitations -- I agree it's worth considering what those are, particularly compared to television's -- but pieces like Shteyngart's don't even try to articulate them. It's empty and lazy. Douglas Adams ruminated on people's reactions to the web in 1999:

I suppose earlier generations had to sit through all this huffing and puffing with the invention of television, the phone, cinema, radio, the car, the bicycle, printing, the wheel and so on, but you would think we would learn the way these things work, which is this:

1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;

2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;

3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

Apply this list to movies, rock music, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are.

Adams may not be on precisely the same page as DFW is regarding T.V., but he seems to consider the Internet, and the restoration of "interactivity" it offers, as a welcome departure from televisual culture. I think that's right.

Andrew Seal said...

Ha! That's fantastic--I wish I had just said that!
I agree about the televisual culture being less interactive than the internet--I guess what I was thinking of in terms of similarities--or rather perceived similarities between the two--is that notion that both television and the internet just pour information over you constantly. Of course, as you are saying, the nature of what we do with that information is very different as internet users from what we do as television watchers.