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.How far off is that really, apart from Faulkner's consciously archaicized tone and the rather sloppy ending I gave it?
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.
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.