Jessa Crispin linked via Twitter to a piece about novelists’ difficulty talking about the Internet. Should their characters be like a lot of us, constantly switching between Facebook, Twitter, email, phone calls, text messages, and the rest? Should their books deliberately *avoid* writing about those things, and instead focus on (here I adopt a Brahmin chin tilted 30 degrees up from the horizontal; imagine Bill Buckley saying this) “the eternal present”?
Listen, the Internet is important. Many of us spend a lot of our time on it. But we spend a lot of our time doing lots of other things, too. How about focusing on rampant job insecurity, for instance? How about focusing on what happens when people lose jobs and realize that there’s virtually no social safety net left?
I’m not saying that writing has any obligation to be socially relevant; it doesn’t. As a practical matter, writers only have an obligation to do what pays the bills. (Or not! They might not be able to make money writing, so they do whatever else they need to do to pay the bills, like sling lattes at Starbucks while they write on the side.)
What I *am* saying, though, is that we have a tendency — either when we look at the world we live in now, or at former worlds — to focus on one detail and obsessively assert that That’s What Everyone Spent All Their Time Thinking About. Look at slavery, for instance: it’s really hard to read about the era between the signing of the Constitution and the Civil War without getting this picture of everyone just counting the days until society was torn apart by war. Or England from the late 18th century through the mid-19th: there’s this picture of people toiling away in the dark Satanic mills and thinking nonstop about What Industrialization Meant when they weren’t Suffering The Ill Effects of Industrialization. Surely these things were important — world-historical, even — but so were lots of other things.
And in the grand scheme of modern living, the Internet is *time-consuming*, but it’s not at all clear that it’s *important*. Spending time with your family is important. Getting enough sleep, eating well, and exercising are important. Not needing to drink yourself to sleep at night is important. Inasmuch as work-related stress impinges on all of these things, work is very important. Facebook is not important.
So why are there so many more stories and essays about the effect of the modern media environment on fiction writing than there are about the effect of job insecurity? David Foster Wallace, for instance, spent just about his entire career obsessing over television’s and the web’s effect on fiction writing: his essay “E Unibus Plurum” [sic], which was included in [book: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again]; [book: Infinite Jest] itself (about a movie so addicting that you’d sacrifice anything to keep watching it); an essay or two in [book: Consider the Lobster]; and a good fraction of the post-[book: Infinite Jest] interview with Wallace in [book: Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself] focus on the media. Wallace is considered an “important writer” largely on that basis.
Where are the people writing novels about job insecurity? It sounds a little silly when phrased that way; no one would really want to read that. But it’s not clear, stated abstractly, that anyone would want to read a novel about the effects of television on American [foreign: ennui], but there you have the shortest possible description of [book: Infinite Jest].
Hypothesis: Wallace’s fiction — and all other fiction coming from people who obsess more about the media environment than they do about the rest of life — appeals more to urbane single dudes in their 20s and 30s, whose biggest concern is that they use Twitter too much, than it does to folks who are having trouble making ends meet.
Then again, the last piece of fiction I can remember reading from someone who was self-consciously trying to Engage With The People was George Packer’s [book: Central Square], about my beloved neighborhood. I give Packer credit for trying, but that book was condescending, as virtually all of Packer’s writing since then has been. (Though you really, really, really need to read his [book: Blood of the Liberals].) Condescension may be inevitable when you’re deliberately trying to make a point through your fiction; you engage in telling rather than showing.
So maybe the idea should be: don’t write a novel that tries to talk about income inequality, or talk about job insecurity, or talk about the pernicious effects of Angry Birds. Just write a novel that respects its characters enough to depict them honestly, and hope that anything you want to say will emerge naturally from that. When I find such a novel, I’ll let you know.