Whither the Novel?

Readers discuss the Internet’s influence on literary form.

Slate’s weeklong symposium on the Novel 2.0, in which Walter Kirn and Gary Shteyngart speculate on the fate and evolution of the novel in the age of the Internet, is all the more fitting for being hosted on an online-only publication that itself embodies the promise and paperless appeal of delivering journalism and culture via an electronic medium.

Taking an almost Enlightenment view of the universal human subject, twifferTheGnu is of the conviction that the more things change, the more they stay the same:

fashion, technology, language, customs all fall in and out of common use. yet, the concerns of humans, the desires, needs, hopes remain remarkably consistent. so what has changed? not the world, but the means of interacting with it.

does this mean the end of the novel? of course not. if there is one constant of human nature, it is our love of discussing ourselves. even if we never really change. the novel will continue, and will, like other aspects of the human world, undergo superficial changes to reflect the superficial changes in society. but the core will remain untouched. because for all our changes, people never do change, do they?

DonJindra makes a helpful distinction: “Changing communication does change the world. It all started with the printing press. No, we don’t change human nature, but that’s not ‘the world.’ How we live in the world certainly has changed, and will continue to change dramatically.” As proof, baltimore-aureole lists the top 10 ways the Internet has changed the world, everything from “record stores going out of business” to declining worker productivity.

Identifying as a 23 year-old who is “old enough to treasure analog and young enough to pass through most digital applications without blinking an eye,” DeliciousSandwich presents this forecast:

while it’s true that a story does not change whether composed on parchment or computer screen, audience capacity is changing. Technology has gauranteed this; we consume in fits and starts, bite-sized downloads, nuggets of culture never too large as to overwhelm our attention spans. If there is a future for the novel, it might come in serialized form (as Walter Kirn has already demonstrated here in Slate, not to mention Stephen King and a slew of lesser-knowns all over the web). And of course Dickens was serialized for much of his career. But I’m not convinced readers have the patience to dive into James Joyce in downloadable form. There will always be novels, I think, but soon we may view them as the exception instead of the rule - like a director putting aside his HD camera to play around with 16mm, just like the good old days.

Not so fast, chimes inTidewaterJoe: “The novel will not die, not in the time in which I have still to live, say 20 or 30 years … ” In his view, the practicality of ink on paper for certain leisurely or scholarly purposes (such as reading on the beach and highlighting) will always trump the computer.

The nature of the electronic medium itself poses certain challenges to any sustained discourse or literary enterprise on the Internet, arguesaugust:

Being online truncates my attention span, and I just can’t follow long forms without drifting off to some other link. This post is probably too long, to say nothing of a novel. So let’s hold off on the proclamation of novel 2.0. The internet hasn’t even really met its Cervantes, to say nothing of its Tolstoy, Proust, or Faulkner.

But in terms of content, the play of identity, the necessarily pithy modes of expression, the desire to plug in and to unplug: all that seems like fodder for this generation of novelists.

We will end with annelliott9, whose observations as a high-school English teacher give us reason for optimism:

I work with teens–a population that is very much hooked up to video games, television, ipods, cell phones, instant messaging, and email. And yet these same young people read with insight, discover themselves in books on an ongoing basis, and even read outside of the classroom for their own enjoyment. Are these super-stars of the teenage world? Not really. They’re just average kids looking to make sense of their world. And reading–and, yes, that includes reading novels–helps them to do that.

If these are the adult readers of the future, I find no reason at all to despair over the fate of novel readers–I only hope that novel writers will provide them with something worthwhile to read.

Those wishing to add footnotes to this debate can find it in the Book Blitz Fray. AC6:16pm PDT

Monday, Oct. 9, 2006

North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-il, hasn’t yet gone ballistic, but his fuse is clearly lit. In response to Fred Kaplan’s latest call to armistice between the United States and its antagonists, Fraysters weigh in with their own geopolitical analyses.

Lysander thinks we can only face the truth of Kim’s latest provocation by burying our heads in the sand:

One has to wonder how verifiable a underground North Korean nuclear blast would actually be. A Hiroshima class nuclear explosion is the equivalent of about 15,000 tons of TNT. A similar explosion could be generated with large quantities of … TNT or other high grade explosive or even gasoline. One has to wonder whether satellite images can provide enough information to definitively distinguish a small underground nuclear explosion from a really large underground conventional explosion - particularly if it were detonated very far underground.

Pyongyang clearly wants the West to think it has nuclear capabilities and is certainly desperate to avoid another public failure. One has to assume that the North Koreans at least possess the technical expertise necessary to detonate conventional explosives. Thus, the possibility of a nuclear hoax seems at least initially plausible.

In sum, there seem to be at least three possibilities: (1) North Korea might successfully detonate a nuclear device; (2) North Korean could try to detonate a nuclear device and fail; or (3) North Korea could detonate something deep in the ground and claim that it was a nuclear device.

HLS2003 has trouble in consideration of both Kaplan and Kim:

I cannot take any commentator seriously on the North Korea debate unless they answer this question: Should North Korea be bribed not to follow through on its threat to test a bomb? And if so, what have we gained?

Nobody wants North Korea to have nukes, and although I tend to think Kaplan’s incessant (but utterly vague and contentless) calls for “more dialogue” are strategically wrongheaded, I can at least respect them as an alternate position. The goal is no Korean nukes; whether one uses a carrot or stick to get there is a matter for debate.

However, it is imperative not to use the carrot simply to head off North Korea’s recent test threat. Dialogue and bribery may very well be the best bet to end their nuclear program. Well and good, let the US engage directly, or via six-party talks, or what have you; as I said, it might not be my strategic choice, but at least there’s a goal in mind that could be accomplished as part of a bargain. But if the US and the world offer concessions just to head off this test, that is utterly foolish and counter-productive. The reason, in legal terms, might be called “illusory consideration.” …

In classic contract law, … if a party makes a promise that purports to offer a benefit, but does not in fact convey anything thereby, that promise is said to be “illusory” and there is no contract because of a failure of consideration. For example, if we enter an agreement that says “I promise to paint your house if I feel like it, and you promise to give me $100,” that is not a valid contract. What, after all, have I really promised? I have not promised to paint your house. I have not promised anything that you didn’t already have before paying $100 (I could have painted your house if I felt like it at any time, without you paying me).

In this instance, North Korea suddenly announced it would test a nuclear weapon. If the world rushes to offer incentives to stop this particular supposed nuclear test, and the test doesn’t happen right away, then what has the world gained? Nothing. It is an illusory promise. North Korea could say in two weeks “We’ve decided again to test” and we would have the same rigamarole all over again. …Dialogue may be a good idea, but it needs to be substantive dialogue about North Korea’s overall nuclear program, not about this threatened nuclear test. If negotiations are going to be undertaken, they should be undertaken completely without regard for North Korea’s latest announcement. Anything else, and the world is paying for an illusory promise, and teaching North Korea it can spin mere words into gold.

From a truly different perspective, Lataphor swings from calls for American fag burning to advocate American flag furling abroad:

If Kim wants nuclear bombs, so be it. It is none of America’s business that Kim wants to develop nuclear bombs. The day that it becomes America’s business is the day that North Korea nukes America. (If so, America will annihilate North Korea and that will be that.) Until that day, which will never occur because Kim is cleverly rational, it’s none of America’s business to meddle in North Korean internal affairs. Conversely, has North Korea ever told America that it can’t develop new weapons, such as new missiles, new nuclear weapons, new warplanes or new anti-missile defense systems? Of course not! It would be absurd because no foreign country meddles in American internal affairs. Yet, why does America have the right to meddle in other countries’ internal affairs with regard to weapons development and military expenditure? Per person, America by an exponentially large margin spends more money on its military than any other country. The second biggest spender, China, spends far less than America, and it has approximately four times more people!

Lastly, it should be pointed out that America has been the biggest warmongering country in the last fifty years. By far, it has been engaged in more wars in the past fifty years than any other country. America is also the ONLY country which has actually used nuclear weapons. In this context, the countries of Iran and North Korea look downright peaceful. Accordingly, it is America, and not North Korea or Iran, that should give up its nuclear weapons and have UN weapon inspectors running all over its country.

Many provocative points of view … I’m still waiting, however, for a compelling suggested response to North Korea’s behavior. If you have any ideas on what should be done, please enlighten us in the War Stories FrayGA9:25pm PDT

Friday, Oct. 6, 2006

Daniel Gross’ review of the various ways in which the Bush administration could be manipulating gas prices prior to midterm elections was the talk of Moneybox Fray, with some seeing corporate conspiracy where others see the pure economics of supply and demand. 

Noting that “oil has lubricated politics from its earliest days,” revrick gives an excellent historical primer on the subject, ranging from John D. Rockefeller’s “take over of the early oil industry [with] the willing complicity of the PA legislature and their pals in the Penna Railroad” to “Lyndon Baines Johnson’s … ties with Brown and Root, now a subsidiary of Halliburton.”

nutrprofe frames falling prices at the pump as a matter of economic interest, with no conspiracy needed for price manipulation:

If I were an oil company official setting gas prices, I would slash them during the election season. This would be a smart business decision. Why? It is in the oil industry’s interests to have Republicans in office at all levels. Lower gas prices mean more votes for Republicans. Any temporary loss of profit, even if it runs to hundreds of millions of dollars, will be richly repaid if Republicans stay in control. Lowering gas prices is a better investment than donating money to Republican campaigns, and is exempt from campaign finance laws.

No involvement of the government is needed, just oil companies following their own economic best interest. A conspiracy between competing oil companies is also not necessary. Once one company decides to slash prices, even at the expense of profits, they are undercutting every other company and they must slash prices too. Raising prices in unison would be trickier than cutting them in unison –one company might decide to raise prices less and grab more market share. But no such cooperation is needed for across the board price cuts.

Similarly, brlaub sees no need for “any overt collusion; just a recognition of what best serves the collective interest.” Moreover, the “highly concentrated and oligopolistic” structure of the industry would lend itself to this sort of internal strategizing, with “the ‘hyphenates’ Exxon-Mobil, Chevron-Texaco, etc.) control[ling] every aspect from exploration, production, refining and distribution.”

MaxBuff points to “one crucial price driver” unmentioned by Gross: “market traders who bid up the price of crude when its supply is threatened by natural or manmade events”:

It would take a real dummy not to notice that prices go up when Bush addresses menacing remarks to Iran or Venezuala or when he stands idly by as war spreads in the Middle East as has happened during the recent Israel-Hezbollah conflict.

It seems that GW and Condi have been models of restraint recently. Bush seems to be supporting the European negotiations with the Iranians and has made no “all options are on the table” remarks. He has ignored the foolish provocation by Hugo Chavez at the UN. He’s made no threats recently and, consequently, there’ve been no price spikes.

C0mmonsense urges us, however,  not to jump on the paranoid bandwagon:

Before we put a lot of stock into 42% of americans believing oil prices have been manipulated let us remember that a signifigant number of americans are still convinced that Lee Harvey Oswald was not President Kennedy’s assassin or that there was some larger conspiracy involved in his assassination. Americans seem to feel a need to believe in conspiracies because they are more interesting then the mundane truth that is reality…Even if the Bush administration did manipulate ALL of the oil companies in the US there is no way they could manipulat OPEC, they don’t even like Bush, and if you have been keeping up with the news OPEC has been trying to cut production and get prices back up to where they were as they were enjoying the high profits.

While the link between gas prices and presidential approval ratings is well-documented, this graph provides a nice visual illustration of that correlation. AC5:11pm

Monday, Oct. 2, 2006

“What happened between April 2004 and September 2006 that has so deadened American outrage [at the use of torture]?” So asks Dahlia Lithwick, in “Photo Finish.” Her analysis of this question, however, may put the cart before the horse. Has the hit television series 24 or congressional debate over detainee treatment caused Americans to support the state-sanctioned use of torture? Or are these phenomena merely the effects of a momentum shift in American public opinion? The Fray provides disheartening evidence that these policies enjoy widespread affirmative support.

The Jurisprudence Fray features many excellent posts decrying the use of torture. Utek1 points out the historical precedent for the humane treatment of unlawful enemy combatants. An excellent post by melvil compares the legal issues of defining torture with American pornography jurisprudence. Aroyfaderman ably defends the procedural basis for objecting to torture. But if you already oppose the use of torture, the more informative arguments come from supporters of the practice.

KnownSoldier was outraged at the disclosure of the Abu Ghraib scandal:

I was outraged at what the media would call torture. I was outraged that the American media would put the lives of American soldiers fighting in a foreign theater in jeopardy because they were offended at people being made to get into a half-naked pyramid.

I don’t think that the average person considered what they saw in those photographs to be torture, regardless of what the media called them. When the average American thinks “torture”, I believe that they think of something like severe beatings, broken hands, bags of rats over heads. I don’t think that we consider making someone walk on a leash to be torture. I heard one guy say that he saw more violent behavior at S&M swingers clubs in the 1970s. And those people came back every weekend.

So, yeah, the pictures did “numb” Americans to the media’s claims of torture. Because we didn’t agree with the media. To a famous liberal target, the naked breast of Justice was porn – did the fact that most of us didn’t agree make us all pornographers?

3yellowdogs isn’t writing his congressman to oppose the Detainee Treatment Act and doesn’t believe his fellow constituents will, either:

The reason that the President got what he asked for and that congressional Democrats didn’t sufficiently “express horror over the brutalization of enemy prisoners” is that their constituents, from the very first, had little or no objection to what they saw. […]

Confronted with the media-driven firestorm that was Abu Graib in April of 2004, just two and a half years after the 9/11 attacks, the vast majority of Americans looked at the photos and came to the conclusion that if we have to pile up some naked enemy prisoners and humiliate them a little to get valuable information that would save lives in Iraq and possible at home, then so be it. […]

The idiotarian wing in both houses is big and loud enough to have taken full advantage of this issue if they thought it would benefit them back home at the ballot box. But with few exceptions, they concluded that isn’t the case.

Many argue that the photos of Abu Ghraib do not actually depict torture. Others consider the range of activities authorized by the Detainee Treatment Act to fall short of actual torture. But a surprising number of posters see no need to dodge the label of “torture” at all. As case42tlc puts it:

Torture of the innocent is immoral; for the guilty, however, it can become a moral imperative. The world is full of people who deserve to be tortured, and we have lost the moral clarity to identify and deal with those who no longer deserve to be thought of as human.

Who no longer deserves “to be thought of as human?” For Mombo_Man, the answer appears to be Muslims in general:

We’re dealing with a bunch of animals and we should not fight by the Marquee of Queensbury Rules. These people hate us, they want to kill us and there is no real chance of “dialogue” in the equation. I’m not going to get into an argument over torture and if it is an effective tool. If it doesn’t work, don’t do it, if it does work, let the authorities knock themselves out.

Somewhat more generously, Jack_Cerf restricts the category to enemy guerrillas:

The United States is now at war against an enemy whose essential tactic is to disguise themselves among the civilian population for tactical advantage. These people are not criminals – they deem themselves at war against the United States, and they may be taken at their word. Nor are they the uniformed soldiers of any de jure or de facto government. They are beyond the protection of the law of war and may be treated in whatever manner their captors consider advantageous.

To joe62, American rights are not universal values, and foreigners should be treated accordingly:

The argument that these individuals should have the same rights as a US citizen denigrates US citizenship. Illegal immigrants are just that…illegal. Various terrorist captured on battlefields are just that…terrorist.

Giving whole new meaning to “desensitized,” A-pen makes an even more disconcerting argument:

Our country doesn’t go to war to promote the constitution. It goes to war to defeat an enemy with as much expediency and least loss of our side’s resources as possible. There is no point in blessing your enemy with kindness and fairness at a time when he is going to kill you because he cares not for your way of life.

Our system provides for the good of the many not individual rights when it is practical. Just get hurt at work and you’ll see the system turn your American dream into a pile of bills and permanent loss of earnings capability and do it with no conscience at all. Just get in a car wreck and watch as your life goes to pot when the insurance runs out and the lawyers stop answering your calls when they get paid. Just let any statute of limitations run out while you are disabled or preoccupied or unable to secure representation and you will see how our fair system works on its own people.

The world is a dangerous place and I think our country is only obligated to serve justice in proportion to the need of victory.

According to Lithwick, “with a handful of sick exceptions, people who could agree on nothing else could agree that this was an unacceptable way to treat prisoners.” After reading through the Fray, one has to wonder—how exceptional are the sick? Judge for yourself in our Jurisprudence FrayGA4:00am PD