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American Book Review looks at "Fiction's Future"

The current issue of the always topical American Book Review  takes up "Fiction's Future" as its focus, and the results are a lot like listening in to the conversations in the lobby of a Modern Language Association convention during lunch hour.  Rather than address the subject in the staid way The New York Review of Books might with the throat-clearing gravitas of a predictably circumspect essay by a world class scholar-critic or perennial Nobel Prize for Literature candidate, editor Jeffrey R. Di Leo and associate editor Tom Williams employ the same kind of collagist approach ABR applied to the question "Why Teach Creative Writing?" in its previous issue.
 
Some sixty-two prominent fiction writers and critics, many of whom might be mentioned in that hypothetical New York Review piece, weigh in with  Words, Sentences, Ouotes and other cryptic musings ranging from one word pronouncements ("Dismal"--Lee K. Abbott, or "Neural"--Stephen J. Burn) to dire warnings ("THE WAY THINGS ARE GOING IN THE WORLD, THERE'S NO FUTURE FOR FICTION"--Raymond Federman), playful quips ("The future of fiction is its past, though that future, too, is a fiction."--Michael Joyce) to concise and reasoned statements by the likes of Robert Coover, Lydia Davis, Larry McCaffery, Christina Milletti, Charles Johnson and Marjorie Perloff that--were it not for their "metatextuality"--might be mistaken for the prognostications of market analysts. 
 
Survey-like features are quite good at getting a representative sampling of opinions one might encounter "in the field" (as those at the MLA convention might say), but sensing perhaps that a discussion of as innovation-driven an art form as fiction shouldn't operate under such sound bite like constraints,  Di Leo and Williams ask thirteen of their original correspondents back for Elaborations.  Here the results read much less like talking points.  


 
Stephen Berube demystifies all the hand-wringing by humanities scholars over the decline of fiction reading among adults by pointing out that historically speaking, "no sooner does a popular reading culture get established than commentators start worrying about the decline of reading.”  Stephen J. Burn links Melville to neuroscience, sounding a bit like both William Gibson and artificial intelligence advocate Ray Kurzweil in arguing that "fiction’s future may be a kind of neurofiction, simultaneously informed by and contesting the authoritative claims of the neuronal explanation of identity."  I'm not entirely sure what he's driving at here, but I hope it doesn't involve narrative downloads to the brain. 
 
Vanessa Place foresees the emergence of fiction that is increasingly "conceptualist" in its approach, not unlike the recent upswing in conceptualist poetry, while Teresa Carmody sees the rise of collaged, procedural, and  "constraint-based" compositional techniques (think Walter Abish's 1974 novel Alphabetical Africa), with the emphasis on the arbitrariness of the constraint.
 
Marjorie Perloff, perhaps the most influential American critic of the postmodern era, points out the timeliness of a new wave of fiction that is increasing "transnational"--Roberto Bolaño, Javier Marías and the "exophonic" fiction of Yoko Tawada are three authors she mentions specifically--while asserting that the return to the “zero degree of history" makes "21st century avant-garde fiction necessary again."  Perloff also writes that "fiction is once again producing the conversation that matters—the conversation that, in the later twentieth century, was called 'theory'."


Nearly all the correspondents have something to say about the changing technology of storytelling, with most averring that the "literary" novel in its traditional mode of dissemination is on the verge of cultural obsolescence.  Whether or not the novel survives the transition to digital e-book platforms or is eclipsed by more mobile technology-friendly forms like flash fiction or the "story cycle," the consensus of opinion seems to be that human beings are not about to stop talking, texting, and generally finding innovative and identity challenging new ways to narrate their ever more complicated lives.  
 
Difficult as it may be to imagine a 21st century Marcel Proust tweeting about the memory of his tea soaked madeleines in the "Twitter-ature" version of  À la recherche du temps perdu, or Joyce's Leopold Bloom using a GPS device on his peregrinations through Dublin in Ulysses, by the time we get to Beckett's The Unnamable (or for that matter Cormac McCarthy's The Road), we are precisely at that "zero degree of history" Perloff  (who is actually quoting the novelist R.M. Berry) describes.  Even when fiction comes to  standstill, the "story" which is inextricable from its means of transmission remains.  It's the voice that says "I can't go on, I'll go on," or perhaps even less than that.  Maybe it's the breath that voice rides on, or the neurons in the brain that fire the lungs to take that breath.  Maybe it's coded in the DNA that provides the blueprint for those neurons.
 
Even as I write this some young woman in Tehran could be thumbing the next great epic of her people's suffering into her smart phone in 140 character increments.  Some orphaned teen-age boy in Gaza City could be texting his uncle in Brooklyn, trying to describe the taste of the last morsel of falafel his mother prepared before an errant mortar shell hit their home.  At a refugee camp in Sudan, a volunteer worker has just handed a lost boy a pencil.  The human story regenerates itself in every heartbeat.  Fiction's future is to inhabit those tenuous situations language makes possible but we cannot inhabit ourselves.

--R.D. Pohl

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