Note: this has been updated, 5/17/2010.
Lately I kept thinking of what I thought was a quote of Susan Sontag’s from a posthumous essay, and wrote a post about it. Here is the actual quote, supplied by Joshua Benton over at the Harvard Nieman Journalism Labs blog, who read the original post I put up.
Hearing the shattering news of the great earthquake that leveled Lisbon on November 1, 1755, and (if historians are to be believed) took with it a whole society’s optimism (but obviously, I don’t believe that any society has only one basic attitude), the great Voltaire was struck by the inability to take in what happened elsewhere. “Lisbon lies in ruins,” Voltaire wrote, “and here in Paris we dance.”
One might suppose that in the 20th century, in the age of genocide, people would not find it either paradoxical or surprising that one can be so indifferent to what is happening simultaneously, elsewhere. Is it not part of the fundamental structure of experience that “now” refers to both “here” and “there”? And yet, I venture to assert, we are just as capable of being surprised — and frustrated by the inadequacy of our response — by the simultaneity of wildly contrasting human fates as was Voltaire two and a half centuries ago. Perhaps it is our perennial fate to be surprised by the simultaneity of events — by the sheer extension of the world in time and space. That here we are here, now prosperous, safe, unlikely to go to bed hungry or be blown to pieces this evening…while elsewhere in the world, right now…in Grozny, in Najaf, in the Sudan, in the Congo, in Gaza, in the favelas of Rio…
You can also say that it’s not “natural” to keep remembering that the world is so…extended. That while this is happening, that is also happening.
But that, I would respond, is why we need fiction: to stretch our world.
Novelists, then, perform their necessary ethical task based on their right to a stipulated shrinking of the world as it really is — both in space and in time.
Characters in a novel act within a time that is already complete, where everything worth saving has been preserved — “washed free,” as Henry James puts it in his preface to The Spoils of Poynton, “of awkward accretion” and aimless succession. All real stories are stories of someone’s fate. Characters in a novel have intensely legible fates.
–Sontag from “At the Same Time: The Novelist and Moral Reasoning”
At the time I found this, I agreed with her. My thinking about it turned this into what I thought the quote was: the novel as the antidote to the modern problem of knowing too much about what is happening elsewhere.
I am thinking about this idea of the novel again because I wonder if it is useful to shrink the world if it is no longer how anyone lives. If a certain kind of novel represents a naive, even pre-modern state of being. And so if this is so, if this is no longer how anyone lives, then doesn’t the novel has to represent this new condition, with the clarity and intensity we can only get from prose fiction?
I think I’ve been thinking about this as this last semester I entered into this very quiet place in the middle of myself, finding myself with nothing to say whenever I signed into my blog. Around me, things had reached a dizzying and even frantic pace, what with applying for grants, residencies, interviewing for jobs, finishing a novel and finishing my time at Amherst as their Visiting Writer—there were reasons I could have found the task of writing this blog confounding. I’d found it strange before, or had felt ambivalence about it, but I’d never found myself feeling mute while sitting here trying to write it. I was thinking about the idea of the novel as antidote, in other words, because within the making of the novel, I had a great deal to say. Most people experience catharsis while reading novels, but it seems to me catharsis is a possibility for the writer while writing it also.
I didn’t lack for ideas for blogging–My files are full of many unfinished drafts–and some were posts that simply became too long or that were better as possible magazine pieces, and those are some of the reasons as to the stalling, but there is something underneath it all that I can barely feel, like something your foot finds at the bottom of the lake as you get near the shore that is sharp but is just out of sight. Now that a revision of my novel is with my editor and the school year has ended, I am reaching down to see what is there. And I know it begins and perhaps ends with the news.
When I was first in New York after college, I loved nothing more than to wake up, get a cup of coffee from the corner deli and hit the newstand, where I’d buy three papers–a New York Times, a Daily News and a New York Post. I was living in Fort Greene, between Fulton and DeKalb, and brought the three papers back to my kitchen, where I read them until I felt the click in my head, when I closed them and began to write on a typewriter I’d had since high school.
Reading this way, I felt I saw things in a stereoscope–and the Times was better at the news of the country and the world, the Post and the Daily News had the local crime and politics, and Media Ink, the column in the Post on the magazine business, that was a must read for any aspiring magazine kid in the early 90s. The Post’s politics were offensive, sure, even then, but I also felt it was an obligation of mine, to know how the other side thought–this is being a gift I suppose from growing up in Maine.
When the news went online, this began to fall apart. But worse, it became clear that by 2004, the news no longer generated that lovely click in my head. Instead, there was an urgency I read with, of someone watching for a sign the ship was not going to strike the iceberg. But of course there is always a new iceberg we “may” hit. For example, the much blogged about takeover of the House this fall is already fait accompli, despite being 5 months off.
There’s any number of ways to criticize the news today, and deciding on the story before it is written certainly is one, but it seems to me the chief way it is driven increasingly is by speculation–by fiction, essentially. And I do object to that. Online news, full of headlines that are questions, and articles that are mostly speculation, the whole thing read together is a long speculative fiction novel in installments, populated by real people who become famous because they fit the narrative. Just today, a friend mentioned how she felt Gordon Brown hadn’t been able to “escape the narrative”, and I hadn’t mentioned this idea of mine at all–I think we can all feel it. And so it is interesting to see that at the same time betting on futures has gotten the banking industry in trouble, it is the central product of the news industry for now. Yes, there’s been any number of discussions devoted to conflict-driven news–we all know about this now–the habit of bringing that famous “two sides” to the table to argue on live Cable news–but 24-hour online news now creates a 24-hour cycle of being at this side of the table or the other. Conflict news, as we can now simply call it, is a speculative fiction written to get someone to click and read and be angry, so they will click and read more. Its job is to produce fear that your side of the table will lose, as fear is the mother of anger, which means a click of this other kind.
It probably isn’t hard to guess: these antics void the spell for writing I hope for when I went to the newstand over a decade ago, and it disappoints the sense of mission I felt as a kid, that reading the news was the job of the responsible citizen. Instead I just feel weak with a rage hangover–at the lies, lack of reporting, the bullying that passes for discussion and the way each news item, no matter what it is about, to me is always about the death of critical thinking in the American public and the inability of a majority of people to reason their way through what is presented to them–something I believe is directly related to the destruction of public education. All each of these news items tells me is that the country is still drunk on the faith-based world, whether they are redstate or blue, still content to think that because they believe it is so, it is so.
For years now I’ve instituted blogging as a kind of place to make sense of my world after reading the news I read to put me in the mood to write, like a place to spit out the venom I took in, but even that doesn’t seem like an answer anymore. It just seems like a way to allow the actions of 1% of the American public to dominate my mental space. Which is what they want. I mentioned all of this to my boyfriend Dustin recently, and he reminded me that I worry about my mother, who sits watching MSNBC and CNN with my stepfather until she goes to bed, furious, nearly every night. How I worry that she will have a shorter life for her regimen of evenings full of rage. Maybe you get it from her, he said.
I might. He theorized that her way of raising me, to be prepared for disaster, to be ready to swim to shore when the ship goes down, that this is why she does this and is also why I do this online version of shouting at the news in my living room.
It is time for me to adapt again. Just as I don’t want that for my mother, I don’t want it for me, either. And in much the same way I learned to write on computers by writing down the page number of my draft when I stopped writing, so as to avoid beginning to revise page 1 again when the document opened (typewriters never made this problem for you), I have to reinvent my pre-writing ritual and my sense of my duties as a citizen, and move on. I think I was thinking of Sontag’s quote primarily because I think she meant reading novels was the antidote to this problem, and as near as I can tell, it may be that writing them is also the antidote. Perhaps the impulse to either read or write a novel is at some very basic level the urge to get the poison out, and in that light, National Novel Writing Month’s steady growth annually looks like something very different.
In our age now, we exist in an environment that oscillates between euphemism and slander, anonymous cool and rage. Whatever it is I know about the world away from me, whatever my experience of that is, I write and read novels, then, because the truth a novel can evoke, drawn into place by the essential falsehood a fiction is, in turn reveals something from within all the mix of lies and truth delivered from the world. A lie that uncovers what is under the lies, then, being what a novel is or can do, whether or not it does. Not a moral imperative but a moral possibility. And so this is why I’m still interested in writing them.
** A mentioned, an earlier version of this post appeared without the Sontag quote–I went looking for it where I found it, at the Guardian, where it had been taken down, and what’s more, I misremembered it as a result. Thank you to Nieman Labs blog for pointing the way to the right quote, and I’ve updated this post to reflect the results.
I love this post more than I can say. I hadn’t seen the Sontag quote, but I’ve been thinking, too, so much lately about how much I think people need novels. I’ve been thinking of it in terms of skills — empathy, that willing to work and leap to enter with imagination and feeling into the lives of others; the ability to assess whether or not a story rings true, or seems to you somewhere that matters (and not just leaning on the fact that it’s being marketed to you as “true” and “real”). I hadn’t articulated it, but, yes, the fiction in so much news screams at me sometimes, they’re are so often such unconvincing, self-serving narratives, and I want to have the confidence (in me, in others) to insist on stories that make more sense or are at least more entertaining in the context of lived experience.
And that feeling you describe from being a kid of reading the news as a responsible citizen — so recognize that, and its erosion, too. I’m going to keep thinking about this. Thanks for writing it.
Thanks, Susan. I feel I instinctively knew you were that kind of kid too.
Thanks for a marvelous, thoughtful piece. I’m especially taken with the notion of news today as a work of speculative fiction in installments. Our hometown paper is the Washington Post, and we’ve groused for years that all it covers is the horse race of politics and not its substance. It’s all, Who’s up? Who’s down? Who will win? Who will lose? Never, What would be good for the country? It’s had an incredibly corrosive effect on public discourse, I think.
Precisely. It is. Thank you. And it is seductive to media outlets—it is easy to print, as speculation like that doesn’t require any reporting. It’s really just bloviating. But it creates a narrative around a figure or subject that becomes like amber, and whatever is inside is trapped. By the time the facts appear the facts don’t matter to people, who feel certain they know all they need to know already. It’s horrific.
Oh, also: “directly related to the destruction of public education.” YES! Amen! Shout it from the rooftops!
“By the time the facts appear the facts don’t matter to people, who feel certain they know all they need to know already. It’s horrific.”
Very true… and at the same time that this 24-hour conventional-wisdom cud-chewing model has been taking hold, actual reporting has been slashed by corporate bean-counters, with American print and broadcast news operations closing scores of bureaus around the country and the world.
So the facts may *never* appear. The basic fact-providing functionality of news has steadily atrophied. And the “journalists” don’t seem to notice or care.
I find that the BBC still does more sober, fact-oriented, and global journalism, at least compared to the contemporary American style. BBC World Service radio and the BBC evening newscast provide refreshing old-school alternatives to anything produced in this country.
Max, you’re so right. And yet it starts to feel so creepy, that they function for us that way. I remember being outside the country for the inauguration, in Europe, watching it from there, and I kept being so embarrassed at the American television by contrast. It would come on and I’d think, Oh God. I live…back there…
This is a beautifully written and reasoned post. It’s as if I can see each word as it takes you to the next. And that makes me think of Susan Sontag’s quote as well:
“the novel as the antidote to the modern problem of knowing too much about what is happening elsewhere”
I think reading novels, and writing them, is the way we make it personal. The way we, one by one, know about what is happening right here, with us. Which gives us the ability to feel something at the bottom of the lake and the desire to reach down and see what it is.
Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.
Yes, but also, I think it is related to causality—to being able to say in a series of links, this is related to this is related to this is related to this. And in the Bush era, when we saw the attack on science, on fact, on the known world, causality became dangerous because it implied culpability. And the Bush era was definitely about “Everything is wrong and no one is to blame.” The Obama era, in which we hoped for justice, and were met instead with “Look forward and not back,” turned out to also begin with a refutation of causality. The novel looks back.
but also forward, I believe…but there’s a link in the novel. I see.
I love the “series of links” idea, which, again, is the way your post reads.
Thanks! And yes. I think the best novels allow you to see the way the past shapes the present and then the future. And that this is why they still matter.
I think you are right–many are feeling it. Just this afternoon a friend was bemoaning almost exactly what you write about–media acting as if the elections that are months away were already decided, the easy dismissal of evidence and rejection of reason, and then she said, “It all goes back to the lack of education.” I thought of bell hooks, who talks about how worlds crack open when her students gain the tools of critical thinking.
Sometimes I think that reading or writing novels is a way to process: not the “what” but the “why” and also the “And then what? How did it us feel?”
Yes. This is precisely what bell hooks was speaking of and I think it’s safe to say the war on public education began as a way to stop that.
I agree that news has changed, but I don’t think the change is wholly internet-driven. It seems that over the past ten years or so, television news has become less news and more entertainment. There are television shows on the BBC dedicated to playing clips of Fox news. Americans entertain themselves with the news in the sado-masochistic way that you describe because it feeds their fears. The British watch American news programs to entertain themselves by laughing at Fox news and feeling superior to the Americans who produce it.
See the Charlie Brooker for an example of this: http://www.youtube.com/watch#!v=2aEk864YrKw&playnext_from=TL&videos=ePWQzPd2sW8
Of course, reading the British papers every week, I also realise that the British are full of it in their own special way, so I am a bit like you were as a youngster, reading the papers and then blogging about them.
I understand that you think it’s about entertainment and not the internet, except that with the experience I describe, what I like about newspapers is that I can’t click through to anything. My reading experience is finite. And as I don’t need to be baited into clicking on the article, the headlines are different. See David Carr’s column (he’s thinking about the same thing). Also, for me, there’s no longer a difference between tv and internet news and they do work synergistically now. I watch most of my tv now on the internet. I no longer do appointment television except for one show. If I ever see Maddow or any of those folks, it is on the web, in a clip off of Huffington Post. And yes, British media puts its own special twist on the culture of fear, though I’d add that given Murdoch’s influence on our culture, it may be this American version, and your British version, are something of an export from Australia.
Sorry, the name of Charlie Brooker program is Newswipe.
Good to know.