Is Literature Dying?

Daulton Dickey.

The Failing Health of Fiction

Here’s a thought experiment: close your eyes and create a mental image of a novel, any novel, and by that, we mean a physical book. Then create a mental image of the novel transmogrifying into a person. Now imagine this person’s health. Imagine he or she’s lying on a bed in a hospital, attached to machinery seemingly plucked from a Terry Gilliam film. One glitch, one unplugged cord, one kink in a tube or a wire and the person dies.

images (1)Now imagine transforming that person back into a book, and imagine the book is a work of fiction, specifically genre or literary fiction. The health of fiction depends on innovation and new ideas. Argue to the contrary, and you’ll make an argument based solely on commerce.

“Books x, y, and z are successful; therefore fiction isn’t dead,” which is true: fiction isn’t dead. But it’s dying. Like the imagine patient above, fiction is on life support. We can attribute many causes to this state of affair, such as the rise of home entertainment and video games, the internet and smartphones and augmented reality, which certainly plays a part. However, to argue on those terms alone is, at least to a degree, to argue beside the point.

Fiction is dying in part because it offers nothing new. Few writers take chances.

Nothing new is said, nothing new is learned, nothing new is offered—the appearances might change, but the forms remain the same.

A cliché persists in our culture encouraging you to become part of the system so you can change the system. Change comes only from within, as the punchline to a Buddhist joke goes. This cliché is illusory, meant to persuade people to embrace the system. It’s propagated to inculcate conformity.

Like culture itself, fiction is homogenized while assuming the appearance of heterogeny. Marketing and propaganda—selling the concept of individuality—allows for the perseverance of the illusion. And in an image-obsessed culture, appearances are everything.

Another cliché with which we’re familiar warns us to refrain from judging a book by its cover. In reality, we should judge a book by its form. Form should supersede appearance. But, in accordance with our species, a peculiar mammal in possession of cognitive abilities to process and model information linearly, form itself remains the same while appearances change.

In an age of movies and television, video games and the internet, fiction must change. It cannot excel at telling stories—especially linear stories—the way visual or interactive media can; instead, fiction should transcend the simulacrum and represent new and alternate ways to experience simulated or emulated realities, which is the function of fiction: to simulate or emulate hypothetical worlds, what some people, in fits of delusion, might call “reality.”

Contrary to early Wittgenstein, language doesn’t picture “reality”; instead, it provides instructions for your brain to construct models.

Fiction, even so-called realism, has nothing to do with what we colloquially call “reality.” The “written word,” as it’s sometimes called, consists of nothing more than symbols we learn to decode and, based on how we decode them, based on the convergence of our personal experiences, cognitive biases, and our abilities to process information, we construct these models from the instructions writers provide us.

Experience of what we call “reality” is a product of our brains. Each of us “experiences” “reality” through cognitive processes that render models, and, therefore, “experiences,” based on information received through our sense organs.

Similarly, our experience of time is linear: we experience the linearity of time via memories—themselves constructions based on stored information—which links our present to the past and projections we make about the future.

It is our present that links the past and the future, and our present is never-changing. By that I mean we cannot escape it. We obtain only in the present, which, for us, is the eternal now, the period in which we inhabit from birth until death. We might re-experience the past via memories, we might experience possible futures via what we can loosely call “imagination,” but those “experiences” are themselves models, and they are not as clear or as immediate as our experiences of the eternal now.

It’s possible that we’ve co-opted our abilities to experience linear time and have used those experiences as templates on which we base our means of telling stories—personal anecdotes, works of fiction, and so on. This, we should note, is speculation.

In short, we as humans “experience” “reality” as models constructed by our brains, and we also “experience” stories as models constructed by our brains.

The way we tell these stories, and the details we use to color them, simulate or emulate imageswhat we call “reality.” And since the processes are similar, if not identical, we can find ourselves absorbed by stories. We can find ourselves empathizing with, or loathing, characters in these stories, which we construct based on information provided to us by the storyteller, despite the media: either orally or via the “written word.”

As readers, we “experience” the “reality” of the “written word.” Even if we accept from the outset that what we’re reading is fiction, the “experience” provided by our cognitive processes can seduce us in fashions similar to how our cognitive processes seduce and manipulate us.

This is the appeal of storytellers: they seduce us into constructing models in ways similar, if not identical, to how we construct models of “reality.”

Such seduction appeals to us: it’s possible that it reinforces our conviction that our “experience” of “reality” is an unbiased and unfiltered interaction with “objective reality,” as if such a thing even obtains.

To put it bluntly, stories, as constructed by our cognitive processes, reinforce our “experiences,” our models, of “reality.”

Now ask yourself this: what if it’s possible for forms to alter our “experiences?” What if it’s possible for forms to alter how we construct models? What if it’s possible for forms to affect how we “experience” what we colloquially refer to as “reality,” even if those “experiences” occur only within the context of the act of reading—and doesn’t extend beyond that.

But since we only ever “experience” the eternal now, our “experience” while we’re reading can alter our “realities” in the eternal now in which we dedicate to constructing models based on instructions provided by writers and storytellers.

What are you rambling on about? you might ask.

Well, I might respond, I’m pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of fiction.

To create new and imagined worlds, to render versions of our world, to evoke emotions in readers—these are a few examples of the strengths of fiction. But when formulae, marketing, and corporate publishing houses exploit fiction as a commodity, we’re stuck with variations of the same two dozen or so novels.

The appearances might differ from novel to novel, but the forms remain the same.

The forms must change.

The stagnation of fiction in the twenty-first century is the result of the vanquishing of the avant-garde.

Historically, the avant-garde bloomed on the margins and, through the force of its power or innovation, slowly permeated the center.

Once it permeated the center, it transformed into the new paradigm. When this transformation occurred, other avant-garde movements replaced it; they grew in the margins and permeated the center, either altering the paradigms or refining them—sometimes in radical ways, sometimes in subtle ways.

Modern fiction—and this has long been the case, but the proliferation of a corporate consumer culture has heightened this state—is a commodity meant to appeal to the broadest audiences possible.

Publishers appeal to broad audiences by inundating them with similar or identical forms, forms predicated on our “experiences” of “linear time,” forms with which we are intimately familiar.

In short, we’re more likely to embrace what we’re intimately and immediately familiar with.

This familiarity doesn’t necessarily occur on a conscious level. Although the appearances may change—“realism,” “magical realism,” “thriller,” “suspense,” “horror,” “science fiction,” and so on—the forms remain more or less unchanged.

Simply put, the form attempts to simulate or emulate “linear time”: beginning, middle, and end.

We shouldn’t mistake “form” for “story.” A story is the appearance grafted onto a form. Even when the story might assume a non-linear appearance, the forms remains linear. Pulp Fiction is a great example: although the story itself is non-linear, the form retains a traditional three-act structure.

A tower of used booksOr take a novel like Cloud Atlas: the appearance assumes an avant-garde appearance, but the form is similar, if not identical to, traditional forms.

Infinite Jest and Naked Lunch are exceptions: their forms are radical departures from traditional forms, and they each influenced generations of writers, evidence that the margins can influence the center.

But in the digital age—in an age even more obsessed with image and formulae than the age in which Burroughs saw the publication of Naked Lunch or Wallace saw the publication of Infinite Jest, the latter a little over two decades ago—focus has tightened on the center, and the margins are imperceptible.

Writers, agents, publishers almost unanimously dismiss, ignore, or aren’t even aware of the avant-garde, of fiction subverting or altering the forms with which we are familiar.

Not only does this negligence vanquish the avant-garde, it also limits and restricts our abilities to model our “experiences” of our “realities” in new and different ways.

These limitations are detrimental to the subjective nature of human beings inculcated by restrictive forms and homogenized cultural norms. In effect, restricting our models to the familiar restricts the possibilities of “experiencing” “reality” differently, and of thinking differently.

The death of the avant-garde is a harbinger of the death of individuality: in a culture inundating us with similar or identical forms, we’re forced to “experience” “reality” as homogeneity, as conformity masquerading as individualism.


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daultondickeyDaulton Dickey is a novelist, poet, and content creator currently living in Indiana with his wife and kids. He’s the author of A Peculiar Arrangement of Atoms: StoriesStill Life with Chattering Teeth and People-Shaped Things, and other storiesElegiac Machinations: an experimental novella, and Bastard Virtues, a novelRooster Republic Press will publish his latest novel, Flesh Made World, later this year. Contact him at daultondickey[at]yahoo[dot]com.


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