The Future of Literature in the Age of Information

Information technology made Plato anxious. Writing, he feared, would lead people to abandon their memory, to trust in “external characters which are no part of themselves.” Now we find ourselves living through a new revolution in information technology, one with consequences every bit as dramatic and likely even more profound. How could we not be anxious? Our old ways of communicating are either becoming obsolete or finding themselves dramatically ‘repurposed’ before our very eyes.

            Including the grandest one of all: literature.

            Literature is one of those categories that have vexed the human intellect for centuries. Typically we think of the classics – Shakespeare, Melville, Joyce, and so on – when we think of literature. If we don’t know exactly what it is, we like to think we know what it looks like. In other words, we use resemblance as our primary criterion. And indeed when you look at the output of contemporary literary authors you find no shortage of family resemblances: lyricism of prose, thematic sophistication, quotidian subject matters, and of course the all important yen for experimentation.

            The morphology of what we like to call literature has remained fairly stable since at least the beginning of the twentieth century. The ‘norms of representation’ have been smashed and gratuitously rearranged; the protagonist has been subjected to endless sessions of existential water torture; the language has been stripped pornographically bare and heaped with gaudy ornamentation, again and again and again. All the patterns have become easily recognizable, so much so that you can typically identify a literary piece within the first few sentences of reading. Literature, as it is typically understood, is a very distinct cultural animal. Most of us can smell it even before it comes into view.

            The problem, I would like to argue, is one of habitat. The fact is, the baroque morphology of literature belongs to a far different social and technological environment than our own. We are presently witnessing what is already the most profound transformation of human communication in history (short of the written word, maybe). The internet, the smartphone, the tablet, satellite and cable on-demand television, market segmentation, algorithmic marketing: the list of game-changers goes on and on. Make no mistake, we are talking about social and semantic habitat destruction without compare. The old rainforests of culture have been cleared away, and literature, with its prehensile hands and brachiating arms, now reaches for heights it can no longer climb and stares into distances it can no longer see.            

             No generation has witnessed such a sudden change in cultural environment, period. And yet, if anything, the health of the literary animal seems entirely unaffected. When Professor John Mullan of University College was recently asked by The Guardian to provide an overview of the ‘state of British literary fiction,’ he called it “one of the most extraordinary publishing phenomena of recent decades.”

            Mullan paints his own picture of social transformation, one where the slow trickle of writers and readers through the post-secondary bottleneck has managed to rewrite the culture of reading. On the composition side, he notes the explosion in creative writing programs, and how almost all writers of literary fiction have some sort of university background. On the reception side, he notes that “there are more graduates from literature, especially English literature, degrees than ever.”

            The situation is precisely opposite what Alvin Kernan predicted in The Death of Literature some twenty years ago: far from killing literature (by adopting postmodern critiques of its rationale in a time profound social change), academia has transformed it into a cultural juggernaut. In the course of teaching theory and the classics, universities have inadvertently produced both the suppliers and the consumers of literary fiction, to the point where work that was once the province of intellectual avant garde movements now enjoys mass consumption and pride of place in many media. The results are so profound that Mullan dares imagine the unthinkable: that far from retreating “before the forces of electronic media and consumer idiotism,” higher literacy is carrying the day. 

            Assuming that this account applies to the whole English speaking world as much as Britain, you might say that the literary animal is flourishing. Somehow, the implication seems to be, the ongoing communication revolution has all but passed literature over, allowing an old institution, the university, to bring about a happy revolution all its own. Far from threatened with extinction, literature is thriving in the age of information technology…

            So why does it all feel so, well, dusty?

            To be sure, not everyone in the literary world shares Mullan’s triumphal outlook. The sales figures may be difficult to argue with, but for many this is more cause for worry than celebration. In his notorious “Where Have All the Mailers Gone?” Lee Siegel declares that “fiction has become a museum-piece genre,” that readers wanting to be challenged and illuminated had better turn to nonfiction. In his most recent interview in The Guardian, Gabriel Josipovici, author of What Ever Happened to Modernism? claims that the recent efflorescence so extolled by Mullan is little more than “prep-school boys showing off.”

            A kind of shadowy consensus has grown among certain critics and academics that something has gone drastically wrong in the world of literature, that far from healthy, the literary animal is in fact dead or on death’s door. Everyone has their own diagnosis: for Siegel it is the professionalization of what should be a vocation; for Josipovici it is a failure of nerve and imagination in the face of market temptation. But for most all of them, the problem is that literature, despite all the ways it resembles literary works from days gone by, no longer does what it once did. Where’s the scandal? Where’s the daring? The revelation?

            The tendency among these critics is to gloss the communications revolution and blame the practitioners, to think the problem is primarily one of execution. Literature isn’t doing what it’s supposed to do because contemporary literary writers and editors are too institutionalized, too timid or too inept. But what if the old morphology is to blame?

            What if information technology has so transformed the social and economic conditions of literature, that the old forms are simply no longer capable of reliably producing literary effects?

            In order to be stable, communication must mutually benefit both the sender and the receiver, otherwise the incentive to communicate evaporates. Receivers typically assess the value of any communication through what is called trust calibration, where we evaluate the motives of the sender, and coherence checking, where we evaluate the ‘fit’ between the message and our background beliefs. If a cold-calling salesperson makes a pitch, we close the door because we don’t trust their motives. If an otherwise trusted friend tells us something we think outlandish, we change the topic to avoid arguing at the dinner table. All communication is biased toward ingroup identification and a shared background of beliefs and assumptions.

            We have a strong inclination, in other words, to ‘talk amongst ourselves.’

            As antithetical to ‘unfettered creative expression’ as this social psychological approach sounds, it actually provides a clear way to understand something essential to literary communication. Literature, you could say, is the kind of narrative message that challenges rather than reinforces our background assumptions. If a given form of narrative reinforces assumptions, then it is quite simply not literature, no matter what it resembles. This is why we think literature has a special relationship with risk: a literary communication is one where the sender actively works against the coherence of his or her message relative to some reader. It is inherently unstable.

            Or should be.

            This is the reason we should be suspicious of the stability of the happy picture offered by Mullan. In Mullan’s account, literary fiction has evolved into what could only be called a spectacular ingroup exercise: thousands of university trained writers writing for millions of university trained readers. As a product of the same institution, the sender can be trusted to provide content that will readily conform to the receiver’s background beliefs. No matter what purported difficulty they encounter, they can be sure that it will fit. In Mullan’s account, the literary animal is so healthy simply because it lives in a communicative zoo, a place where no one need fear that the animal does anything really unexpected because everyone has been trained to anticipate its wiles.

            Human beings are parochial, blinkered creatures, loathe to relinquish any number of injurious views no matter what their political stripe. The social value of literature has always turned on its ability to reveal and mitigate these shortcomings, to ‘shake things up,’ and so, bit by corrosive bit, effect cultural reform. But doing this requires forming stable communicative relationships despite the absence of ‘fit’ between the sender’s and receiver’s default assumptions. Not an easy thing to do. This is why ‘finding the reader’ has always been the great problem faced by literary fiction, so much so that posterity is ritually called upon to redeem its insularity: as a form of communication antagonistic to existing conditions of communication, it often has to wait for the rest of the world to catch up.

            And this, I want to argue, is where the information revolution becomes a fundamental game-changer.

            Time and place have always been the great communicative constraints. Before the advent of writing, senders and receivers always had to communicate face to face. Writing more or less banished time from the equation, and minimized the importance of geography to a certain degree. The printing press revolutionized the economics, and therefore the efficiencies of this first great transformation. And now, with information technology, both time and place have been rendered moot, more or less. We can receive communiques from Plato anywhere at anytime.

            The great communication constraint of today has to do with sorting, finding those communications that you want in an ocean of shouting pixels. Whole industries have sprung up around the problem of finding in the internet age. And with them, the old world of connecting suppliers and buyers has been utterly swept away.

            Armed with ever more sophisticated ways of gathering consumer information, and ever more powerful mathematical tools for mining and interpreting that information, suppliers have been able to segment markets and target buyers in ways their business forebears could scarce imagine. The tools have become so powerful, in fact, that many commentators, like Stephan Baker, author of The Numerati, worry we are turning ourselves into ‘data serfs,’ slaves to the very systems that anticipate our merest desires. For the bulk of human history, need has driven the economic connection of supplier and buyer. The industrial revolution ushered in the advent of want as the main economic driver. We are now entering what might be called the Age of Whimsy.

            As a luxury good, the literary novel is an artifact of the Age of Want, a time when suppliers could only connect with buyers in bulk, lumping large populations together in the hope of hitting ‘targets’ they could never definitively define. Relying on ‘hunches’ rather than hard data, suppliers had to take a ‘shot-gun’ approach. The result was a far more amorphous marketplace, one where the chances of forming less than optimal supplier-buyer connections were relatively high.

            In the publishing industry, the connection of suppliers and buyers is at once the connection of senders and receivers, simply because this latter, communicative connection is the very commodity supplied. The ‘misses’ of the former actually facilitated the possibility of less-than-stable connections between senders and receivers. The literary writer could, as the truism goes, ‘write for themselves,’ according to their own want and whimsy, confident that the inefficiencies of the system would allow them to ‘find their reader,’ receivers with incompatible background beliefs. At the same time, you might imagine that buyer-receivers, who were accustomed to misses, would be more prone to forgive discrepancies, to ‘settle’ for less than stable communicative relationships and so be more open to literary experiences.

            The last two decades have all but swept this social and economic environment away. The kinds of preference parsing algorithms behind Amazon’s ubiquitous, ‘You might also like…’ feature allow suppliers to target buyers with uncanny accuracy and provide us with exactly what we want. The problem is that we want to be right. Even though challenging background beliefs typically benefits everyone, human beings are averse to criticism. We are literally hardwired to seek out confirmation and to overlook or dismiss incompatible information. As a consequence marketing algorithms such as those employed by Amazon typically connect readers with novels that accord with their attitudes and assumptions.

            The ‘flat world,’ it turns out, is an increasingly sycophantic one.

            In the Age of Whimsy, the ever increasing efficiency with which suppliers connect with buyers assures that ‘writing for yourself’ amounts to writing to people like yourself, to people who (thanks to the indoctrinating power of the university system) share the bulk of your values and attitudes. ‘Writing for yourself’ now means writing books entirely amenable to trust calibration and coherence checking, and so forging communicative relationships as stable as any other form of commercial fiction.

            To ‘write for yourself,’ you might say, is in the process of becoming indistinguishable from ‘selling out.’ Literary fiction is becoming precisely what you might expect given the way information technology is transforming markets: a fixed form with a dedicated audience.

            One genre among many.

            In other words, writing literary fiction today amounts to writing entertainment in the guise of writing literature. Some authors, such as Jonathan Franzen, have retreated from the lofty concepts of our recent literary past, realizing that things have changed. Others, like Tom McCarthy, persist in making the same old claims and pronouncements, and talk of ‘disrupting’ a culture of receivers with which they have little or no connection. More and more, you find references to what might be called the ‘Ideal Philistine’ in literary culture, to people with dissenting beliefs who would be challenged by literary works, were they to read them.

            Where some have given up the literary ghost, others simply pretend that nothing has changed.

            Does this mean the information revolution has rendered genuine literary communication impossible? Not at all. Just as dramatic environmental change begets evolutionary innovations (like us), literary writers actually find themselves in a time of profound opportunity. Even as technology threatens the old literary animal with extinction, it has provided powerful tools for the evolution of something new, and perhaps even better.

            The primary dilemma for the contemporary literary author is simply this: how do you find a reader who doesn’t necessarily want to find you?

            The luxury of ‘writing for yourself’ is simply no longer an option. As should be clear by this point, the worst possible thing one could do is write literary fiction, serve a market where almost no one is challenged and nearly everyone is gratified. You need to be both more expansive and more savvy.

            So how do you find readers who don’t necessarily want to find you? In the absence of all the old inefficiencies, the literary author has to exploit the efficiencies of the new marketplace. Despite the dire pronouncements of recent years, the ‘reading public’ exists the same as before: according to the American Association of Publishers, 2010 book sales actually rose 3.6% over the 2009 calendar year. What has changed is all the socio-economic machinery between the author and the reader, machinery that the former can no longer afford to ignore. Since a work only produces literary effects relative to some audience of readers, literary authors need to know their readers. They need to identify audiences possessing dissenting values and attitudes. Then they need to either hijack or embrace the narrative forms most commonly marketed to them.

            This means all the old and largely unfounded prejudices against genre fiction must be set aside. Genre only seems antithetical to ‘literature’ because the literary have turned it into a flattering foil, abandoned it, in effect, leaving a rhetorical fog of self-congratulation in their wake. In my own case, I chose epic fantasy because I knew the best way to provoke readers with a narrative meditation on the nature and consequences of belief was to reach actual believers. And provoke I did. Other writers, like China Mieville, M. John Harrison, Gene Wolfe, John Crowley, to name just a few, are doing the same thing, producing work that is obviously literary, openly provocative, yet unheard of in literary circles for the simple sin of wearing wrong generic skin. These are the writers who are genuinely shaking things up, as opposed to hawking intellectual and aesthetic buzzes inside the literary echo chamber.

            Commercial genres must be seen for what they are, relatively fixed channels of communication to relatively dedicated audiences, not as ‘cages’ preventing some mythic ‘free expression.’ All channels of communication force senders to ‘play the game’ to reach a given group of receivers. English is such a game. The rules only seem coercive, ‘like work,’ when you don’t enjoy the game or if you think it’s ‘stupid’ or ‘beneath’ you. The literary author has to move past these old and embarrassing conceits. The idea is to play the margins, to play the game well enough to be identified as a ‘trusted sender’ by the receiver, all the while exploring ways to challenge their background assumptions.

            This is no easy task. Luckily, information technology has brought about a curious and potentially revolutionary reversal of the roles traditionally assigned to writers and readers. Before the internet, writers were almost exclusively senders and readers were almost exclusively receivers. The effort required to contact an author effectively restricted communication to ‘fan mail’ and ‘kaffeeklatches.’ This assured that most of the feedback a writer received would be complimentary, something useful for motivation perhaps, but not so useful for calibrating communicative tactics. Now, every author living is simply one ‘vanity google’ away from all stripes of unfiltered feedback from blogs, messageboards, and special interest sites (such as Goodreads).

            The internet allows the contemporary author to understand their readers better than at any time in modern history, simply because it allows them to literally see the consequences of their artistic decisions. This can become something of a masochistic exercise, to be sure, but if you are serious about writing something that actually challenges actual readers without scaring them away, then access to this kind of information is invaluable. Senders no longer have to rely on blind guesswork. In my own novels I have used the internet to craft everything from storylines that collapse pulp into philosophy, to protagonists designed to simultaneously gratify and deny the kinds of wish-fulfilment that underwrite ‘character identification’–things that no English department in the world teaches, let alone considers.

            The internet, in other words, allows the contemporary literary author to run genuine experiments. The old literary use of the term ‘experiment’ was largely specious: formal innovations in the absence of consequence testing can only be ‘for their own sake,’ or the sake of readers who have been trained to expect them. Thanks to the internet, I have been able to develop a fairly detailed understanding of which experiments have failed and which have succeeded. Once you adopt a genre as a vehicle for expression, everything becomes a matter of give and take. Some points are simply not worth scoring because they crash your communicative relationship with too many readers. Some tactics allow you to get away with ideological murder, if executed with enough elegance and momentum. Others end up having the exact opposite effect you intended!

            If there’s one thing the internet shows you as a writer, it’s that there is no such thing as ‘the Reader.’ As a writer you are communicating to populations of readers. And as a genre writer, you’re communicating to populations of readers with a far more eclectic set of background beliefs than you could ever hope to find in the ‘literary mainstream.’ Genre, in fact, is where you find most all the people who disagree.

            There’s a reason why only Harry Potter gets burned anymore.

            My argument is simple: To thrive in the fluid, multifarious information habitat of today, the literary animal must become a chameleon. Authors who want to be part of the cultural solution can no longer trust in posterity or the ‘power of their art’; they have to game the new social, economic, and technological conditions of their practice. Either you stick with literary resemblance, gratify your tastes and sense of superiority, and simply entertain (which is quite alright, so long as your rhetoric reflects as much), or you get serious about literary effects and begin creating the new, many-coloured literature of the information age.

            Even if you disagree with my analysis, there can be no doubt that the consequences of information technology imperil literature in a multitude of ways, only a few of which have been considered here. The threat is existential. Literary culture must reinvent itself or risk extinction: there can be no question about this.

            But will it?

            If Mullan is right, and universities are the primary engine of contemporary literary culture, then the prospects are dim simply because of the way academia is entrenched outside the demands of mainstream society. Short of some sweeping, generational change in ideological fashion, it has the demonstrated capacity to cling to its values, no matter how maladapted, in perpetuity.

            The fact that these values are so flattering, that readers and writers of literary fiction are so prone to identify themselves (despite their complicity) against ‘consumer idiocy,’ will only make them that much more difficult to dislodge. Concepts are bigots: if you identify yourself as literary, then you will automatically and unconsciously sort the ‘serious’ from the ‘silly’ in ways that conserve the literary status quo. Thanks to the psychological mechanisms of value attribution, we pass judgement with our every breath, no matter how ‘self-critical’ we pretend to be.

            Our brains have preference parsing algorithms of their own!

            And perhaps worst of all, these values allow the so-called literary writer to be lazy, to indulge their own tastes and assumptions under the guise of ‘making the world a better place.’ Wherever you find a high opinion, hypocrisy is never far.

            These three things, institutional inertia, value attribution, and good old-fashioned laziness all but guarantee years, if not decades, of denial and rationalization from literary culture. Defectors will be dismissed, lampooned, and ignored, the same as defectors from any other vested institution. This is why the path I’m advocating is sure to remain the lesser travelled one: It involves real professional risk and real creative toil.

            Something we once expected from our literary authors.