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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Impermanent Novel

posted by on March 20 at 11:41 AM

Here you can read an essay that Susan Sontag wrote before her death in 2004. The essay essentially argues that the novel is still the leading medium for human expression.

Long ago - it was the 18th century - a great and eccentric defender of literature and the English language - it was Doctor Johnson - wrote, in the preface to his Dictionary: “The chief glory of every people arises from its authors.” An unconventional proposition, I suspect, even then. And far more unconventional now, though I think it’s still true. Even at the beginning of the 21st century. Of course, I am speaking of the glory that is permanent, not transitory.

Later, Susan Sontag adds that the novel is “an ideal vehicle both of space and of time. The novel shows us time: that is, everything doesn’t happen at once. (It is a sequence, it is a line.) It shows us space: that is, what happens doesn’t happen to one person only.”

How do we read this error, this clear mistake? At the moment death is at her door, Sontag, a novelist, is trying to find something that is “permanent, not transitory.” And because she is a novelist, that permanent thing happens to be the novel. But that is not the point. The point is this: The novel was once the leading medium for human expression. It does not lead the 21st century. Nor did it lead the 20th century. The novel had its moment in the 19th century, as “the ideal vehicle” for expressing middle class space and time. Cinema is really the leading narrative art form, and even it is dying. It will be surpassed by another narrative vehicle, in the way it surpassed the novel, and the novel surpassed theater.

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i mostly agree, charles, though this raises some interesting questions. what will be the new narrative vehicle? some sort of web based, interactive text/video/audio medium? will viewers/readers play a more participatory role in the creation of the narrative?

likewise, what will happen to cinema if it is displaced? i imagine giant flatscreens with cinematic wallpaper (like how warhol wanted his films to function).

Posted by dna | March 20, 2007 11:56 AM

dna,part of my answer is here

Posted by charles mudede | March 20, 2007 12:01 PM

Nice essay Charles, especially liked this quote.

"The 20th century was not primarily narrated by architecture, or by novels, but film. Dickens, Dostoevsky, Melville were replaced by Chaplin, Tarkovsky and Kubrick."

The three former artists were undoubtedly more gifted. Thankfully the 20th Century is behind us. The internet has brought back the written form to challenge the calculating and dumbing down visual media.

Posted by jonathan | March 20, 2007 12:23 PM

The problem with the idea that cinema has replaced the novel as "the leading medium for human expression" is that it requires vast amounts of money to make a movie that someone who isn't a film geek would ever want to watch. It depresses me to think that "human expression" is available only to the wealthy, or to the friends of the very wealthy. Granted, the novel is an art form available only to those with the free time to write one, but that is a much less exclusive club, and in any case "free time" is always going to be the minimum cost of entry into any artistic medium.

Posted by Eric | March 20, 2007 12:25 PM

I think novels replaced poetry more than they replaced theater-- that one you can also chalk up to cinema.

Posted by Megan | March 20, 2007 12:30 PM

dna, if you'd like to know what will happen to cinema when it is displaced, you need only to look at any other form, style, or medium which has ceased to significantly develop and lost its cultural primacy: jazz, the blues, painting, poetry, opera, ballet, the theater, symphonic music, the daily newspaper, and the magazine could all serve as models. Generally, nothing happens to them. They continue to exist, and some people continue to create in their domains; the only differences are that they become fixed in conservative modes (classical or mannerist), and less people are interested in them.

Posted by Eric F | March 20, 2007 12:39 PM

oh, and "Eric": there are too many Erics who post on this blog, including current and former Stranger staff, for you to go by our given name alone.

Posted by Eric F | March 20, 2007 12:41 PM

eric f, that's not true. take a look at how painting developed in the 20th century. as cinema emerged as a most powerful medium for visual narrative, painters looked to non-narrative means of visual expression in painting, and explored the uniqueness of their medium.

Posted by dna | March 20, 2007 1:49 PM

Possibly true, but then how does the internet become a material support, a concrete, fetish object?

Posted by billy | March 20, 2007 2:08 PM

It's not as simple as "this will kill that," though I love that Hugo bit as much as Mudede does. There can be parallel developments. In any case, painting is generally set against photography, not cinema. I'd set cinema against television, broadcast television against on-demand and DVDs, television against early video art, cinema against late video art... all very messy but, I think, very interesting. Migration of forms, they call it in architectural history.

Posted by Eric F | March 20, 2007 2:14 PM

Okeydoke, Eric F., your point is taken. From now on, the infrequent Slog commenter formerly known as "Eric", not to be confused with "eric" or "Eric F.", will answer to "Eric from Boulder". With apologies to "Matt from Denver".

Posted by Eric from Boulder | March 20, 2007 2:55 PM

Yep, probably. The reaction to this should not be fear or retrogressive action but to fearlessly MAKE at the edge of the present form central to the world consciousness. (Or to circle back and be a part of the fine fading of a form.) The movement forward is not like a landmass shifting and burying but like the sea, waves crashing on a beach and drawing back, sending up parts of themselves again and again in new forms. Tarkovsky's films include poetry (and man could he write), Chaplin was as theatrical as anything in film, and Kubrick came out of painting and photography as much as anything with true 'talking pictures'. Art isn't about contests: Ivan's Childhood doesn't have to go in the ring with Great Expectations (I wouldn't give up either one). The only film I've ever seen that read just like a book, at its speed and density, was Heaven's Gate.

Posted by Grant Cogswell | March 21, 2007 12:34 AM

Interactive, immersive gaming environments will thrive. They'll become enormously detailed and complex, and profoundly social. I'd like to know how to write one.

Posted by Matthew Stadler | March 21, 2007 12:44 AM

I mention these interactive gaming environments because I think they -- more than films -- are a kind of "new novel," a new way to do the things a novel does well. The novel is a political space where writer and reader are both given agency. Meanings are negotiated between roughly equivalent powers: the writer and the reader. Less so with films. The viewer of a film cannot control pace and sequence the way a reader can. The film-maker enjoys a predominance of control over the medium's meanings. Interactive games are much more like novels in this respect. One is never in control nor ever powerless. I think this is the essential pleasure and power of the novel.

Posted by Matthew Stadler | March 21, 2007 12:57 AM

Oh, and Erics: why don't you all just use your last names? Then I'll always know when my favorite Erics are posting, rather than having to guess.

Posted by Matthew Stadler | March 21, 2007 12:59 AM

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