For half a millennium, across continents and civilizations, the human readership did almost nothing but grow and consolidate itself. Constantly more people in more and more places could read, and could read more books more cheaply, with increasing ease. And not only were they able to do this, but they chose to. It would be astonishing to learn, if some retrospective survey could be carried out, that hours per head spent reading didn’t increase across all capitalist or otherwise modernizing countries (most Communist regimes having been energetic promoters of literacy) until at least the middle of the past century.
A few years ago, the French thinker Régis Debray published a brilliant and suggestive essay placing the rise and decline of socialist movements within this frame of ever-greater literacy. The question of socialism can be bracketed for now. More relevant, for the future of reading in general and novel-reading in particular, is Debray’s periodization scheme, in which an immemorial logosphere—the spoken-word realm of the great religions, whose holy texts had been pronounced by God, transcribed and commented on by a small caste of literate men, and received as gospel by an unlettered general population—was succeeded, starting in 1464, with the invention of Gutenberg’s press, by a spreading graphosphere, in which an oral relationship to words was supplemented, for mounting numbers of ordinary people, by a literate relationship to them. The demi-millenium of the graphosphere lasted, on Debray’s account, until 1968, dawn of the videosphere.
The status of 1968 as a watershed no doubt seems more inevitable, less merely convenient, for a Frenchman of Debray’s generation than for an American born after the event. Still, the shift he describes is unmistakable. It’s not, of course, that inhabitants of the videosphere no longer read, any more than residence in the graphosphere made it impossible to attend the Latin Mass. And the diffusion of radio, decades before TV, had already overlaid the graphosphere with a new kind of electronic orality. So had movie theaters projecting black and white films offered a prewar premonition of the videosphere. But, starting sometime in the first decades after the Second World War, people in the west began to read less (as studies from different countries, including the US, confirm), and what they did read, according to Debray, exercised less sway over them than what they saw in printed or—especially—moving images.
To the logosphere corresponds the dominance of the spoken and heard; to the graphosphere, that of the written and read; and to the videosphere, that of mass-produced audiovisuals received electronically. And Debray aligns other changes with the “mediological” ones. Time itself, once experienced as a circle of eternal repetition, becomes, in the graphosphere, a line of progress charging into the future, before lapsing, in our era, into a series of discrete “presents” distributed around current events. So does the logosphere’s central myth of the saint turn into that of the hero—the hero of novels as well as biographies and history books—which myth of significant action then gives way, with the videosphere, to a celebrity myth predicated on the apprehension of glamorous being. Likewise, the “basis of symbolic authority” is transferred from the invisible (God), to the legible (History), and then to the visible (the Spectacle). The “status of the individual” shifts from subject (“to be commanded”) to citizen (“to be persuaded”) to consumer (“to be seduced”). History is never as neat as the schemas laid across it, but most people will recognize that Debray’s three-act drama has accurately captured its drift.
The English version of his essay—called “Socialism: A Life Cycle”—is based on the French original from 1991. In other words, it doesn’t take into account the most significant, not to say contradictory, development for literacy in the years since the demise of the USSR, namely the advancing norm, at least among the global middle class, of what has been called an “always-on” relationship to the multifarious streaming and downloadable content of the internet. This change is not identical with the mass migration online, over dial-up connections, of circa 1994; it arrived only with constant broadband access over portable devices capable of reproducing streaming sounds and images as unerringly as letters and punctuation. Less than a decade ago, it was still almost always easier to open up whatever light and portable paperback book you were in the middle of reading than to avail yourself of any other medium. The only real competition for ease of access was the morning newspaper—already stale by evening—or the Discman, in which you had just the one CD. As for the TV, it restricted you to the living room, and imposed the networks’ schedules. Now, with the advent of tablet computing, we contemplate a world in which watching videos or movies, listening to music, or reading what used to be called “the press” and should now maybe be called “commentary,” will for the most part be activities as convenient, as constantly available, as reading a paperback book once was (and remains). In the contest for our attention, literature had previous rivals in film, TV, radio, and more ephemeral writing; the difference today lies in the availability of all these others things all the time. A playing field once tilted to the advantage of the cheap and portable book has been leveled.
The always-on, un-turn-off-able internet obviously enlarges the videosphere. But it has also yielded a digital graphosphere, as it were, and in this way appears, at first blush, as if it might slow or even reverse an otherwise inexorable eclipse of literary culture. And in a sense this is the case. Yet while the online universe of texts obviously includes whole books, for purchase or in the public domain, it is dominated by a different kind of writing: news articles, blog posts, op-ed type arguments or polemics, short diary entries, updates, announcements, reviews, advertisements, readers’ comments, and so on. The main species of online writing might all be said to belong to the family of “commentary” rather than what is still sometimes called (though not usually without embarrassment) “literature.” They have, that is, a sort of secondary status to whatever primary object they comment on; they are prompted by and dependent on some other object or event, whether a commercial product, a recent private experience, a news story, someone else’s political opinion, a song or book, or whatever. This is not to disdain commentary for its failure to be primary rather than secondary, only to attempt to suggest its difference from literature. Literature, you might say, transforms the world into an illustration of the text, while commentary’s relationship to the world is more like that of a caption to a photograph or a wall-paragraph to a painting.
The news article that formed the germ of Madame Bovary might serve as an example of commentary, and Flaubert’s novel as one of literature. At the unmarked border between the literature and commentary, the regions may be hard to tell apart. But on the whole the climates are distinct for the different natures and longevities of the creatures they support. The would-be piece of literature may not last for decades and generations, but it wants to. The article of commentary may not vanish from everyone’s mind after a lifespan measured in days and weeks, but it expects to.
The difference recalls that between labor and work in Hannah Arendt. “Labor,” as she defines it, flows into goods whose twofold character is to be used up by
consumption and to erase the discrete contribution of the individual laborer. “Work,” on the other hand, yields durable objects whose utility is not destroyed by the use of them, and which bear the lasting impress of the individual artisan. Presumably writing will always be like more work, in this sense, than a job as a short-order cook, but if, as Arendt held, the tendency of the modern world is to establish “a waste economy, in which things must be almost as quickly devoured and discarded as they appear in the world,” this process would seem to be overtaking prose along with everything else.
So the internet seems likely to reinforce, rather than overturn, the graphosphere’s subordinate relationship to the videosphere, with the role of writing as a whole resembling viewers’ comments on YouTube. There are a lot of these comments, some of them very clever, but they’re not where the action’s at.
This eclipse of the graphosphere by some kind of digitosphere—a videosphere combined with a blogosphere—seems to be the context in which to place the future of the novel. In the literary culture of the past few hundred years, novels dominate the landscape like a mountain range, but one that is even more impressive for its massive centrality than for the heights of its summits. Unquestionably some of the towering books of modern times were novels, but other peaks, more isolated but just as high, were thrust up by philosophy, poetry, history, economics, autobiography, psychoanalysis, anthropology, et cetera. So the eminence of the novel in literary culture owed nothing to any monopoly on greatness. It derived instead from the novel’s special status as a popular form, written by and for amateurs rather than scholars, that could nevertheless achieve true artistry, that could be at once “of the best” and “of the (middle-class) people.” Familiarity with good or great novels, even if there wasn’t so much as a handful of them that everybody had read, connected all literary or educated people into a society of book-readers.
The inherent amateurishness of the novel, of its writers and implied readers alike, seems vital in this. Not that no authors relied on writing novels to make a living; obviously many did and do. But (as the fictional novelist Bill Gray remarked in Mao II) the novel was essentially a democratic form, and writing one a feat that potentially anybody could pull off at least once. Among the audience, even less expertise or specialization was required. To read a novel you had to be literate and to take an interest in life as it’s lived by individuals, and that was about it. The great novelistic subjects—manners, family, growing-up, alienation, friendship, nostalgia, running away, love—tended to be things everyone had experienced, feared, or fantasized about. The novel portrayed common elements of life in a way that could be commonly understood, something true even in the case of the more rebarbative texts of the avant-garde. Malone Dies or The Waves or The Dead Father may have taxed some people’s patience, but they didn’t really defeat anybody’s powers of cognition; a few exceptions prove the rule that there’s no such thing as “difficult fiction,” an expression favored by people who never read anything truly difficult at all. Fundamentally, the novel implied that ordinary language and untutored insight furnished adequate devices for the understanding of individual life, and that prose was their proper medium. An economist or psychologist or sociologist would naturally possess a store of knowledge about his discipline, and therefore about the world, that a nonspecialist lacked, but the same scholar had to stand and face his own life—only one tidy corner of which could be illumined in technically economic, psychological, or sociological terms—with the same basic ignorance and amateurishness uniting everybody else, including the novelist. Even a middle-aged person too busy with work and family to read novels still knew that no other book than a novel could be written about his life that would do the least justice to that life in its complex way of taking place, as it had to, simultaneously in his head, in his household, in his society, and in history. The novel formed the shared culture of a literate secular society trying to apprehend life, or at least feeling that in principle life could be apprehended, through the medium of fictional narrative prose. Whatever far reaches of scholarship, analysis, introspection, or euphony any other variety of writing attained, there was as much justice as arrogance in what D. H. Lawrence said: “Being a novelist, I consider myself superior to the saint, the scientist, the philosopher, and the poet, who are all great masters of different bits of man alive, but never get the whole hog.”
Lawrence’s boast, however, made more sense in a culture where he could also refer to the novel as “the one bright book of life,” where life itself could be pictured as essentially book-like and typographical rather than patterned after religious iconography (as in the past we’ve left behind) or flowing audiovisual imagery (as in the future we seem to have breached). A few weeks ago as I write this, Jonathan Franzen asked rhetorically, “Haven’t we all secretly sort of come to an agreement, in the last year or two or three, that novels belonged to the age of newspapers and are going the way of newspapers, only faster?”
If the prevailing feeling is right and the novel—that massif central in the literary landscape of the last three hundred years—is sinking from view, its subsidence also indicates the submersion of an entire continent of mass literacy. The novel was the common ground of book readers. For it to become a marginal form (regardless of how many autobiographical novels, whose scenes and dialogues draw as much from invention as from memory, are classed as “memoirs”) can only presage the marginalization of the amateur reading of book-length texts altogether, whether these appear as pixels on a screen or ink on paper. A literary culture without the novel at its center is likely to be a literary culture that isn’t central to the broader culture either. Excellent long texts of all kinds will still be written, but these will form islands and archipelagoes off the digital mainland.
Can anything turn the tide? The solicitations of our attention made by streaming media and digital commentary seem too seductive for resistance to take hold on any mass scale. Many individuals and some communities and institutions will no doubt continue to choose a form of life in which awareness of the world is shaped more by the great invisible analytic categories of a bookish culture—history, society, psychology, and so forth: all things that can’t be captured, except crudely, by any audiovisual recording technology or animated equivalent—but it would probably require a comprehensive revolution, in the socioeconomic sense, or widespread technological collapse, or else some combination of the two, for the decline of literature into parasitism and internal exile to be arrested. Even then, if the revolution were of the wrong kind, or the plunge into collapse too deep, mass literacy would only erode further.
In the meantime the culture of literature, as opposed to that of commentary, threatens to become a subculture instead, or, better, a counterculture. This development alone would supply plenty of material and occasion for great writing, and even a quorum of readers. No one can deny the extraordinary achievements of vernacular writers in the 15th through 17th centuries, when mass literacy had barely begun to touch the countryside in which the vast majority of Europeans and North Americans still resided, and it’s worth remembering that it took until roughly middle of the 19th century before a majority of people could read even in Protestant countries and in France. There is no reason to suppose that the waning of the graphosphere will be any less brilliant than the waxing. Still, the form and content, the scope and tone, the mode and manner of future great work will be marked by the valedictory situation in which literature now has to (silently, without moving its lips) pronounce its words.