The New York Times Book Review of 23 August prints a review by Joshua Cohen (yes, that one, not the fictional Joshua Cohen who was ghostwriting the autobiography of that other Joshua Cohen in The Book of Numbers, recently published by Joshua Cohen, our guy). The book he reviews is Notes on the Death of Culture by Mario Vargas Llosa. In the course of the review Cohen writes “The subject of this one [non-fiction diatribe] is ‘our’ lack: of common culture, of common context, common sets of referents and allusions, and a common understanding of who or what that pronoun ‘our’ might refer to anymore, now that even papers of record have capitulated to individually curated channels and algorithmicized feeds. ‘Notes’ begins with a survey of the literature of cultural decline, focussing on Eliot’s ‘Notes Toward the Definition of Culture,’ before degenerating into a series of squibs — on Islam, the Internet, the preeminence of sex over eroticism and the spread of the yellow press — most of which began as columns in the Spanish newspaper El Pais. All of which is to say that Vargas Llosa’s cranky, hasty manifesto is made of the very stuff it criticizes: journalism.”
Why do people write this sort of nonsense? (I don’t mean Cohen.) If you can write stuff like this, and believe you have an audience that can understand it (i.e. has, and cares about, a culture), then by definition you must be writing nonsense. So by the very act of writing this stuff Vargas Llosa and others like him undercut the trite point they are making. These old guys need to protect against the temptation to groan on about how everything’s going to the dogs, unlike when they were young and on top of their game. Most reviewers seem to go along with the Nobel laureate’s doomsville thesis: The Scotsman is among the few exceptions. One interesting reaction comes from Reddit where Freakwent writes “Reading is not a prerequisite for culture, art is.”
Old fogeys have always feared the end of culture as we know it. Wasn’t Plato already worrying about this? The extent of the nonsense is pointed up by another review in the same issue of the Book Review. Turn the page and here’s a book, The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong, by David Orr, published by Penguin Press, and reviewed here in the NYT. Look, look: there are people who care enough to fork over $25.95 for 184pp on this cultural subject, a book-length discussion of a single poem no less, and an editor who thinks it warrants discussion in our paper of record.
Of course we are not losing our culture. There are of course many peasants doggedly focussed on tilling their fields without any thought of the literature and culture of the day, while the knight’s lady sits in her tower reading Le roman de la rose, or the latest Chaucer. Cultures differ; cultures change; feudalism changes; the changes change. But culture rolls on. What Vargas Llosa (and T. S. Eliot and George Steiner) were regretting is not the death of culture but the death of a particular type of culture of which they were rather fond. And they were wrong: it’s still to be found, as always among a minority. People who write like this about the death of culture have merely run out of things to say. Stop wasting paper.
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The fact that the review is by Joshua Cohen makes me want to say something about the reception of The Book of Numbers.
There has been a tendency to suggest that this book represents a new way of writing brought about by the Internet and social media. A writer may chose to write his/her book in any style whatsoever, including one which might be influenced by e-mail I suppose. But I am getting exhausted by these attempts to pretend that social media are killing writing. If anything, the opposite is true. Teenagers today are writing all the time. They are of course not writing with a focus on their style: they write to communicate. When I was a teenager we communicated in giggles and grunts. I see the flashing of tiny fingers over tiny keyboards as a hugely optimistic sign. The Times Literary Supplement says in its review of The Book of Numbers (17 July 2015) “In the twenty-first century, with the spread of smartphones and portable computers, and the rise of a small number of global corporations controlling them, a new self-justifying literary genre is emerging. Still in its infancy, the internet novel is interesting as much for what it tells us about the precarious state of fiction in an era when, as Joshua Cohen observes, ‘they’re phasing out the ink stuff’, as for the myriad ways in which networked technology now permeates our lives.”
It’s the TLS of course which is telling us that fiction is in a precarious state, but Cohen does contribute “they’re phasing out the ink stuff” which is it’s true slightly different. August journals offer of course no guarantees against error — fiction’s state seems to be far from precarious. In fact it looks to be in bouncing good health wherever I turn. The TLS certainly seems to find no difficulty filling its fiction pages, but maybe we are being sheltered from some agonizing make-shiftery going on in weekly editorial meetings. I don’t see any reason why the Internet novel should be anymore terminal than the epistolary novel, the electricity novel, the railway novel, the highway novel, the telescope novel, the telephone novel, the Telex novel — oops, I must have missed out on that category. Cohen is of course far from alone in his assumption that the e-book will wipe out the printed book. I might even agree if we changed “book” to “novel” or “popular novel”. His hero (Joshua Cohen, the ghostwriter) is resentful “of a publishing industry now dealing in adaptations, properties, options, anything but books”, which sounds like a criticism I might hurl at trade publishing — not at “the publishing industry” as a whole though.
“The text appears like Beta programming in which everything is included and open to revision — historically a mark of the novel’s intellectual integrity, its lack of parochialism, but, here, also a way of revealing how the net’s immediacy puts pressure on the novel, making its unfolding narratives seem archaic and slow”. [How often do we find 3 commas in a row? Maybe it’s the effect of the Internet!] These people who go on about how the Internet is affecting the way we write should all take time off to read once again The Life an Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1760).