The Future of the Novel: Remixed
Keynote address given by China Miéville
First presented at the International Festival of Authors, Toronto.
Giving back-to-back Keynote addresses, China Miéville presented ‘The Future of the Novel’ ‘remixed’, along with Miriam Toews who debated ‘A National Literature. The event was hosted/moderated by journalist and author Rachel Giese.
China’s Keynote address text: “The Future of the Novel: Remixed”
In August this year, Philip Roth published an open letter to Wikipedia. ‘I had reason’, he wrote, ‘recently to read for the first time the Wikipedia entry discussing my novel ‘The Human Stain’.’ (That ‘reason’ presumably being that he typed his name into Google. No judgement. We all do.) He complained that they wouldn’t remove a ‘falsity’ in the entry, the claim by some that the book drew on the life of writer Anatole Broyard. Roth withered that according to Wikipedia, ‘I, Roth, was not a credible source’.
This was not in fact what Wikipedia claimed. Rather, delightfully, the administrator wrote: ‘I understand your point that the author is the greatest authority on their own work … but we require secondary sources.’
On this issue, we must all rally to the Wikipedian banner. Roth’s counterclaim should be noted, but he objected to the entry stating that the book was ‘allegedly inspired’ by Broyard’s life, which is simply factual – the allegation is part of the book’s history – a point made by Broyard’s own daughter. And the notion that Roth himself has the key to his inner truths is naïve. He acknowledges he’d heard ‘hearsay’ about Broyard – is it impossible that such fed, unconsciously perhaps, into the mulch from which the book grew?
Boisterous online discussions are, sometimes in staggeringly discourteous ways, doing more than decades of Barthes to kill the author. The opinion of the writer is, rightly, one input among many. The clash between two conceptions of authority is nowhere more vivid than in the short first sentence of Roth’s letter, written, surely, to end the matter. He says: ‘I am Philip Roth.’ To which the diffuse argumentative ecrowd responds: ‘That’s adorable.’
But crucially for us here, the undermining of authorial authority is likely to extend, at accelerating rate, beyond intention and interpretation, and into the realms of literary creation.
On the 21 of August, I spoke in Edinburgh on the future of the novel. Originally, the request was to give the same talk here. But as I hope will become clear, that would have been a betrayal of the talk’s own content. So this is not new, as a comparison to the first version will quickly show, and it’s not a replacement. This is a remix incorporating responses the initial version provoked, which immediately became, after all, part of this cluster of textness.
Of course I get final word. This is as much l’esprit de l’escalier as WikiRigour. This is a bug-fix, a security update. Maybe not even The Future of the Novel 2.0, but 1.5.
Prediction is analysis, anxiety and aspiration. I remain an anguished optimist. None of the futures here are impossible: some I think are likely; many I broadly hope for. One is still a demand.
* * *
I duck the question, ‘What is literature?’ and veer instead towards ‘What do we want from it?’ Many things. One of which is a glimpse of and gasp at something otherwise inexpressible. A felt ineffability that strains language, and by which you don’t have to be a person of faith to have your breath taken away.
Now consider the enemies of that pleromatic vision. Jewish mysticism warns of the qliphoth - entropic shells of psychic muck and detritus that encrust that numinous and obscure it. Blockages, clots that hide the astounding.
As you can tell, I’m turning my attention to English fiction. But it’s my sense that the following diagnosis isn’t entirely unhelpful for mainstream Anglophone literati elsewhere.
Paulo Coelho notoriously bashed Joyce recently, to the scorn of bien pensants, but Coelho’s a safe target because, with books that multitask a little too openly as self-help manuals, he’s not very clubbable. Unlike, say, Ian McEwan, who not-so-differently declared against “the dead hand of modernism”, for all the world as if the dominant literary mode in post-war England was Steinian experimentation or some Albion Oulipo, against which enfants terrible hold out with limpidly observed interiority, decodable metaphors, strained middle-class relationships and eternal truths of the human condition(TM).
Yes, there are fine novels written according to such norms, and conversely there’ve always been writers playing with form, etcetera. But two things remain key.
ii) Today, for a variety of reasons, it is not quite business as usual.
There was a limit point. Last year the Booker suffered a Middlebrowmaggedon, with judges undermining its cred by enthusing about ‘readability’ and stories that ‘zip along’. This year’s prize salvaged things not badly. Among the messages the judges sent with their own long and short lists was that the Booker is rapproching somewhat with that so-called dead hand.
There’ve been other wind-blown straws. The palpable recent shame when Christine Brooke-Rose died, that this astonishing innovator was so overlooked in her own country. Renewed interest in Ann Quin. Excitement at the online archive Ubuweb. The growing importance of translated fiction, a conduit for experiment (I think it makes the point about the specific narrowness of English fiction that one gets giddy with cognitive dissonance trying to imagine judges for, say, the Goncourt demanding stories that ‘zip along’, for which what even is the French?). With the internet has come proof that there are audiences way beyond the obvious.
The hedgerow between genre and litfic is also being hacked at, by writers and readers on both sides. It’s not the Paris Review but Weird Fiction Review currently championing the legendary Amos Tutuola. And generic tropes continue to infect the mainstream, both in fiction, and as discursive metaphors.
“I have just … paid a depressing visit to an electronic computer which can write sonnets if fed with the right material,” said Lawrence Durrell lugubriously, at the session 50 years ago of which this and its predecessor are echoes. ” … I have a feeling that by Christmas it will have written its first novel… you will all be able to buy them, and write your own “.
It’s not clear how scared he really was —
I’ll interrupt myself, as stern internet critics interrupted me first time round. Durrell, gadfly and game-player, was not scared at all. Any suggestion otherwise, is as one reader admonished, ‘amazingly, stunningly wrong’.
Correction taken. What Durrell was doing was rolling around his mouth a succulent piece of fret-candy, and he’s not the only writer to have conjured this science-fictional nightmare: the Automatic Novel Writing Machine appears repeatedly in fiction. Given all the fire, flood, uneasy dead, it’s an underwhelmingly terrifying dystopia, the despotic thrall of the autonovelator, but apres nous le deluge - writers would far rather suffer planetary catastrophe than deskilling.
In fact, though the terror of civilians being able to press buttons and produce books remains, the past future of the novel – now – lay not in being digitally produced, but digitally distributed.
We are, at last, leaving phase one of the ebook discussion, during which people could invoke the ‘smell of paper’ as if it was a serious argument. Some anxieties remain tenacious: how will people know what a splendid person I am without a pelt of the right visible books on my walls? Here’s a hopeful future: that our grandchildren will consider our hankering for erudition-décor a little needy.
No matter how doggedly persistent relatively traditional narrative shape is, you don’t radically restructure how the novel’s distributed and not have an impact on its form. We quickly approach an era when no one who really doesn’t want to pay for a book will have to, and when the digital availability of the text alters the relationship between reader, writer, and book. The text won’t be closed.
It never was, of course, but it’s going to be even less so now. Anyone who wants to shove their hands into a book and grub about in its innards, add to and subtract from it and pass it on altered, will, in this age of digitally distributed text, be able to do so without much difficulty. It’s happening. An unkempt grassroots modernism, often from the other cultural direction than any haute literary thaw. Every text potentially fractured.
To which one response might be clamping down, the punitive model of so-called antipiracy action. About which I’ll say – as someone very keen to continue to make a living from writing – that it’s disingenuous, hypocritical, ineffectual, intellectually incoherent, moribund, and complicit with toxicity.
The Creators’ Rights Alliance, with which my own trade union is associated, put out a manifesto that ends with a chilling injunction:
‘ [A] fundamental part of this provision should involve education about intellectual property. … All schoolchildren should be encouraged in the habit of using the © symbol with their work, whether it be an essay or a musical composition.
‘The concept behind copyright is so simple that a child can understand it:
‘”I made it: it’s mine.”‘
Artists and activists advocating the neoliberalisation of children’s minds. That is scandalous and stupid. The text is open. This could be our chance to remember that it was never just us who made it, and it was never just ours.
The problem with emphasising authorial voice and insight is its unconvincing stress on the specialness of writers tout court, as a category, as opposed, more interestingly, to their work. Of course we’re not talking – regular declarations of its mortal illness notwithstanding – about the death of the novel. The novel is as tenacious as a cockroach. This fact is morally neutral. We can hope for a good novel – created by whatever means – decry bad ones, and observe with a shrug that in total they endure.
The aggrandisement of literature and writers is undermined by the increasingly permeable text. Be ready for guerrilla editors. Just as 14-year-olds remix albums – sometimes brilliantly, sometimes craply – people are providing their own cuts of novels online. In the future, asked if you’ve read the latest Nalo Hopkinson or Ahdaf Soueif, say, the response might be not yes or no, but “which mix”, and why?
We’ll be writing as part of a collective. As we always were.
And so might anyone. A healthy sense of not-special-ness doesn’t mean having no awe in the skill, insight, wordsmithery, of a particular writer. You don’t have to think that writing is lever-pulling, that anyone could have written Jane Eyre or Notebook of a Return to my Native Land, nor even that no writers are special people. But the model of authors as an Elect is unconvincing, and insulting to everyone else.
Consider that the growth in importance of fanfic and self-publishing are often criticized, with a straight face, on the grounds that they will lead to a diminution of the quality of literature. As if slews of god-awful crap aren’t cheerfully extruded by major publishing houses every year.
The worst anxiety is not that the interfering public will write bad novels, but good ones. The literary apocalypse accompanying remixing is not that the public will ruin your work if they muck about with it, but that they’ll improve it. And once in a rare while, some of them will. How wonderful.
How do we protect the original? John Burnside: ‘I don’t trust the state, big companies and religious nuts not to try to erase the text and replace it with their version’. Indeed, books have been eyed by the powerful for as long as there’ve been books for them to eye, but it’s hardly as if censoring and rewriting came with the internet. Nor does the digitisation of texts make it easier to efface the original. The opposite, as when controversial documents are copied and mirrored in profusion when their original host is threatened. The original text is going nowhere.
We should be skeptical of the notion that it needs protecting at all. In the words of Kamila Shamsie, talking of a writer whose astounding reconfigurings of fiction were the results of engaging with an explosion of new cultural forms like TV and film, also heralded as deaths of the novel, ‘[i]f the threat of something new and different and bigger than you creates Calvinos, then it is not a threat.’
Money. The blurring of boundaries between writers, books, and readers, self-publishing, the fanfication of fiction, the new collectivity doesn’t mean some people won’t be better at the writing thing than others, nor unable to pay their rent by doing it. Querying the existing model – opposing the rottweilers of copyright, who act as if they never made a mixtape for a friend or shared battered books in the playground – doesn’t mean not wanting writers to be paid. So how?
I don’t know. I’m open-minded. I’m eager for a discussion, a calm, collaborative exploring of new options not predicated on suspicion or punishment of readers. The great majority of whom, like the great majority of writers, are honourable people, who know that if writers are never paid, they won’t be able to write. We want to work something out.
Ewan Morrison, an eloquent opponent of what he calls this dotcommunism: ‘I would support people like Dr Dre and Bono who defend copyright because they believe that there won’t be a future generation of musicians if everyone just gets to mash-up their material for free and redistribute it.’
Five minutes online and you meet that future generation, making music piratically, shoving things together, manipulating, and even finding new ways to make a living from it. Far from fearing it, we in fiction should be so lucky as to see that kind of creativity, the creation of new forms. Why are we not hankering for some book version of the mixtape? If some precocious young bookturk turns our stuff into something new we should have the grace to be grateful. The original’s still right there too. And theirs might even be brilliant. It might be better. This is how culture moves.
I see Ewan’s Dr Dre and raise him Public Enemy’s Chuck D, who knows that without these so-called transgressions, culture would be vastly poorer. ‘How do you feel about other people remixing your tracks without permission?’ asks stayfreemagazine. ‘I think my feelings are obvious,’ he replies. ‘I think it’s great.’
Most of us aren’t that special, and clarifying that is a good thing, the start of a great future. In which we can focus on the books. Which might even, rarely, be special.
We’re told that a problem with ebooks and their ephemeral-seeming text files, is that they ‘devalue writing’. That writers’ work is undervalued. Well, yes. Just like the work of nurses, teachers, public transport staff, cleaners, social workers, which has been undervalued a lot more for a lot longer. We live in a world that grossly and violently undervalues the great majority of people in it. Which is why triumphs against this hegemony of the market are so salutary – and I salute the Quebec students on their victory.
In fiction, it’s not true that only rubbish sells. Nor, though, do the best books always do best. There’s a contingent relationship between sales and literary merit. So we should totally break the pretence at a connection.
What if novelists and poets were to get a salary, the wage of a skilled worker?
* * *
This would only be an exaggeration of the national stipends already offered by some countries for some writers. For the great majority of people who write, it would mean a huge improvement in their writing lives. For a few it would mean an income cut, but you know what? It was a good run. And surely it’s easily worth it to undermine the marketisation of literature for some kind of collectivity.
Who decides who qualifies as a writer? Does it take one sonnet? Of what quality? Ten novels? 50,000 readers? Ten, but the right readers? God knows we shouldn’t trust the state to make that kind of decision. (I draw attention to that last sentence for those who, first time round, unaccountably interpreted this as a call for state-appointed writers.)
We should democratise a vigorous debate about qualification as widely as possible. It needn’t be the mere caprice of taste. People are perfectly capable of judging as important literature for which they don’t personally care. Mistakes will be made, sure, but will they really be worse than the philistine thuggery of the market? What new literary culture could we create?
We couldn’t bypass the state with this plan, though. We’ll have to take control of it, then, for the sake of literature, among many other things. We’ll have to invert its priorities, democratise its structures, replace it with a system we deserve.
A stress not on writers but on people, and a fidelity to literature itself, demand political and economic transformation. For futures for novels – and everything else – worth having. For that we hope and fight. And about those futures we can say almost nothing. Except that whatever their literature, whatever stories and anti-stories we tell from them, none of us will pause, after that telling, to append a shameful and ugly lie, none of us will dream of adding: ‘I made this. It’s mine.’
Copyright China Miéville October 2012