Tim Parks has written a really interesting essay for the NY Review of Books: “Reading: The Struggle,” in which he ponders “the state of constant distraction” that we now accept as normal life, and how it will affect the reading and writing of “substantial” works of fiction.
He charts his own descent into distraction, going from the pre-Internet years when he saw reading as “a resource to fill time” to a growing awareness, in the late nineteen-nineties, that he was getting most of his reading done on trains, away from his Internet-linked computer. Finally, he sketches out our current age, in which we willingly participate in our own near-constant non-concentration, besieged by so many opportunities to be diverted.
Updates and messages arrive endlessly, limiting our ability to get anything done.
“We all know this,” writes Parks, and I think we all do. On good days, when I’m writing something that feels difficult to get right, I can actually hear the whispering voice that asks, “Why not go check your email? I’m sure something exciting has come in.”
“It is not simply that one is interrupted,” writes Parks, “it is that one is actually inclined to interruption.”
Now, I completely agree with what Parks is saying about modern life. I was also intrigued by his prediction for future literature: that some novels will become more and more fragmentary, so that we can read them in briefer and briefer snippets, while others will become more and more propulsive, building in greater and greater plot pressure so that we have no choice but keep reading.
However, I detected in Parks’s essay a thread of an idea, or a common literary assumption, that I really don’t like. In order to explain it, I’ll need to make a brief and hopefully interesting detour to Daniel Defoe and Robinson Crusoe. I hope this detour doesn’t make you want to check your email.
In his study of the early English novel, The Rise of the Novel, Ian Watt makes a fairly shocking claim about both Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe, two of Daniel Defoe’s most famous novels. The claim is shocking because it contradicts the lesson that so many how-to-write books have deduced from Defoe’s work.
In Moll Flanders, there’s a moment where Moll steals a necklace from a child and then praises herself for stealing it. In her mind, she is doing the child a favour, because now the parents will understand how negligent they have been letting their offspring wander around unguarded. Every time I’ve seen this passage mentioned, commenters have admired how Daniel Defore ironically reveals, by Moll’s own words, the character’s self-deceiving and self-serving outlook. What a deft portrait!
Another example comes from Robinson Crusoe, in a passage that Coleridge thought comparable to Shakespeare. Crusoe, on his deserted island, finds some gold in a corner of the wrecked ship. First, Crusoe rails against gold, calling it a “Drug” and a “Heap” and proclaiming how little use it is to him. But then, in the next sentence, Crusoe adds, “However, upon Second Thoughts, I took it away; and wrapping all this in a Piece of Canvas…”
This seems, reading the passage now, a brilliant critique of Crusoe’s moral pretensions. Not so, says Ian Watt. Rather, Defoe was just being careless. Defoe wrote at incredible speed and demanded extra money to do revisions. Many, many sentences in Crusoe and Flanders just roll on for lines at time, with no necessary poetic unity intended by them. In Watt’s view, Defoe’s novel-craft was not the complex artistic system developed by later writers: he might have one idea about the worth of gold, write that down in Crusoe’s words, then have another such idea, and write that down too. Whether those various ideas combined to form a coherent picture of a character, Defoe didn’t much care.
The kind of systematic irony that later readers detect was not something that would have occurred to Defoe. We modern readers, says Watt, “take the novels much more seriously now,” and we read into Defoe complexities that simply weren’t there.
I bring this example up because I think something similar is going on in Tim Parks’s essay. Park’s description of modern-day distraction seems chillingly accurate. But his description of what reading used to be seems considerably less so.
“Let’s remember,” Parks says, “just what hard work it can be to read the literary novel pre-1980.”
Here is the passage, from Faulkner, that Parks chooses as an representative example of the pre-Internet novel:
He would lie amid the waking instant of earth’s teeming minute life, the motionless fronds of water-heavy grasses stooping into the mist before his face in black, fixed curves, along each parabola of which the marching drops held in minute magnification the dawn’s rosy miniatures, smelling and even tasting the rich, slow, warm barn-reek milk-reek, the flowing immemorial female, hearing the slow planting and the plopping suck of each deliberate cloven mud-spreading hoof, invisible still in the mist loud with its hymeneal choristers.
I don’t think that’s a very representative picture.
I can think of great passages from Jane Eyre, from Their Eyes Were Watching God, from The Brothers Karamazov, or from The Good Soldier that aren’t interested that kind of effect. It’s simply not the case that literary writers used to signal their genius by composing the Faulknerian sentence.
Nor were readers seeking such sentences out. I don’t think many people have ever read the way Parks seems to think they did.
After all, his last example, Henry Green, is the standard choice for critics who want to cite a critically respected but largely unread author. It’s not the Internet that stops Henry Green being on the bestseller lists.
I like what Parks has to say about distraction. But I think his dire warnings for the future of “substantial” fiction is perhaps being offered on partial grounds. It seems to me that Tim Parks is taking a literary technique that appeals to him–the densely wrought sentence–as well as the judgement that “good” literature is hard to read, and that “bad” literature is easy–and then transposing those two things into history.
Good fiction, in Park’s mind, is supposed to be “hard work.” Good prose, he asserts, is something one has to “work up to.” And he presents this as a timeless truth about the novel. But I see it as a historically specific idea: as an assumption, I think it comes from the 1940s and 1950s, when the literary establishment was attempting to make sense of the great achievements of modernism. It was at that historical moment that educated types began to see novel-reading as a kind of moral / aesthetic kale, separate from the junk pleasures of reading, say, Tolkein.
But I don’t think Jane Austen believed that her novels were not meant to be fun to read. Daniel Defoe would have thought it the opposite of his entire technique.
Also: while amazingly well-wrought sentences certainly existed in the 19th century, I wonder to what extent their importance as a central literary standard comes out of one particular technological invention, the typewriter. Only when writers can re-arrange and revise with mechanical speed does a certain kind of style become a common goal (as argued brilliantly by Hannah Sullivan).
It’s natural, then, for future technologies to produce a different kind of writing / reading. We should not attach apocalyptic significance to such changes.
And while I share Parks’s terror of our currently distracting world, if the kind of “serious” reading and writing he describes gets lost in the process, I’m not sure that’s a terrible thing.
I think it’s okay if reading fiction is supposed to be fun.