The End of Literature

Even if writing is reduced to tweeted epigrams to keep readers reading, won’t writers still tell stories?

Flickr/Matthias Buehler
Flickr/Matthias Buehler

Literature’s mainstream is not a river that flows between fixed banks, but one that must be cut, and it is the experimental writer who, avoiding the backwaters of the often more lucrative and momentarily celebrated conventional writing, can be found at the cutting edge. We all know this. But what if literature itself is an expiring holdover from the last century, using an outmoded technology and fast declining into an archival state of primary interest only to scholars and hobbyists, the current worldwide proliferation of writing programs nothing but an ironic death rattle? What if it’s over, and the wildest and most brilliant of experiments won’t revive it?

Some 33 all-too-brief centuries ago, the 13th-century BCE redactor of the then-500-year-old Gilgamesh epic, our oldest known sustained literary narrative, added a frame story that pretends to locate, hidden within a copper foundation box under the legendary ramparts of Uruk, themselves by his time long since fallen into dusty ruin, a text engraved on lapis lazuli and perhaps inscribed by Gilgamesh himself upon his return from his adventures, which presumably is the story about to be told—a modernist, if not postmodernist, metafictional contrivance right at the very beginning of what we call literature. Which at the time was itself a new experiment, so new that the author of the original epic didn’t even have an alphabet with which to compose.

Literature, etymologically “things made from letters,” can be seen as a specific artistic process, containing within itself its own potential and limitations, one that began at a certain time in human intellectual history, a time when written words themselves were often believed to be sacred and magical, and a process that has evolved over the subsequent centuries, using generations of writers to fulfill itself. But for many reasons—a radical change of focus, a discontinuance of the tools including writing itself, a sense of completion or exhaustion or irrelevance, an impatience with the attention demanded, a transfer of such activity into other media less “made from letters”—such a process can come to an end.

The invention of the movie camera at the end of the 19th century and the international industrial cinema that followed had already dented print narrative’s dominance—it was so hard to read a book, so easy to watch a movie—when, as the last century was winding down, along came programmable machines called computers. Whereupon human discourse began to move off the page and into the infinitely spacious digital universe, a radically divergent medium that both absorbed everything from the old technology and ultimately displaced it; print documents could be read on laptops and phone screens (and largely are now), but hypermediated sound, text, and image could not be moved into print. Only mad religionists and some wistful librarians continued to venerate the printed word.

A tool engineered to embrace and set in concerted motion not only language, but all signs and gestures, icons, objects, sounds and images, with instant access to global networks, has to be a powerful tool. It becomes, itself, a kind of rhetoric by which to hold the ever shape-shifting world together, and is admirably placed to play a major role in this current age of the New Sophists. In our present intellectual environment, the Platonic hierarchies left over from the Middle Ages have mostly vanished and the borders between the traditional Aristotelian disciplines and classifications established during the Enlightenment have been rapidly dissolving, leaving us all enmeshed in vast webworks of signs that ceaselessly appear and disappear, the world as Sophists have always seen it. And these signs are not merely those of traditional literacy, of alphabetical language, of text, but now include streaming sound and moving images, as well as new rhetorical elements like multilinearity, hyperlinks, kinetic and metamorphosing text, haptics, immersive virtual reality, together with a multitude of ancillary tools and apps, elements that may eventually leave the screen altogether and environ us.

Sophists live in a world of ceaseless actional and, as we would say now, informational flow—that river one steps into, never the same twice, with man not at the center of it, just in it—but: as the measure and measurer of  it. That is, man calls it river and so it is river, says it flows and so it does flow. For Sophists, knowledge—which is not a given, but is created—is power, and that power is accessed, classically, through rhetoric. They invent new words and concepts, and if others adopt them, their power grows. Like Platonists, Sophists also use a kind of dialectic, though a skeptical one, without hope of synthesis, which they don’t believe in. They set up dialectical oppositions and simply make choices; then, using a rhetoric aimed at persuasion, they argue for the choices they have made. The distinction between Being and Becoming is, for them, a false one. Being is what there is, and it looks just like Becoming, and anyway it’s where we live, nothing we can do about it.

In this 3-D installation we call the modern world, the computer is a perfect rhetorical tool. In its root-deep either-or operations, it even thinks like a Sophist. It makes visible the ceaseless flow of words and actions and offers entry points for all users to exercise their own interactive skills in an effort to exert influence and acquire power and pleasure, the initial and perhaps principal challenge being to grab people’s attention, out in all that turbulence, and come up with a way to hang on to it, to find followers and keep them. Everything depends on information input and proper programming, and then on asking the right questions, winner take all. A game of games in which to be absent is to lose. Timing is everything. Gates and Bezos and Zuckerberg win, everyone else loses. Knowledge is power for the Sophist, and knowing is doing, but you have to move quickly, be the first with the new, and fuck the competition. Fuck the rest of the world, too, for that matter. It’s a zero-sum game.

Writers, of course, do not as a rule move quickly. Most of them design poems and narrative structures that demand a lot of thought, a lot of time. It can take weeks to hammer out a decent sentence, a single line of poetry, and it can take just as long to read and fully understand those lines. Fortunes can rise and fall, regimes too, while a writer researches a single minute narrative detail or finds the perfect prosody, the theatrically dramatic turn of phrase. The written word is a poor sluggish traveler in a high-velocity time, an ancient clumsy makeshift tool, invented by people who worked in clay and moved at the speed of a camel. Information as data can now be accessed and sorted at the speed of light, but literature is not mere information, as all authors insist, and speed in the composition or processing of it has never been considered a virtue. Writing as a craft requires patience and discipline, and the same is asked of the reader. Slow down … Listen … Hardest thing in the world for today’s rapid-fire multitasking user, bopping about urgently on various social media networks and researching the universe minute by minute. In the digital age, literature, written or read, is widely looked upon as a misuse of time (still precious, time is, that hasn’t changed, nor likely will), its potential played out, nothing left but nuance and repetition, even as some make use of the print narrative industry for their own profit and pleasure, in the way that the author of the Gilgamesh epic and his tenured priestly and scribal friends made use of the gullibility of the illiterate for their own continued well-being.

While authors sometimes spend entire lives attempting to perfect a single poem or story, programmable machines can generate an infinite number of works more or less instantly, and who knows, maybe some of them are “perfect.” Dartmouth College, in announcing its 2018 Literary Creative Turing Tests, offers thousand-dollar prizes each for machine-generated programs that “have the ability to produce effectively an infinite number” of sonnets, limericks, original short poems, and children’s stories. The outputs of the sonnet and limerick generators are judged blindly in competition with “human” sonnets and limericks, with any poem indistinguishable from human outputs passing the “Turing Test.” The short poems (“literary metacreations”) and children’s stories are evaluated for their “artistry.” All that’s missing is a program to generate an infinite number of appreciative readers, though what’s being “read,” of course, is not the infinitude of individual poems and stories (mortal tedium, in the words of Samuel Beckett) but the limited mass of materials fed into the generator in each program, together with the combinatory patterns that the “meta-author” has designed, allowing the reader to “see” the whole, without having to suffer any of the particular outputs.

Is something being lost? Sure, it is. For one thing, the pleasure of curling up in front of the fire with a bound codex—“the haptics of the printed word,” as a book-loving friend has put it. For another, the “deep read” that a book invites with its page-turning mechanism, a mechanism that allows one to go back and reread, over and over. Some say that irony was born in that peculiarity of the book. But, if nowadays there is less of the sustained readerly attention that literature has traditionally demanded, one can anticipate that new experimental forms will emerge to reach these restless rewired generations, and that writers, if in the post-literature world they are still to be called writers, will continue, in whatever medium and with whatever tools, to tell stories, explore paradox, strive for meaning and beauty (those sweet old illusions), pursue self-understanding, seek out the hidden content of the tribal life, and so on—in short, all the grand endeavors we associate with literature, even if what they make may not be literature, any more than film is literature or nature a poem.

Though literature as an art form may be fading away, raw storytelling seems to be part of everyman’s DNA, deeper than form or distribution mode, and as Boccaccio’s plague stories remind us, will probably continue to the end of human time. Because: What else? And even if narrative and lyrical artists, whether experimental or conventional, are reduced to stand-up comedy, eulogies, rap lyrics, and tweeted epigrams, they will still feel the tug of the obligations that Hesiod laid upon the Muses a couple of millennia ago: to engage with the national rituals and dogmas, to be witnesses of their times, and to provide consolation and entertainment—or as he put it, to make the gods laugh. Assuming you can find them, logged on and adrift in cyberspace as they are now.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Robert Coover, the author of many works of fiction, is the T. B. Stowell Professor Emeritus in Literary Arts at Brown University. His essay “The End of Books” appeared in The New York Times Book Review in 1992. This essay will be included in the new book Experimental Literature: A Collection of Statements.


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