Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Armistice Day

[Read below, or listen here.]

This post is late in coming, but then so was the Armistice Day I’m writing about. Last Wednesday was indeed Veterans’ Day, but it was also the 91st anniversary of what the Commonwealth countries have long called Armistice Day. November 11 marks the end of what I suggest may be the most self-conscious war ever fought. The First World War took on the characteristics of a narrative, despite—or maybe because of—the fact that the experience of its murderous new technologies, mixed with the banal cruelty of mud, was so difficult for civilians to comprehend.

From the very beginning, this war was invested with literary qualities. It had more than one title—the Great War, the War to End All Wars. It had its writers —Sassoon, Owen, Rosenberg, Blunden, among many others, sending prose and mostly poetry home from the trenches. These poets gave the war its own graphic: the poppy, an emblem movingly used to this day as a symbol of remembrance.

Most importantly, the war had an ending date and time that were consciously chosen for their symbolic resonance. The ending dates of other wars before and since have become symbolic for us after the fact. In the Great War, the Allies identified a symbol and fit the war to match it. The Great War came to an end precisely at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Has there been another war whose history was shaped to conform to an English idiom?

Among all the blunders and worse committed by the military in the prosecution of the Great War, the manner of its ending might have been one more. Might a few more lives have been saved if the German, French, and British leaders had met at Compiégne on even November 10th or 9th? In one respect, though, the Allies knew what they were doing. They were ensuring that, though their war turned out to be neither Great nor final, it would never be forgotten. And that is as it should be.

More WWI narratives:
Pat Barker’s Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, The Ghost Road
Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong

What would you add to the list?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Reading and Listening

There's a new feature on The View Finder! Starting today, most if not all posts will be available in audio format as well. Don't have time to sit at the computer and read the post? Go to the blog on your phone and click on the link to listen instead.

Literature is changing, and the way we take in ideas should expand to accommodate that change. Besides, reading aloud is too much fun to be left to bed-time stories alone.

John Baldessari
Beethoven's Trumpet (With Ear), Opus 127 2007
Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York © John Baldessari
Resin, fibreglass, bronze, aluminuim and electronics
Tate Britain

Thursday, November 5, 2009

New Formats, New Literature?

[Rather listen to the post instead?]

I take books for granted. Not individual books. I treasure individual books. I hold onto them; I refuse to give them away or, truth be told, even lend them unless I’ve practically screened the potential borrower as carefully a nominee for the Supreme Court. But I take for granted the fact of the printed book, with its generally three hundred pages, its soft or hard binding, its black-and-white author photo, and its cryptically intriguing cover illustration. This form of narrative is more or less all I have known—even before I could read the words myself.

That’s all changing now. And I’m surprised to find that I’m not bothered. Yes, there are numerous forms now in which to experience a novel or a short story or a poem. But the existence of digital books doesn’t, I think, require the disappearance of the printed book. It’s not, as I said in a recent comment, a zero-sum game. I have yet to encounter an e-reading devotee who now refuses to read books in print. (Speaking of Books in Print, what will they title that reference volume now? Books Published? Books You Can Buy?)

What will change, though, is something about fiction itself. The technology of narrative inevitably affects the prose or poetry it’s designed to disseminate. The oral tradition gave rise to the epithet. Which one’s Athena again? The gray-eyed one. Right. You couldn’t sit through successive nights listening to stories with hundreds of characters without the crutch of labels like that. Then—I’ll skip willfully over centuries of literature—the Victorian novel had its own tricks. If you serialize a story in a monthly magazine, you’d better be sure to build in ways to remind the reader about what happed last time. Hence those long chapter titles “in which our hero discovers he is the son of a nobleman”. Hence the cliffhanger ending and the scene-setting beginning.

These literary devices haven’t gone away. It’s just that now they might turn up more often on television. In fact, television keeps bringing us closer and closer to these older literary forms. Where we once used to have (and still have vestiges of) the sitcom with its stand-alone episodes and perfect closure, we now have complicated serials that create suspense week to week and that require and, in many cases, reward a viewer’s dedication. We’re now used to that “Last week on” preface to many byzantinely-plotted shows like Lost or Gray’s Anatomy. And shows like the numerous anagram spin-offs rely on predictable moments, like visual epithets, to help individual characters stand out from the crowd of law-and-order professionals. We really haven’t left the Victorian novel or the epic very far behind.

The question is what will be the literary devices of the new generation of narratives? If we’re reading a novel on our cell-phones, as we could do in Japan, surely the form of the narrative has to be different. And if we’re reading a short story on a website or on Twitter, or listening to a book that’s been written exclusively for audio distribution? How will the structure and the language of these new forms reflect the technology we use to take them in?

My own experiences with iPhone literature have so far been fairly limited to what I have stumbled on through Stanza and Classics, where there is a prevalence of Jane Austen (actually, I defy someone to tell me where, besides perhaps a Monster Trucks rally, there is not a prevalence of Jane Austen). Which raises the question: besides the superhuman Jane, how well are older more traditional forms of narrative surviving on these new technologies? How is Dickens faring on a digi-book? How is Shakespeare on a cell-phone?

What’s your experience been with new ways of reading? Embracing them? Keeping them at arm’s length?