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The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television

Author: Kathleen Fitzpatrick
Publisher: Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 2006
Review Published: October 2007

 REVIEW 1: M. Carmen Gomez-Galisteo
 REVIEW 2: Pamela Kincheloe
 REVIEW 3: Laurie N. Taylor
 REVIEW 4: Lisa Weckerle
 REVIEW 5: Sarah Whitehead
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Kathleen Fitzpatrick

I'd like to begin by thanking the reviewers, first for their interest in the book -- I was quite overwhelmed to discover that it had five reviewers! -- and for their assessments of it, which are by and large generous, sensitive, and intellectually engaged. The project was a nearly decade-long labor of love, and one which came precariously close to failing to find a publisher at all. As I circulated the manuscript during the depths of the post-dot-com-bust slashing of most academic publishers' lists in the humanities (and particularly in first-author books in fields that seem as oddly defined as mine), I was repeatedly told that the project was exciting and well-written, but that it had to be declined for financial reasons. There's of course a deep irony (at least in the Alanis Morissette sense) in having trouble publishing a book that makes the argument that the book is not dead. Needless to say, the experience has had me pondering obsolescences of many stripes, including the apparent evanescence (and yet unmistakable persistence) of new forms of electronic writing, on my blog, Planned Obsolescence.

My work since finishing the book has, in two different ways, asked, well, what if we assume for a minute that the novel, or narrative more generally, or the book, or print more generally is dead? Then what? What kinds of changes in cultural production might we discover if, somehow, the traditional forms of narrative that we're accustomed to became impossible, if they longer had a future, if all that were left to authors were a relentless self-unmaking in an effort to escape narrative's death-grip? In a project entitled "Unbecoming Narratives," which is in its very early stages, I'm exploring texts -- novels, films, television series, and, perhaps inevitably, blogs -- that both create and attempt to navigate ruptures in narrative form, as a means of exploring not the factitious nature of the death of narrative, but instead what narrative "death" might mean, how narrative could both die and go on living at once.

On the other hand, the seeming imminence of the death of the current system of academic publishing, which is threatened by an increasingly insupportable economic model, has led me to ponder new kinds of reading and writing structures, new publishing models, new modes of peer review and institutional warranting. These new forms are -- unsurprisingly to RCCS readers -- certain to be many-to-many rather than one-directional, interactive and discursive rather than silent, social rather than individual. I've been experimenting in these forms, along with my colleagues at the Institute for the Future of the Book, my co-coordinating editor Avi Santo, and a fantastic, activist editorial board, at MediaCommons, a developing all-electronic scholarly network in media studies. I'm particularly gratified that Laurie Taylor mentions MediaCommons in her review, but also want to second something else that she mentions: RCCS, by providing the opportunity for multiple reviews of a text, and by providing the space for response to those reviews, has led the way toward thinking about how scholarship might outlive scholarly publishing's ostensible death. I count myself very fortunate to have had this opportunity.

As long as I'm here, a few local responses to points in the reviews, ranging from the relatively large-scale to the quite small. Lisa Weckerle is correct to point out the slightly misleading nature of the book's subtitle, as it led her to expect a broader exploration of the cultural purposes of the novel. As she suggests, I faced a clear need to limit the project's scope, and so chose to deal with Pynchon and DeLillo as representatives of a broader phenomenon, the two archetypal postmodernists, and the two contemporary authors most frequently read as theorizing the contemporary world.

Beyond this somewhat unsatisfactory compromise between scope and focus, however, is the fact that my investigation didn't much explore the cultural purposes of the novel today, in part because my sense is that, on the one hand, the cultural purposes of the novel have not changed -- it still fills readers' needs for narrative engagement and imaginative identification. On the other hand, the novel is not alone -- and hasn't been for a long time -- in fulfilling those needs. What has changed may be no more than the novel's market; perhaps, as John Barth suggests in LETTERS, the novel has become "a pleasure for special tastes, like poetry, archery, churchgoing" (33). But this, too, is a dubious claim. In fact, I'd argue -- and have done so, in a recent blog-debate -- that most claims that "no one reads anymore" are shorthand for "no one reads anything good anymore," and that until we acknowledge that repressed "anything good," and question what it is that makes what we care about "good," we're going to remain mired in the same kinds of anxieties about the new and laments for the old that characterize all cultural change.

Carmen Gomez-Galisteo asks, in her review, what I take to be a rhetorical question, but one which I'll answer anyhow: "Isn't Pynchon's refusal to appear on television a way to acknowledge the very importance of television?" A compelling question. On the one hand, Pynchon's notorious resistance to public appearances is, in a publicity-driven culture such as ours, an important manifestation of privilege. I'm unavoidably led to think about DeLillo's line in Mao II, in which he suggests that "When a writer doesn't show his face, he becomes a local symptom of God's famous reluctance to appear" (36); the withholding of presence, the ability to refuse the book tour or the Charlie Rose interview, is the ultimate sign of power. On the other hand, Pynchon's refusal to appear is also somewhat coy, as might be seen in his "appearances" on The Simpsons, drawn with a paper bag over his head. He's there and not there, on TV and not on TV. What perhaps demonstrates the overwhelming importance of television is less Pynchon's refusal to appear than that his refusal to appear is taken to be so significant, that one can hardly utter the name "Pynchon" without the adjective "reclusive" following somewhere behind, simply because the man doesn't like to have his picture taken.

Finally, a very narrow point, but one I think bears implications for the book's overall argument. Sarah Whitehead notes problems that she has with the book's engagement with information theory and the models of communication networks out of which it grows. I would take issue with the concern that I misunderstand these models; if anything, I misuse them. The models with which I engage -- Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver's "schematic diagram of a general communication system" and Stuart Hall's "encoding/decoding" model -- serve only a very small point in the book, but my treatment of them serves a purpose that I think I should clarify: while I do provide what is admittedly a very loose reading of both schemas, I point out early on in the book that I'm less concerned in my analyses with the ways that contemporary communications technologies actually work than in the ways they're represented as working. I thus treat, in this section, the Shannon/Weaver and the Hall communications models as representations rather than actualities, and focus my interpretation on how such representations might be read, in particular by the anxious novelist who sees the dehumanizing influence of new technologies, the deceptions and persuasions wrought by the image, and the noise that appears an inevitable result of the network. My readings of these two very different models of a communications network is meant to suggest that, while one focuses on the mechanical apparatus of communication, and the other focuses on the human processes of communication, each is equally concerned with failures of communication as it is with accurate transmission.

Such failures are inevitable, of course, as witness my own failures in the book to make the points I'd like to make as clearly as I'd like to make them. But our networks are getting better -- thanks in no small part to forums such as this one, that allow for the development of a productive, thoughtful dialogue, as good a hedge against obsolescence as I can imagine.

Barth, John. LETTERS (1979). Normal, Ill.: Dalkey Archive Press, 1994.

DeLillo, Don. Mao II (1991). New York: Penguin, 1992.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick


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