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
The Internet is a predator. It has been heralded as the cause of the death of television, encyclopedias (the Encyclopedia Britannica decided a few years ago to stop publishing its print version and go entirely online), cinema and music due to piracy, minority (or not so minority) languages due to the pre-eminence of English on the net, and, perhaps most especially, literature. If everybody can publish on the net, is there any room left for serious literature? Print culture in general and the novel in particular are more often than not presented as weak formats, demanding protection from more powerful adversaries. Before the Internet became the powerful medium it is now, it was television which was being charged with the death of the novel. Kathleen Fitzpatrick's book examines these birds of ill omen that report of the novel's greatly exaggerated death, to paraphrase Twain's famous sentence. In The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television, Fitzpatrick explores what purposes these omens have served.
Pretty often, those most likely to benefit from the change are the very ones announcing it. However, the death of the novel at the hands of television has been announced by novelists such as Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon, who are not (up to now) known to be turning into scriptwriters. Curiously enough, these and other equally pessimistic predictions coincide with figures of book sales being higher than ever. Fitzpatrick acknowledges in the introduction that she is not going to abuse television. For some, this may be a weakness, but I see it as a strong point of the book. There are already too many studies bashing television, some better than others, and it was about time that a strong counterattack was launched, especially by a professor, not someone employed by the industry and therefore suspected of being biased.
Chapter one asserts the case of how the novel has been threatened by three main factors -- the proclamation of its very death, technology, and postmodernism. Far from being a recent phenomenon, the death of the novel has been announced for centuries. "The novel has been dead for nearly as long as it has been alive" (13), Fitzpatrick notes, and illustrates this with the example of the British novelist Samuel Richardson, who was afraid that the novel, the new genre he had contributed to inaugurate, might have already run its course ... in the 19th century! The three following chapters focus on the machine and the correlation between mechanization/dehumanization; spectacle, understood as the dichotomy between words and images; and the network, reviving old fears about individuality being swept by the masses.
The novel's didactic role has always been emphasized by those defending the morality of the novel. This may be the reason why ever since the invention of photography novelists have been afraid that technology is threatening to take over the novel's social role of describing social mores, as analyzed in chapter two. Postmodernism has readily taken in this technological fear, using television to embody the technological menace. To advance the case of the postmodernist announcement of the death of the novel, Fitzpatrick takes postmodernist novelists Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo as representatives of postmodern American writers as a whole. Interestingly, webtv and two novels by DeLillo and Pynchon (Underworld and Mason & Dixon, respectively) all came out in 1997, thus highlighting how the development of new television formats occurs in a parallel way to the publishing of novels whose existence television is supposedly threatening. With the rise of postmodernism, the anxiety of obsolescence is reduced just to "a cultural pose struck by the beleaguered postmodern novelist" (47). For Fitzpatrick, it is not so much that television is threatening the novel, but that writers cannot voice the changes that they perceive as the real threats to the novel. She notes: "The threat that television poses to the novelist functions as an acceptable cultural scapegoat for what is a much stickier social issue: the perceived dominance on the contemporary literary scene of fiction by women and racial and ethnic minorities" (50).
Isn't Pynchon's refusal to appear on television a way to acknowledge the very importance of television? He is the exception to the rule, the odd man out. While most contemporary authors crave to be on television as much as possible, Pynchon refuses to allow his image to be known by his readers, in a sort of ancestral pagan postmodernist superstition of losing his soul. The fear of television is fed by the human fear that one day technology might surpass us and, worse, destroy us or that which makes us human. According to the novelists, television is threatening not just the novel but marriage (television is presented as a correspondent in a divorce case in Pynchon's Vineland) and even democracy. So pervasive is the influence of machines that in postmodernist novels human sexuality and desire are corrupted by machines and technology shapes even our most intimate human functions. In DeLillo's Running Dog, Lightborne claims that "movement, action, frames per second. This is the era we're in, for better or worse. Sure, a thing isn't fully erotic unless it has the capacity to move" (89). In Pynchon's V, Fergus Mixolydian is wired into a television set and it is not clear whether he operates the television set or if it is the other way around.
Chapter three focuses on the contrast between words and images. Whereas words are perceived as material and lasting, images are considered intangible and ephemeral. Here lies the menace that TV represents for the novel. Images are replacing words in a process deemed extremely dangerous by the postmodernist writer on the grounds that images are not subject to analysis but to experience because of the "too-closeness" (108) between image and meaning. In contrast, reading a novel means an effort on the part of the reader, who is an active subject in opposition to the passive viewer of shallow images on television. Also, the more complex the novel, the larger the effort required on the part of the reader, as it is especially the case of postmodernist novels. Ultimately, this mission of the novelist of obsolescence is to preserve the novel, by continuing to write novels.
Chapter four, "Network," deals with the interconnections that television creates among viewers, a condition that is different from the sense of individuality acquired by reading. The loss of reading, perceived as an individual act, comes to embody the loss of individuality itself. If people are interconnected via television networks, how can individuality needed in order to read be preserved? The novelist of obsolescence, then, is preserving culture and, at the same time, preserving the nation's individuality.
In chapters five and six Fitzpatrick analyzes the Jonathan Franzen / Oprah Winfrey controversy in light of discourse of the obsolescence of the novel. As the popularity of Oprah's selection testifies to, literature is being sanctioned by television. In turn, writer Franzen's refusal to appear on The Oprah Show was based on the assumption that television viewers cannot understand "serious" literature. Television is exposing writers to readers they do not consider their ideal, target audience. That serious authors reject popular culture has only contributed to enhance this call for the novel's obsolescence. Television then becomes but "an easy scapegoat, a safe target for the finger the novelist points at the causes of his marginalization" (230). In chapter six, Fitzpatrick compares Franzen to Toni Morrison, a Nobel prize winner who has praised Oprah's labor. The novel, in its being threatened, becomes a symbol for the white male author being threatened by television viewers and mass culture, often characterized as feminine, as Oprah's predominantly female audience illustrates. It is, to use Nina Baym's (1981) term, the melodrama of beset manhood, or what Fitzpatrick calls the white male writer's "struggle for integrity and livelihood against fragrantly bad best-sellers written by women" (qtd. on 231).
Brave New World claims that a statement repeated a number of times becomes a truth and it seems that the long-announced death of the novel is one of those Huxleyan truths. Fitzpatrick makes a strong case for the excellent health of the novel and silences the insisting reports of its death at the hands of television. Although the book in general will be better appreciated by readers familiar with the work of Pynchon and DeLillo, chapter one is a discerning and meticulous analysis of the main forces perceived to be threatening the novel. A continuation of the book analyzing the threat the Internet represents to the novel would be most welcome. Fitzpatrick's book is insightful in connecting postmodern literature (generally considered to be the last bastion of high culture and the most unlikely material for cultural studies, least of all television studies) with television, the 20th-century opium for the uncritical masses. To finish, let us say -- long live the novel!
Nina Baym, "Melodramas of Beset Manhood: How Theories of American Fiction Exclude Women Authors," American Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 2 (Summer, 1981), pp. 123-139.
M. Carmen Gomez-Galisteo:
M. Carmen Gomez-Galisteo is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the Universidad de Alcala (Madrid, Spain). She is campus representative and corresponding editor for NeoAmericanist as well as board member of ADECHAN (Spanish Association for the Dialogue of Hispanic Cultures in North-America). Her research interests include 17th-century American literature, popular culture, cultural studies, Chicano literature, and women's studies. <email@example.com>
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