Saturday, October 2, 2010

Does the Internet Destroy Fiction?

I'm a big fan of Andrew Sullivan's blog, The Daily Dish.  It's smart, eclectic, thought-provoking, and has some of the smartest readers/commenters online.  (Well, except for MINE of course....   : )

I ran across this quotation from Kevin Hartnett on the blog today, and it stopped me in my tracks:
All forms of desire have their natural enemies and I find that nothing saps my desire to read fiction like the Internet does.  This is partly physiological—too much time at the computer withers my brain—but it’s partly dispositional, too.  After the last round of primaries a couple Tuesdays ago, I spent an hour reading articles about the Tea Party. When I came up for air I was in an explicitly present-tense state of mind where anything written more than an hour ago seemed to be based on a world that had already been subsumed.  Novels, which require a willingness to attend to more enduring themes, don’t hold up very well by this perspective.
Politics as a whole has a fairly degrading effect on my fiction drive. It’s not just that it’s depressing to watch the way Congress operates—it’s that it’s depressing in such an unredeemable way.  Fiction can be depressing too, of course, but there’s something intrinsically optimistic about the process by which tragedy and frailty are turned into art.
This puts the "the internet is changing our brain" argument in a new way. While it has a political focus,  I think it's true of the internet in general, if my own reading patterns are anything to go by.  I used to read voraciously--4-5 books a month at least, and that was on top of work.  The past 10 years or so, I'm doing well to read one a month.  I read more when I'm overseas, but I'm online less, and also out of that constant news cycle one gets in the States, so I'm looking up fewer reactions and "incidents"--I only heard about the Rick Sanchez/Jon Stewart brouhaha vicariously, for example.  I must say, that is one aspect about life at home I do not miss in the least.  It's a relief not to be constantly inundated with bombast.

 If the statement is true--and it certainly feels true--it's worrisome if you believe at all in literature's ability not only to enrich and inform our lives, but to transform them.  Aside from all the current studies on how the internet is changing our brains and attention spans, this may well be it's most deleterious effect, even more insidious for students, who are online from an early age and may never have the chance to develop the fiction habit.

Obviously, I am not one to denigrate the internet and online reading.  It has its place, certainly isn't going away, and it behooves us to harness its power and teach students the "art" of online reading.

Nevertheless, if it has this effect on us old farts, people embedded in the literary tradition well into their thirties, what will it do to younger, more malleable minds? Is it changing the very nature of fiction writing itself, as this suggests?

I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

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