Pynchon, Hofstadter, David Foster Wallace and Me: Note on the Frustration of Trying to Create a Pre-Singularity, Post-Postmodern Literature

A little while ago I put out a tweet on twitter asking for advice about how to make my books known to readers who gravitate to writers like Stanislaw Lem, Douglas Hofstadter, Vladimir Nabokov (Pale Fire in particular), Borges, Pynchon, etc.

Of course my tweet had a purpose and a meta-purpose; the purpose was to actually solicit ideas about how to make my book known to readers of those authors, and the meta-purposed was to advertise my books to people searching for tweets on Pynchon, Borges, Pale Fire, etc. In other words my question was merely a hook into which to insert keywords — a cynical, albeit widespread, practice. In fact, my trolling for tweet-stream readers was my primary aim, I suspect. I didn’t really expect much in the way of answers, or at least of original answers.

But one fellow replied with words to the effect, “Blog about those authors and what you find compelling about them, then tweet about your blog post. People will follow the connection to your novels.”

Now, that is not a dazzingly original suggestion, but oddly enough it turns out that in my hundreds of posts here on Wetmachine and elsewhere, I’ve hardly ever written about what it is in literature that I think is important, and what I’m trying to do with my books.

So, below the fold, a few observations.

What is storytelling? Why do we need it? Are its forms immutable?

People like to say, per Ecclesiastes, that there is nothing new under the sun, and that that maxim applies to literature as much as it does to anything else. The human condition has not changed since the earliest civilizations arose, it is said, and it ain’t never going to change. The stories of birth, death, love, longing, betrayal, chance; of joys and sorrows and revelation and forgetting have all been told uncountable times already in a gazillion permutations. Some new mediums have arisen (plays, novels, movies, heavy metal ballads) since the times when the Bible stories were first set down, but the stories themselves have not changed. Let’s call this argument the Ecclesiastes Conjecture.

I’m going to interrupt myself here for a second & say that it’s axiomatic that people need stories, that we’re engineered & evolved to learn our deepest most important moral lessons, lessons about who we are and how we are to comport ourselves, from stories. I believe that it’s very important for us to know who we are and how we are to comport ourselves, therefore I believe that storytelling in general and literature in particular are important. Creating good literature is morally significant work. If you’re not willing to accept these premises as a baseline starting point, then you probably won’t find much of interest in the rest of this note. Here endeth interruption.

So, if you start from the Ecclesiastes Conjecture, it follows that the role of the storyteller today is to simply update the universal stories & put them in a vernacular & setting that today’s people can relate to.

Through the centuries various literary pioneers have rejected what might be called the “strong form” of the Ecclesiastes Conjecture, but have accepted it in its weaker, qualified form. They’ve said, in essence, that while human nature may be basically constant (or the range of human natures, in any event), that the nature of human society has definitely changed and with it the relationship of the individual to society. And thus while new stories were note needed, new forms of art and storytelling were needed to deal with new contexts.

For example Shakespeare’s art arose in the context of the emergence of a post-feudal society where the average person experienced a much greater freedom of action than ever before, and similarly with the novel (which got a boost, of course, from the widespread dissemination of the printing press.) Now then, to prevent myself from wandering off totally into the weeds, I’m not going to talk about movies, radio, television and so forth. I’m going to talk about novels because I’m a novelist. But some elaborations of this theme are fairly obvious & left as an exercise for the reader, that is, you.

While the formats may have changed, from the time of Aristotle, at least, people have pretty much agreed on what constitutes a story. It’s a narrative that has a beginning, middle, and end; characters, theme, action rising to a climax, and so forth.

However, from the time of Shakespeare and Cervantes, stories have gone at least somewhat “meta”, into a realm that, so far as I understand things, Aristotle didn’t venture. Thus we have plays within plays in Shakespeare, and much of Don Quixote has to do with the stories of the various bastard versions of the book itself. Tristram Shandy, which does, sort of, follow the Aristotelian beginning/middle/end format is basically an elaborate meditation on the impossibility of telling a true Aristotelian story with a beginning, middle, and end. And so forth.

Modernism and Post-Modernism

With the advent of modernism, storytellers began to more seriously tinker with the story form itself. I’m going to conflate modernism and existentialism, and say that they both began pretty much with Doestoevsky’s Notes from Underground,
which is a self-contradictory rant with essentially no plot that nevertheless tells a story, and the story it tells is of the alienation of the individual in the modern world. Canonical modernist works like Ulysses and The Waste Land and The Trial and Heart of Darkness all play with new forms of structure as they explore new forms of self-awareness. And they kind of implicitly accept an even weaker form of the Ecclesiastes Conjecture, asserting that human nature is somewhat more plastic than previously believed, especially because it is truly more self-aware now than before. So that’s modernism, and it seems to me to be the world view that most people in the Western & Western-influenced world now accept as normative.

Anyway along came post-modernism with storytellers like Borges and Delilo and Pynchon and Barthleme and new guys like Danielewski and David Mitchell, and they threw cherry bombs or even sticks of dynamite into the traditional story forms, and there point was, so far as I can tell, to go even deeper into the whole question of the self, the continuity of the self over time. The whole idea of the self is sometimes denied. (There are a bunch of French literary critics who have written big fat (& largely incomprehensible) tomes on all this stuff, and if you want to read them, be my guest.) Some of these postmodern “novels” are quite satisfying. I really like David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, for example. But often this kind of literature devolves into solipsism and sterile formal games, where the whole point of the book becomes its form, and all vestiges of human experience and emotion are evaporated out of it with a blow torch. Robert Cover’s ghastly Gerald’s Party comes to mind, which I reviewed here.

These books, by the way, are seldom best-sellers; their authors (often  university professors) generally don’t make their living from writing them. But anyway, I think the main difference between me and most of these authors is that I really do try to create recognizably human characters that you care about.

The end of the Ecclesiastes Conjecture & the future of fiction

So where does that leave us, and in particular, where does it leave me, as a guy who’s trying to not only write good novels, but also make some money from them? (Note: I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of a university faculty.)

I believe in the Aristotelian story form and the Aristotelian purpose of using stories to move people & give the insight. That’s how you connect with people & I do believe that’s pretty much innate. Some parts of story structure is hard-wired because human story-listeners are hard-wired.

I want to create real stories that readers will find compelling, which means both that the characters must be compelling and the plots must be believable. But I also believe that the modernist/postmodernist impulses are right, that the nature of the self, that is, human nature, is not immutable, it is changing, and new forms of storytelling must be found to deal with this fact, and that plain vanilla linear narratives cannot handle deep themes such as the nature of the conscious self.

So already I’m kind of contradicting myself. But it gets worse.

Here’s the main thing: the Ecclesiastes Conjecture is giving way. There are new things under the sun.

1) The first of these new things is human mastery of DNA & genetic engineering. This knowledge allows us to engineer plants and animals now, and will soon allow us to engineer people. This is a circumstance unimagined by the Preacher of Ecclesiastes. The implications of this technology on questions of who we are and how we are to comport ourselves are staggering.

2) The second of these new things is the development of silicon and other digital intelligences that will soon supersede human intelligence. Ditto.

3) The third of these new things is climate change the unification of the global information space. We are on the cusp of wiping out humanity at the same we’re all plugging in to the same global mind. I predict crazy global mood swings of a kind never before seen.

Now, I’m not the first person to make these observations. People have been talking about “the singularity,” where the first of these two trends converge, for decades now. Writers of science fiction have dealt with some of these themes for even longer than that. But they’ve done so, by and large, in forms that follow convention. And thus I feel that their forms often fail to match their content. Something more ambitious is warranted, I think.

But I don’t write novels for disembodied selves or for the mega-hyperintelligent Overmind. I write for people. And actually I’m trying to sell lots and lots of my books. I’m trying to make some money here, people! I’m not trying to write fancy shit that will impress professors of literary theory (although that would be nice too); I’m trying to write books that people will read on the beach, or on the subway.

So what I’m trying to do in other words is to create compelling easy-to-understand stories about believable, interesting people in realistic circumstances that are also fantastic stories about Overmind emergent, disembodied selves, machine thought, biodigital convergence, the eclipse of everything known and familiar, and radical disorientation. I’m trying to do this in forms that are both completely familiar & accessible and totally new, bizarre and disorienting. So all my books are supposed to work as both linear and nonlinear narratives, and as both narratives and meta-narratives. Douglas Hofstadter’s concept of the Strange Loop, and in particular of its connection to self-awareness, is a major influence on me in throughout all my books.

When you consider that my books are self-published (soon to change for one title, anyway), and that they run into a presumption among much of the reading public that they’re ipso facto crap, you can see that I have a bit of a what might be called a marketing dilemma. Should I try to establish my “brand” among, say, readers of thrillers? Well, readers of Tom Clancy and Dan Brown would like Acts of the Apostles, but perhaps not Cheap Complex Devices. Should I instead try to reach my more natural audience, people who read Pynchon et al? Well, in the first place that’s hard to do, because those readers are often snooty and unlikely to believe that some nobody on the Internet is a literary master. (Which is not to say that I’m a master, only that my ambition is large.) And in the second place there are one hell of a lot more readers of Tom Clancy than there are of Tom Pynchon. Willie Sutton‘s maxim comes to mind.

It ain’t easy.

It’s very hard to write the books in the first place, and finding an audience for them is very frustrating. In fact, one might go so far as to call it a real bitch kitty. And the odds of my success are vanishingly small.

But that’s what I’m trying to do, and there are others like me, although I’m not going to list them here since I’m already sounding presumptuous enough.

To get an idea of what my books are like, you can scan the reviews on Amazon. I like some of them better than others, but I think that overall they give a pretty fair picture.

David Weinberger also wrote a nice appreciation of Cheap Complex Devices, and England’s Grumpy Old Bookman David Allen wrote a nice appreciation of the ouevre.

The Google can find you plenty others.

I hope to have the new version of Acts of the Apostles finished soon, and Creation Science not long after that.

Comments are closed.