On Salon.com, Gary Kamiya offers a balanced, thoughtful essay (“The Readers Strike Back“) on the rapidly evolving — and somewhat off-balance — relationship between writer and reader.
The reader revolution has also provided an unprecedented snapshot of America. Anyone who surfs the Web looks out over democratic vistas that Walt Whitman could only imagine. The switchboard is lit up and behind each light is a real human being whose opinions and interests can now be heard by all. Is this a good thing? It depends on whether your commitment to democracy, transparency and openness outweighs your desire not to be flooded with noise about Paris Hilton, Brazilian bikini waxing and the profiles on MySpace.
Kamiya is writing mostly about works that are published on the Web, but as he astutely notes, the relationship effects novelists, too. I wrote about a Booklist mention in Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker awhile ago, and Kamiya is also interested in Powers’ take on writers’ heightened exposure to noisy public debate.
Fiction writers are not exposed to as much online feedback as journalists, but they too are exposed. And some fiction writers are beginning to register this in their work. In Richard Powers’ latest novel, “The Echo Maker,” one of the main characters is a neurologist and writer whose recent books have been criticized. Looking at comments about him on Amazon, he thinks: “Somehow, when he wasn’t looking, private thought gave way to perpetual group ratings. The age of personal reflection was over. From now on, everything would be haggled out in public feedback brawls.”
For his part, Powers seems to welcome the age of “public feedback brawls” — at least as they affect his work. “What’s liberating is my books are being talked about by a lot of people in a lot of different forums, from esoteric literary quarterlies to blogs,” he said in an interview with Salon’s Kevin Berger in the Los Angeles Times. “It’s now possible to feel that you’re just part of a conversation that’s veering and weaving all the time. In a way, it parallels the issues in ‘The Echo Maker.’ We want to believe the self is a single and a solid thing. But we need to stop thinking about the self as a kind of solid art sculpture and start thinking of it as a river, flowing and changing. Maybe many years ago, I had the idea that a book had an innate quality and was a solid, identifiable monument of unchanging value. But it’s clear to me that books, like people, are works in progress. They are constantly being transformed.”
But Powers’ view of fiction as constantly in flux is probably not shared by most novelists, who are more apt to see their creations as immutable objects, “artifices of eternity” like Yeats’ golden bird in “Sailing to Byzantium.” In one sense, this sense of fiction as autonomous shields it from the reader revolution — but it also leaves it potentially open to being undercut, whittled away. If all the cultural noise and audience feedback is about either nonfiction or the more blatantly attention-getting elements in fiction, will fiction writers have an incentive to stop dreaming?
I probably didn’t have time to read this essay this morning, but I’m glad I did. Consider this my response.