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Introduction: The Anxiety of Obsolescence

Print is undead.
–Stuart Moulthrop

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 The world is going to hell in a handbasket, and has been since the invention of television.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 So, at least, seems to be the argument made by a range of cultural critics, both from the Right and from the Left, both academics and public intellectuals, both those who publish in highbrow venues and those who publish in more popular locales, both those who write fiction and those who write nonfiction.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 What all these cultural critics have in common, by and large, is print, and the belief that Gutenberg’s medium and the literature that it has made possible must be saved from the twentieth-century technologies–among which they number television, of course, but also film and the Internet–that threaten to end more than five hundred years of print’s dominance in Western culture and drive it into obsolescence.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 One may infer that conflict between print technologies and electronic media exists from the media and pundit attention to what seems an otherwise insignificant event: In late October 2001, Oprah Winfrey withdrew the invitation she’d earlier extended to Jonathan Franzen to appear on her show as a featured book-club author. This unprecedented disinvitation rocked the literary world and produced a round of accusations, vilifications, and finger-pointing from folks on both sides of the issue. Was Franzen right to suggest his discomfort with the Oprah seal of approval on the jacket of his book, an indication of the questionable effects of corporate intervention in literary production? Was he being an elitist jerk when he bemoaned the other mainstream Oprah selections with which his book would now be lumped? Was Oprah too easily offended by Franzen’s ill-thought-out comments, and too ready to flex her quite significant media muscle? Or did she respond in the only way that made any sense by releasing an author uncomfortable with the milieu into which he’d been thrust from his obligations to that milieu, in order to protect her audience from condescension? At base: Was Oprah’s Book Club hopelessly middlebrow, catering as it did to an audience of Middle American television watchers, or did it perform a significant cultural service in introducing important books to people who might not otherwise have found them? Was it a monolithic mass-branding machine that tyrannized bookstores into shifting their sales priorities, fronting Oprah’s choices and ignoring the unselected masses, or was it a miraculous means of getting people to go into bookstores and buy books? Finally, given the conflict’s fallout–Oprah discontinued the book club altogether a few months later, while Franzen stayed on best-seller lists across the country–what, if anything, does the Oprah/Franzen flap reveal about the ongoing relationship between high art and mass culture, or about the precarious existence of publishing between literary and corporate production? Whatever conclusions one draws, the issues at stake–and particularly those that suggest an inevitable conflict between print values and the values promoted by television–cut to the heart of the serious novel’s seemingly tenuous position in contemporary U.S. culture.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 This book is about that seemingly tenuous position. I explore the ways the novel has been represented throughout the postmodern era as under threat in U.S. culture, driven into a state of near obsolescence by the electronic media developed during the twentieth century, most notably television. More important, however, I’ll focus throughout on the cultural purposes served by the repeated proclamations of the novel’s untimely demise.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 As an example, take a 1997 editorial published in a Web journal called Bold Type. The author raises an unnerving question that many writers and scholars in the age of electronic media find themselves repeatedly confronting: “Why . . . does the book’s influence over popular culture appear to be ever-waning?” Despite the hint in this quote that such a decline might be no more than mere appearance, the author takes it for verifiable fact: “The book today is the underdog; one must root for the written word” (Weissman). In this evocation of a sporting match, the editorial imagines the current media ecology to be a scene of conflict, with winners and losers, in which the book seems destined to fail and thus must rally backers to its side. A certain irony hangs about this argument, given that it appeared on the Internet. On the one hand, using the Web to make this pitch for print culture’s survival only serves to call attention to the electronic sources of the book’s apparent demise; on the other, the book’s presumptive foe–wired, virtual, and overwhelmingly visual–is here conscripted as its champion, a service that calls the very supposition of conflict into question. The alliance between the two forms is nervous at best, as indicated by the oddness of the journal’s title, Bold Type: though the publication may be about ink-on-paper type, it is not composed of it, and thus it serves to champion a medium that it itself eschews.[1] The purposes of the alliance, however, and further of the journal’s suggestions of the book’s need for cultural support in an era in which it is beset by larger, more powerful foes, become quite clea