Why No One Should Have to Defend the Novel

First Dylan goes hard on political philosophy (see my responses here and here) and now he’s arguing that the novel is “no longer, technologically speaking, necessary” and “text is an inferior way of telling stories to video. ”

Given that political philosophy and good literature are two things that I live for, I can only assume that he’s trying to ruin my life. Why, Dylan? I thought we were cool!

Now, I can’t really respond to any of Dylan’s points about Franzen’s article directly, because I haven’t read the article. It’s behind a pay wall, and I’m not a Harper’s subscriber, so I’ll have to take his word for it that Franzen is a secret racist/misogynist, my only feeble rebuttal being that The Corrections was really a wonderful novel and I didn’t pick up any clues from that text to indicate that the author was a Secret Hitler.

But I’m not here to defend the novelist, but the novel. And I’ve got to say, maybe it’s because he only glosses it in the first paragraph, but Dylan’s argument makes absolutely no sense to me. Why is video “superior” to text? For that matter, how can any artistic medium be “superior” to another one? They’re different tools, used to convey different things. You won’t ever hear anyone debate about whether or not music is better than painting, or film is better than music, and with good reason: because either debate would be fucking stupid.

If Dylan doesn’t like reading novels, that’s fine. In order to attend Harvard, you have to read some novels first, including some really good ones. Evidently he’s decided that’s not for him, and that’s a perfectly respectable position. But I don’t know how you could possibly read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or Infinite Jest and think, “Everything of value within this book could be done just as adequately or better on film.” The same holds in reverse, of course: If you’re watching Blue Velvet and thinking, “Man, it’s too bad David Lynch screwed up this perfectly good idea for a novel by putting it on film instead,” then you’re completely missing the point.

So what does literature do that film can’t? Well, Franzen has at least one point, in the first section that Dylan block quotes: unlike watching a movie, reading a book is not a passive activity. As a physical entity, a book is just some dead trees with ink on it. It doesn’t mean anything until you, the reader, do the work to invest it with meaning. And the greater effort creates, I would argue, a greater attachment. You become more heavily invested precisely because you’re investing more.

Beyond that, my ability to describe the unique virtues of the novel breaks down. Any legitimate art form has a certain ineffable magic about it, and this is the thing that captivates. Film has it. Words have it. Human language is so complex, so open to so many different shades of meaning, that a work that’s pure written language can be a work of staggering depth and sophistication. You can express things that an image alone would never be able to do, just as an image itself can never be perfectly recreated in writing. But both these things have value! If you let it, either one can profoundly affect you. And to dismiss one as dead and buried simply because it does nothing for you personally is, frankly, completely ludicrous.

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2 Responses

  1. The truth about life is an ephemeral thing. Every valuable work of art gives us a different perspective on it, and the more angles our vision can find, the more knowledge we can obtain. An individual may certainly decide that some art forms provide him more insight than others. But to denigrate other art forms that speak to other people is a destructive exercise. Let’s each learn as much as we can about our universe and find the most profound and effective way to share our vision with others.

  2. i liked this piece ned. i agree with you. video, while certainly a viable art form, is nevertheless like candied stimulation at times. i agree with your idea of the video being “passive” entertainment. i too will always appreciate the novel.

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