Brain Pickings

The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books


Telling the fortune of tales to come, or what has to do with writing.

Whither the written word? Many meditations on this question, our own included, have appeared on substrate, online, and in streaming newsfeeds of late. We found the most entertaining answers in a new collection called The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books.

Just released this month, The Late American Novel was edited by Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee, writers and, in the case of the latter, founder of one of our favorite sites, The Millions. Martin and Magee have assembled an all-star team of literary visionaries including authors Rivka Galchen, Benjamin Kunkel, and Reif Larsen, and the results are at turns funny, poignant, and searching, but always provocative.

Galchen’s piece “The Future of Paper” opens the anthology with this LOL-worthy, tongue-in-cheek fable:

In Brooklyn, a paper-making collective was formed. A neglected commercial space for the collective was renovated with great flair and through the sweat of women with really cute bangs. However, the original Save Paper mission became overshadowed by the collective’s far more successful sideline of selling homemade organic yogurt and handmade patches created by prisoners whose only thread was harvested from striped gym socks.”

The joy of compilations lies in their contributors’ differing approaches and viewpoints, much in evidence here. Kunkel takes the historical perspective in his essay, creating a narrative of modern culture that moves from the “logosphere” to the “graphosphere” to our current context, which he dubs the “digitosphere.” Larsen, in his Pynchonian piece “The Crying of Lot 45,” uses illustrated marginalia to highly entertaining ends.

Writers especially will find inspiration among the book’s essays, as in Lauren Groff’s “Modes of Imagining the Writer of the Future”:

He is the one drawing word after word, pushing his sentences outward, into the darkness, into the thrilling unknown. He’s not going to put it off for tomorrow, and he’s not content with yesterday’s work. He is the one alone somewhere, writing, right now. And right now. And right now.”

As with Groff’s piece, our favorites among the bunch were those that ended with a reveille, rallying cries to creators in all places and of all media to get out there and do. In the words of writer Ander Monson:

Are we going to have to find new ways to get noticed? Yes. Do we get to find news ways to get noticed? Yes. Is it trouble? Yes. But trouble is the stuff of writing and creation. Time to shut up and get to the making, get back to that sense of play where everything interesting, including the future, finally fast and soon to be here, starts.”

The Late American Novel came out last week and may just be the most compelling collage-vision for the futue of publishing yet.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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