February 22, 2005

What If the Characters Wrote the Stories?

What if Anna Karenina and not Tolstoy had written ANNA KARENINA? What if Clarissa Dalloway and not Virginia Woolf had written MRS. DALLOWAY?

That’s what we have now in the age of blogs and podcasts, reality TV and noncelebrity memoirs. Every reader can now simultaneously be author and character. Do we need a new CATCHER IN THE RYE when The Real World…Blogger Style is updated daily by a dozen author/characters?

This, I think, is a massive and democratic shift in the sociology of the arts—a revolution of the masses, after millennia of serving as models for aristocrats’ sketches.

What will be the effect on literature? Well, to put it selfishly, it’s probably hurt my career, as someone who specializes in imagining lives more eventful than my own. I’m a writer, not a character. The novelist and short story writer may be going the way of the cooper and the wainwright.

More broadly, I suspect that the net effect will be a gain in immediacy and verisimilitude and a loss in depth. The best interpreter of an experience isn’t necessarily the one experiencing it.

This seems to me to be an Americanization of the arts, going along with the Americanization of the whole world. It’s somehow related, too, to the American–led shift from print to screen which began with the first talkies in the late 1920s. A widening of access, a democratizing of taste and of subject matter, a waning of the cultivated mind.