Will Literature’s Conservatism Lead to Its Death?

Literature has always been slow to adapt to new technologies, which on the one hand might be its saving grace but could just as well lead to its demise.
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TRANSCRIPT

Question: Did you include the visual elements in “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” because you think novels should evolve towards multimedia?

Jonathan Safran Foer: No, I think the written word is perfectly sufficient.  You know, it worked for Kafka and if it doesn’t work for me it’s only because I’m not good enough with the written word.  I included images in "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" because I thought they were appropriate for that book.  I wanted to capture the exuberance of this young boy, his sort of maximal imagination, also his imaginations, desire or need to grasp at lots and lots of things.  September 11th was the most visual event, probably, in human history. It was witnessed by more people than anything else ever was or has been, and I thought that there was a visual component to that event that couldn’t be separated.  And when we think about September 11th, we think about the two towers, the sight of them; we think about the plane going into them, the sight of that.  

So I thought images were appropriate for that book.  I don’t think that they are necessary or appropriate for every book or most books.

Question: Will the form of the novel have to change to accommodate the digital age?

Jonathan Safran Foer: Of course it will change, and anybody that thinks it won’t is not thinking it through enough.  The New York Times is now on the iPad, right.  If The New York Times didn’t have video embedded in it, if you couldn’t link from one article to another, if you couldn’t search back issues of The Times, if they had a piece about this unbelievable shot that, you know, Rafael Nadal hit and they didn’t have a clip of it, we would say that it was being negligent.  Not only that it wasn’t taking advantage of the vehicle, but that it wasn’t providing us with the news that it could and should.  

And so there’s going to be a real pressure on novels when they start to be read on screens—which seems like an inevitability—to interact with the vehicle.  I don’t know what that will mean.  I certainly don’t know that that’s a good thing at all.  There are a lot of reasons to think that it’s a bad thing.  But it seems like an inevitability, and literature has always been slow.  Slower than the other art forms to grapple with... technological changes, cultural changes even. You know, when you look at a book like "Freedom," Jonathan Franzen’s most recent book, there are many, many ways in which it could resemble "The Odyssey," or Shakespeare.  And I think that’s one of the things that people love so much about it, and should love so much about it.  But if you look at artists who are not contemporary artists who are at the sort of peak of their game or the forefront of their forms, what they have in common with artists working 100 years ago, much less a couple thousand years ago, is almost nothing.  You know, music has changed so much in the last 50 years.  And the visual arts are barely even recognizable as art anymore.  So maybe it’s been the saving grace of literature to be so conservative, but maybe it will contribute to its death.  I don’t know.

Recorded on August 26, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller