Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books

[Edited by Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee
Soft Skull Press, 192 pp., $14.95 (paper)

So here's an anthology of writing about how long-form writing and reading, in the omni-connected, ever-distracting Internet age, is (possibly) threatened with extinction or is (more likely) changing to survive. The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books is neatly summed by a back-cover blurb from John Wray: "I sat down to read it expecting a coroner's report and found a manifesto instead."

Fuck yeah, John Wray, you're not kidding: What a refreshing surprise in these days of lit-scene doom and gloom. Editors Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee have gathered essays and vignettes and such from a bright segment of modern scribes – a few of the names recognizable from The New Yorker's recent best "20 Under 40" issue, hey – who weigh in with author's-eye views in their engaging styles and do much to dispel the more funereal prognostication going on at the corporate level of booksmithery.

Rivka Galchen starts off the post-introduction considerations, her surreal "The Future of Paper" a palate-cleansing abstraction before the less fantastical responses are served. David Shields isn't among the lettered company in this volume, but his Reality Hunger: A Manifesto functions as a sort of welcome touchstone for several of the writers, especially for David Gates and Jonathan Lethem, whose back-and-forth emails (originally seen in PEN America 12: Correspondences) are as relevant to the subject at hand as they are cleverly revelatory in general. Treme writer Tom Piazza briefly interviews himself about the future of books. Reif Larsen, of T.S. Spivet fame, tackles the more hardware-oriented, structural side of things with his graphics-embellished "The Crying of Page 45." Kyle Beachy, aside from dissing the abovementioned Shields as "an asshole" who "doesn't believe in communion," offers a plaintive assertion along the lines of novels (that he finds important) being important because, c'mon, guys, you can feel how important they are. Emily St. John Mandel, on the other hand, thoughtfully welcomes our new e-book overlords: "The conveniences of the digital age are inarguable," says the staff writer for editor Magee's The Millions website.

Indeed: How did you access this very review, friend?
And how will it please you to encounter the contents of this recommended book?

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