What’s New, Pussycat?

I haven’t been able to track down the quote, so I’m going to summarize. In explaining her famous line, “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” Gertrude Stein said that in the early days of poetry, a poet could exclaim, “O moon!”, or, “O rose!”, and the moon or the rose would actually be evoked for the reader. But after some hundreds of years, this effect was no longer achievable. Attempting to evoke the moon or a rose in a poem had become merely a literary device. It no longer communicated with the freshness or urgency that it had formerly done.

Literary devices, that is, get worn out. Writers continue to use them, but the real meaning has leached away.

The art form known as the novel is only about 400 years old. In the beginning, writers were keen to discover what this new medium could do. But by the end of the 19th century, if not before, the novel was a known thing. Writers were still making discoveries about subject matter or ways to treat subject matter, but their governing idea was to fit those discoveries between the covers of “a novel.” In some sense they were engaged in a covert dialog with their predecessors, who had defined the form, pushing a little or pulling back a little here or there to reshape it to their liking but content nonetheless to meander down well-trodden pathways, with only a little side jaunt here or there to pick a flower.

Publishing has been big business pretty much from the invention of the printing press on down. But in the late 19th and early 20th century a combination of changes — social, economic, and technological — created an enormous demand for inexpensive, accessible novels. And not just accessible but predictable. Genre fiction boomed. Agatha Christie. Arthur C. Clarke. Daphne du Maurier.

A hundred years on, these trends have been pushed over the brink by the combined forces of late-stage corporate capitalism and the Internet. Anybody with a computer can now “publish” a novel for free — and tens of thousands of people have done and are continuing to do so.

What these massed and mobilized scribblers are doing is, they’re writing “novels.” This is largely true not only of self-published authors but of well-known mainstream authors, the ones whose paperbacks you’ll see on display in an aisle in the supermarket. Everybody is following a formula. Some follow it brilliantly, some follow it with astounding ineptitude, but the formula never changes. Or rather, there are twenty formulas jostling one another in the “novel” basket, and none of them ever change except in microscopic ways. The novel has become a closed system: The parameters are mapped out and indisputable.

The bloom is off the rose.

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