The Future of Literature

Prepare for the worst and hope for the best, I tell my students. Books will probably be gone in a decade, though if we ask politely we may be permitted to keep the ones we already own; après nous le deluge.
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Prepare for the worst and hope for the best, I tell my students.

Books will probably be gone in a decade, though if we ask politely we may be permitted to keep the ones we already own; après nous le deluge. A brave new genre of e-lit with symphonic multimedia stimuli -- new and improved, not just words! -- will set our tablets buzzing with hypertext fiction, collaborative narratives, kinetic poetry, chronomosaic novels.

And I expect the text message announcing the gamification of literature any moment. It's already happened to pedagogy, design, commerce, information: why not belles lettres? Game on!

What, me bitter? No, really not. Shakespeare, Wordsworth and crew will survive just fine, as long as their modern-day e-acolytes maintain vibrant websites for them and their social media proxies keep them up voted.

Yes, things will be lost -- commonplace books, manuscripts, correspondences, watermarks and embossed decorative bindings, bookstores -- but valuable new media resources are evolving to compensate for what disappears in book culture. Google "Sylvia Plath reading her own poetry": Instead of trying to chart out how we think her scansion, caesurae, and enjambments might flow, we can just listen to her reciting a definitive version, intoning the verbal music exactly as she meant it to sound.

Readers who have misplaced their own copies of the First Folio can find it online instantly. Check out Philo at the beginning of The Tragedie of Anthonie, and Cleopatra dissing the Roman Triumvir's grand entrance with all the snarky spleen of a Facebook troll: "Take but good note, and you shall see in him (The triple Pillar of the world) transform'd into a Strumpets Foole." Pwned, Marc A! Obviously the possessive apostrophe in "Strumpets" is missing because the bard was thumb-typing with an archaic autocorrect.

The onslaught of technology overwhelms me in so many other ways, but in my professional field, I'm relieved to say, I don't think I'm about to be set adrift on an ice floe. I see no evidence that contemporary writers have abandoned T. S. Eliot's pronouncement from a century ago in "Tradition and the Individual Talent" that "No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists."

Dead poets are what get me out of bed every morning, and it would be a shame to lose them just because they may be incompatible with Windows 9. Indeed, third-millennium literature, as state-of-the-art as it promises to be, can flourish only by sustaining the forms and conventions from the past. (Note to iconoclasts: rejecting "antiquated" literary modes is actually just another way of continuing the tradition -- you have postmodernism to thank for that.)

Eliot (channeling the dead poet Donne) reminds us that no man is an island: the contemporary writer cannot be valued in isolation. "You must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead...The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them."

This "really new" art excites me, as I struggle to figure it out, mainly because I'm such a well-trained reader of the old art -- which, incidentally, used to be really new back in the day. The Waste Land, which Eliot published right after "Tradition and the Individual Talent" paved the way for it, still feels really new in my seminars, whether or not it actually is; "new," I suppose, is relative.

So what's new in futurelit? Its content? Its aesthetic and style? Its reception? Its range of allusions and associations? These are things we've always considered -- "interrogations," in professorial parlance -- and the good news is, simply, that we can continue to do so. Where are the hegemonies and counter-hegemonies in these new texts? How do they play out at that well-trafficked intersection of class, race, and gender? What will it be about? New things: globalism, climate change, terrorists, the digital labyrinth. And also, old things: love, angst, hope, fear.

New literature is multiplatformed, so there's not just one way to read -- was there ever? It will be distributed not in limited editions or carefully conscribed duodecimos but with a blissful infinitude and for all who come. The measure of these texts, the boundaries of these texts, will be at the same time microscopic and immeasurable (we English professors love a good paradox!): as vast as a terabyte and as compact as the digital compression that allows us to read the world's longest novel on the world's smallest reading device. "To see a world in a grain of sand" tweeted (apparently not bothered that Twitter wouldn't be invented for another 200 years) "And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour."

I'm not too worried about navigating the new literary terrain; I think there's more than a bit of life left in the old guard that will send us hurtling into and through the cultural cybersphere. The humanities, we are informed, are in a "plight," and I am supposed to be languishing in some dusty crevice bemoaning my irrelevance. I would prefer not to; I'm too busy trying to figure out how to crowd-source and data mine.

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