Imaginary Tales in an Information Age


Will the abundance of information reshape fiction as it has academic scholarship?


In a recent post I commented that "as I write I am in constant need of information." I was thinking of the responsibilities of scholarship, of constantly needing to fact-check or come up with further evidence for a claim. I wrote that it might be different if I were a poet or a novelist. But now that I think about it more, I wonder if that's necessarily true; and I'm suspecting that what I was treating as a one-way street might have traffic moving in both directions. Surely the constant and ever-expanding availability of information will have an increasing influence on what novelists want to do and how they go about doing it.

I'm prompted to these thoughts by this Ewan Morrison essay on "factual fiction", which concludes with an exhortation and a warning:

Whether we like it or not, the net is rewiring our reading habits. As [Walter] Benjamin said, the novel, as it exists, cannot contain the threat from the form that is greater than it: information. If it is to be relevant at all, the novel must break into new hybrids and leave the 19th-century segregation of fact, fiction, memoir and essay behind. The novel must let the world in and speak through the many forms that the world already speaks through.

Morrison overstates the degree to which pre-digital-age fiction was "segregated" into genres. The novels of Thomas Wolfe were very thinly fictionalized autobiography; Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels are so pleasurable in large part because their historical textures are so deeply and intricately woven -- they are works of fiction stuffed with ever-surprising information. But Morrison has rightly identified an important general tendency.

Any good novelist will be, by nature and training, intensely curious and observant: she will follow Henry James's famous admonition to "try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost." That is to say, she will be highly receptive to all the circumstances of her environment. And insofar as that environment is information-rich, her fiction will be as well.

It's still too early to tell how these tendencies will play out, how the character of our stories will be altered by the information we have, ready to hand, ready to fill in. Some writers, like Gary Shteyngart in Super Sad True Love Story, will write fiction whose subject is information and what swimming in it does to us. Some stories will no doubt end up being overloaded with data -- occasionally Neal Stephenson risks this -- and some writers will then draw back to a kind of informational minimalism, which will be an interesting turn in its own right. But I look forward to a future in which the most important writers of fiction will serve as resourceful, imaginative, surprising filters for the daily whirl and swirl of information.

Image: nSeika/Flickr.

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Alan Jacobs is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the honors program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

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