The Extent of Our Decline

Kyle Beachy

"He pictured precise objects, he made them briefly shine with immanence, a bowl for food, a spoon constructed out of thought, perception, memory, feeling, and imagination." --Don DeLillo, Mao II


Let's recall Horace addressing his letter to Augustus two-thousand years back, in which the poet laments the decline of literature. And let's imagine Augustus sitting in his private library, the world's most important man surrounded by towering columns and much papyrus, the midday sun burning golden through tall arches, its light busy with dust. The emperor looks exactly like the busts we see of him. After an hour spent leaning over Book II of Horace's Ars Poetica, Augustus rises, stretches and moves into the hall, a man gravid with thought. But then, reaching the garden, he begins to chuckle. Something, it seems, has struck him funny, and soon the Emperor is so consumed by mirth he's forced to sit on a nearby bench. He's bellowing as only an emperor can! He smacks an imperious knee and speaks upward, as if to the wind, Oh, my poor friend! Just wait for the iPad! Guffaw, guffaw as guards nearby crack their own sly smiles. You and your kind are fucked, Horace!


Horace, who had the benefit of steady patronage from the good Gais Maecenas, would be fine. He had a cozy estate in the hills of modern Tivoli in which to sit and ponder life's more slippery virtues. It would be the distant heirs to his tradition who would face rather more difficult circumstances.

Today's poets strike me as heroic, standing as they do among the enlightened creators who know well to expect nary a dime for their art. Perhaps a dime. There's little space for illusion inside the pursuit of poetry, and the work, for better or worse, is created by and large free the burden of potential jackpot.

We novelists, though, have long suffered from a common delusion that if all goes perfectly right, if stars and popular taste and film options align just so, we'll find ourselves living fat, perhaps tearing through Horace's backyard in something small and fast and European, while Natalie Portman rides shotgun, her hands full with aged cheese and salami, a bottle of Brunello waiting in her lap. Fantasies, admittedly, have varied. But the novel, with its formal capacity to tap into our American cultural mainline, has maintained at least the promise of sweeping import.

Except now our noble industry has shrunken before our eyes: the parties are smaller and the rooftops lower. Certain loud voices break the news that the novel is stupid, anyway, and prominent journalists and memoirists applaud loudly. Our elders, shuddering a bit at the prospect of change, nod and grumble. It's been dead before, but never like this. Then it turns out that Portman is vegan, and a Foer fan as well; Apple is cornering an already-cornered market, and the sky tears and bleeds upon our poor, novelist shoulders. We stand and drip, confused.


Horace's concern was the decline of his art. Poets, he feared, were wandering off track or growing lazy, thus failing the Roman Empire they were paid to serve.

Today's alarm is rather this fear's inversion – a matter of the world changing beyond the reach of our preferred mode of expression. The zeitgeist shifts from psychology to neurology, mind to body, accelerating always and rendering the long form of written narrative – with its naive characters and plot conventions and mimetic impulses – both too demanding and too composed to befit the madhouse reality of our time.

There is a kind of giddy excitement about it all, one that's fleeting but constantly replaced. Today novelty has all the endurance of a single breath – an idea once shared transforms (or metastasizes, if we respect the viral metaphor) into an idea known to everyone, providing "newness" its own narrative: feed me stories of old technologies dying, reaffirm my standing on the frontier of what's new, then newer, then newer still, and I'll happily burn whatever stale relics I find inside my house.

Who doesn't want to be told that their age is unique?

We know by now that as few as five hours on the internet alters the brain itself, training it to absorb data ever-more rapidly, quick lessons gleaned from many sources. Our patterns of data ingestion have shifted away from sustained devotion to a single source. I like to show my students screen-caps of CNN broadcasts from the early nineties –  the anchor sitting behind her desk, a single graphic floating over her shoulder. No partitions or scrolling bars. No data cramped into corners. The students yawn. Compared to the packed screenspace we see now, there's an almost pastoral simplicity to the old screen, a spatial naiveté or hubristic wastefulness.

And now. Just look at these poor pages. Yellow and old, they smell of a death that is almost assuredly their own.


If only Horace were here to clarify for us the complicated relationship between a novel and its pages. Clearly, the novel is built around the mechanics of the book. But to conflate the two is a mistake both easy and terrible. Phillip Roth makes this mistake by grumpily declaring "it" cultic, the sort of thing that in 25 years will be read by only "a small group of people. Maybe more people than now read Latin poetry, but somewhere in that range." For Roth, the novel is the book is the novel, a singular and static object whose death he hears rattling over even his aging characters' own.

The grandiose Alinea cookbook and Kathryn Regina's tiny, perfect I Am in the Air Right Now prove the obvious point that books are plural. The acts of their reading are vastly different, and neither are novels, this floating term we're so intent to label with the definite article. But just as the LP has been packaged in multiple media – vinyl, eight-track, cassette, CD, and shapelessly intangible data files, while vinyl preservers – so too is the novel capable of movement between media. Our novels of our future has much to learn from the vinyl record's stamina, like the practice of including a free download with every purchase. One LP in two distinct forms: the tangible (beautiful, sensuous, justly fetishized) vinyl, and intangible (sterile, erasable, but infinitely portable) data file.

But even such objective plurality wouldn't quiet the loudest of the death alarmists, like Esquire's Tom Junod. Best known for his research into the unknown subject of Richard Drew's famous "Falling Man" photograph, Junod casts his ongoing obituary in language that would make Roth proud, calling the novel, "that ever-more elaborate cathedral with the ever-more precipitously declining attendance." Junod's larger argument is contained inside his scathing review of DeLillo's Falling Man: "the idea that when the planes hit and the buildings went down we entered the 'age of nonfiction,' when journalism…is able to grasp what’s happened to us more than fiction can, even fiction by our most accomplished and ambitious writers."

There's a comedy to Junod's attack, considering that its target is an author who has always recognized his novels' inability to encompass his subject, which is nothing short of American life in the 20th century. Each of DeLillo's novels reaches for media beyond its own text for effect: the famous television of White Noise; the films that bookend both Players and Point Omega and serve as plot engines for Americana, Running Dog, and The Names; the performance art of The Body Artist and Falling Man; spectacle and photography in Mao II and Underworld; journalism and official government record in Libra; the mathematics and cosmology of Ratner's Star; and even sport and music in End Zone and Great Jones Street. For DeLillo, the project of the novel has always been to destroy the idea of author as sole proprietor of meaning. Today, of course, such basic multi-media is the domain of even our simplest handheld devices, and this might explain why his fiction doesn't cut with the same acuity it did twenty short years ago (an infinite time ago).

The purview of the novel continues to be pinched from outside, and perhaps rightly so. Today, the novel simply can not provide the services it once claimed as private. Satire has been exploded by The Daily Show, The Onion, and a thousand blogs updated hourly. So, too, with personal accounts of tragedy, loss, and sometimes redemption – these subjects all within the memoirs' wheelhouse. Even knowledge itself, information of almost any sort: who today reads a novel to learn when Wikipedia offers the shorter, denser version?

Regarding our 'age of nonfiction,' Junod finds an equally ardent partner in David Shields. In one of the roughly six thousand promotional interviews he gave to support the release of Reality Hunger, Shields fired endless rounds at the fictional: "Living as we perforce do in a manufactured and artificial world, we yearn for the ‘real' [to] break through the clutter…More invention, more fabrication, aren’t going to do this."

But Shields is certainly no Horace, and is much more Nero or Caligula than Augustus. One big reason Shields doubts that he's "the only person finding it more and more difficult to read or write novels" is precisely the same reason why the novels he did write aren't terribly compelling. It's a reason Shields isn't particularly interested in hiding, it doesn't seem. Which is, worded one way, that David Shields is an asshole. Or, more accurately: David Shields doesn't believe in communion.


Here the past, yet again, proves valuable. In 1898 Tolstoy defined art as, "that human activity which consists in one man's consciously conveying to others by certain external signs the feelings he has experienced, and in others being infected by those feelings and also experiencing them." This is communion, which is also catharsis – art as exercise for the empathetic muscles that define us as human. If the novel has ceded ground to other entertainments, it maintains a distinct and formal advantage in the realm of communion.

The novel is an analogue activity, far more interested in relationships between forces than the one or zero of our machines. Our analogue lives demand and require analogue art. What better form to capture the gradients of madness that define a modern life? For madness, and our understanding of it, depends on its presentation, the language attached to it, the progresses by which we see it emerge and abate. The novelist's task is to share perspectives in ways other writers simply cannot. To move between them and ply their differences, establish similarities we'd otherwise miss. To both conduct and trigger a reader's own empathy.

Memoirists, political pundits, music critics, rockstars, athletes, manifestists, internationally acclaimed clothing designers…from these figures we allow for, even expect, egomania, self-promotion, and hyper-criticality of all who are not them. But never has it been easier to set a novel down; sit an asshole behind the funhouse's control levers and I will happily walk away.

Today's novel has to be an exercise of both the mind and heart, physical at times like a finger in the eye. I'm not sure I can any longer cringe at film, but I do regularly when reading long fiction. This cringe is effect, feeling, something increasingly rare and thus a reward. It is a process whose effect is unnamed and untraceable on MRI, but is a novelist's true and vital gift, the reason Sven Birkets, in his comprehensive essay, "Reading in a Digital Age," so passionately insists "that my reading has done a great deal for me even if I cannot account for most of it."

This gift, defined only by the process through which it is achieved, possible only over time. This is the novel's value, and what must be the novel's future.

Consider the account of Barry Loach which David Foster Wallace, our paragon of novelistic communion, saved until page 967 of Infinite Jest. Wallace devotes only four pages to Loach's story, or roughly .3% of the giant novel, and yet he contains inside this brief narrative of physical communion his novel's giant thumping heart, a small, profound reward for the long, arduous task of reading his novel, proof of the author's respect, even love, for his reader.

Here is your novel of the future. It is messy and sometimes long. It traffics in both ontology and epistemology and demands from you, reader, activity unique today. Your time, your patience. Your effort. But rest assured, please, that beneath these words are the everlasting arms. Sink into these pages, the novelist says, whether on paper or touchscreen, and find love within. Lies, yes, told via a bounty, even superfluity, of words. Though hidden among these lies sits an experience buried, a truth untellable as fact.

You'll likely forget where you heard it, but that's not really the point.




This essay appears in the forthcoming The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books (Soft Skull Press, March 2011).