Form for Form’s Sake?

During the fall semester, I took a course on 21st century literature. So what makes a contemporary novel? Good question. Granted it is too early to really tell, but most of the novels we read seem to drastically depart from traditional plots to embrace short story and novel hybrids. Meaning the story telling has become fragmented. I read books like Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad and Justin Torres’s We the Animals, which beg the question – Is this text even a novel?

Plus, many writers are experimenting with digital technology as a way to tell a story. I’m referring to works like Matthew Derby’s The Silent History and Geoff Ryman’s Two Five Three.

I think technology has inspired (or…well…increased) the fragmentation in literature, as well as rewired our brains. In the essay Fragmentary: Writing in a Digital Age, Guy Patrick Cunningham writes:

Fragmentary writing is (or at least feels) like the one avant-garde literary approach that best fits our particular moment. It’s not that it’s the only form of writing that matters of course, just that it captures the tension between ‘digital’ and ‘analog’ reading better than anything else out there. And that tension, in many ways, is the defining feature of the contemporary reading experience…

What’s more, according to Lockean memory theory, our identity relies upon a sequence of linked memories, which has been altered by the continual access to mobile apps and other tech:

Memory often works piecemeal — after all, people don’t really remember an entire experience, instead they hold on to particular images, emotions, or impressions…their fragmentary nature therefore reflects the fragmentary nature of memory, and of the human mind.

Cunningham is specifically referring to works by Samuel Beckett here, but I think his comments apply to many texts in the 21st century, too. At least the books that I have read. So the fragmentation of and stringing together of stories is at least one way contemporary writers are re-inventing or reusing literary forms to fit into the digital age. Do you know any others? Feel free to comment.

More to come on this subject…


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