There is no more speaking to the nation

I recommend that if you haven’t already you head over to this month’s issue of the Internet Review Of Science Fiction and read Kristine Kathryn Rusch‘s essay “What’s Louder Than Noise“, in which she puts forth her argument for why the Great American Novel is no longer something that it’s possible to write.

The essay isn’t terribly long, but it will seem even shorter since Rusch’s essay style will just draw you through it.

The actual G.A.N. argument in the essay essentially turns around two points: 1) it was only possible historically because there was a period where there was a monolithic culture, and 2) there isn’t one anymore, and what’s more there’s too much choice for anything to break through in a meaningful cross-demographic way.

Here’s a couple of extracts that capture those two points, but do go read the rest.

When I was in high school, we all watched the same TV programs, saw the same movies, and listened to the same music. Not because we had the same tastes—we didn’t—but because the other things were hard to get. With only three television stations and a new movie opening every week, we didn’t have a lot of choices.

Music did divide up into classical programming, country western (of the twangy variety), the pre-Beatles popular song stuff (Sinatra, etc.) and cutting edge rock ‘n roll. I listened to the Top 40 program every weekend, and it only included the top 40 hits on what was then called the Hit Parade, which meant it was mostly rock music.

Back then, it was still possible to write the Great American Novel—the book everyone discussed for an entire year. It was possible to record the Great American Rock Song—the best song of the year (I’m still sick of “Hotel California” because I heard it so much the year it came out). It was possible to have one movie change the entire direction of cinema—from The Godfather to Jaws to Star Wars.

For a very, very brief period of my mother’s lifetime, American culture was a monolith. The entire country watched, read, and heard the same things.

Suddenly, we aren’t a monolithic culture any more. Within the same household we can participate in completely different parts of American culture without touching anyone else’s interest. MP3 players make it possible to listen to music without bothering anyone else. We can watch TV shows from Britain on the internet before they get to the U.S. Films open in some cities, but not others—and the big films become the topic of discussion for one week, not one entire year.

The Great American Novel is no longer possible. You can write a literary masterpiece that gets well reviewed in literary circles, and may win an American Book Award or the Pulitzer (talk about a blip: Pulitzer coverage this year lasted all of an afternoon). You can write a great science fiction novel that sweeps the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award. You can write a wonderful mystery novel that wins the Edgar, the Anthony, and the Shamus. But it’s a rare book that will cross genre lines one into the other. Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union did so a few years back, winning the Hugo, the Edgar, and several mainstream awards, but was it the Great American Novel? Not by the 1950s standards, it wasn’t. Because people on the street weren’t discussing it.

I am especially taken with the idea, introduced later in the essay that while national communities, and really geographically based community, is a thing of the past–at least on the level of communal culture–that this doesn’t mean the end of community; rather it indicates the rise of a new distributed community of interest. This isn’t shocking–I spend a lot of my time living in that distributed community already–but it is probably something we can spend some time thinking about to good result.

There’s also that whole “echo chamber” negative phenomenon, which Rusch doesn’t address, but which certainly enters into any serious discussion of repercussions of self-selected communities.

  2 comments for “There is no more speaking to the nation

  1. July 8, 2009 at 10:33 pm

    I think this phenomenon is why so many Hollywood movies these days are remakes of video games, TV shows, old movies, theme park rides, or just about anything where there is already a little signal established that can be built upon, rather than trying to start from scratch.

  2. July 8, 2009 at 11:17 pm

    That’s a really excellent observation. I’m always very quick to dismiss this as a basic lack of creativity on Hollywood’s part, and occasionally to recognize a financial motivation for least common denominator pandering, and that cynicism has probably been why I haven’t recognized what you’re saying before.

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This work by Chris McLaren is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada.