Downtown Brooklyn was awash in tents and stages on Sunday, with publishers, authors, and bookish types swarming the plaza like ants feasting at a picnic. Colson Whitehead walked down the sidewalk pseudo incognito with shades on, while Wallace Shawn stood by to sign copies of his new book, Essays. Thomas Sayers Ellis sat at a table talking up Tuesday; An Art Project, a handsome journal featuring poetry and photographs printed on postcards. Later on, Laura Albert jumped up to greet Mary Gaitskill before her conversation with Jonathan Lethem. The Paris Review was selling original copies of its Spring 1958 issue, the one with George Plimpton’s interview of Ernest Hemingway, and that also features the first Philip Roth story they published. “Can you believe his name isn’t even on the cover?” remarked the man tending the table. I couldn’t believe the cover price (only one dollar).
As time passes, prices change and so does technology, and along with it, publishing. At The Brooklyn Book Festival, digital publishing, the internet, and attenuated attention spans weighed heavily on the minds of many panelists. Maud Newton moderated a panel called Literature in a Digital Age, which took these topics on directly. The conversation began with New York Times book critic Dwight Garner stating his fear of “the fragmenting of the attention span.” Granta’s editor John Freeman agreed, and voiced a strong preference for reading books printed on paper. Freeman finds the difference between paper and screen as stark as the one between “having sex with a person and having sex with a piece of technology,” but added that if you don’t have one you sometimes have to resort to using the other. Freeman also remarked on how the constant influx of news updates is ill-suited to the world of literature, where writers need to focus on what they are writing, not what is timely or relevant.
While the conversation centered on fears of how digital publishing will alter reading habits and preferences, the general Luddism transformed to optimism by the conversation’s end. There was excitement about the increased availability of books. Web sites such as The Second Pass and Open Letters Monthly, was well as Newton’s own blog, were praised for their commitment to longer, more thoughtful considerations of literature. Newton said that she rejects the label “book blogger.” Garner seemed to concur when he stated that Newton stands out for her wit and intelligence, and that he thinks of her more as a columnist, only more intimate. It was heartening to hear praise for literary sites that offer quality content and intelligent analysis of literature.
Much later in the afternoon, Mary Gaitskill and Jonathan Lethem picked up the digital thread (or threat, as it often seems) in a lively discussion, where each seemed to riff off of the other. Despite this panel falling at the end of a day packed with constant chatter about books, their time seemed to run out too soon. Gaitskill spoke about how with digital technology, children develop a sophisticated understanding of images and sound, but their reading has become stunted because they must slow down to process words. Gaitskill claimed that even the way she processes information has changed, and that she can’t imagine how digital literacy will affect the minds of the children who grow up with it. Lethem added that predictions are often extreme, and that literature will adapt in ways we can’t yet foresee. He spoke of living in the Bay Area in the 1980s, when there was a general consensus that the coming technology would destroy language. And yet, this is what gave way to a culture where everyone communicates via emails “like 19th-century London where the mail came four times a day.”
Since literature and narrative will persevere, it’s good that their discussion touched on greater topics, such as the function of literature. Lethem and Gaitskill began their conversation by responding to Walter Benn Michaels’ Bookforum essay, “Going Boom,” where he claims, “The past twenty-five years have been a pretty sad time for the American novel,” and urges novelists to tackle greater social issues in their fiction. Lethem found fault with the expectation that art must have a productive value, and asked, “What should fiction do other than come to life?” He urged writers to seek out the irresponsible, to “make things peculiar” and to create literature “defiantly outside the structures of use.” To which Gaitskill responded by singing the lyrics to “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” and cited the song as proof that society often embraces the preposterous, albeit a far different type of preposterous than what Lethem had in mind. She then directed us to Nabokov’s consideration of Nikolai Gogol’s story, “The Overcoat,” in which Nabokov praises the story for its illumination of the “futile humility and futile domination,” the madness of life.
When I went home I turned to the essay in Nabokov’s Lectures on Russian Literature. It begins, “Gogol was a strange creature, but genius is always strange; it is only your healthy second-rater who seems to the grateful reader to be a wise old friend, nicely developing the reader’s notions of life. Great literature skirts the irrational.” This is precisely what Lethem and Gaitskill were getting at, literature cannot be limited by calling for a certain use, nor can you provide a recipe for generating great literature. Or as Paula Fox said earlier in the day, all fiction is derived from life, but “one can make as bizarre a replica as one chooses.” A multitude of ideas and opinions about literature, its creation, its current state, and its future were bandied about over the course of the day; in fact the volume of panels and publishers’ stands and attendants was almost overwhelming. With a cornucopia of compelling panels occurring simultaneously, decisions about what to see may have been made haphazardly. But regardless of the anxieties about the future, the festival made the case for literature living on in the borough of Brooklyn.