It is understandable that Zadie Smith, in the current New York Review of Books, would proclaim the death of the traditional nineteenth-century novel (or the novel of “lyrical Realism,” as she calls it). Smith, as a practitioner of the form herself, sees quite clearly that the avant-garde, anti-narrative attacks of the 1960s (Barthelme, DeLillo, Gaddis) have been contained: that Updike and his acolytes absorbed these experiments and made them fit into the old bourgeois model. The result, Smith argues, is that the novel’s natural growth has been stunted. Her call for a novel of “constructive deconstruction” as the sure way out of this artistic quagmire may not be entirely convincing, but all credit to her conviction that the novel, as a necessary vehicle of storytelling, has a future.
By contrast, it’s hard to be sanguine about the Center for Future Storytelling, a newly created laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that, according to an article in yesterday’s New York Times, wants to encourage Hollywood filmmakers to look more often to their past. As Michael Cieply writes, M.I.T. scholars have formed their lab because the “ability [of movies] to tell a meaningful story has been nibbled at by text messages, interrupted by cellphone calls and supplanted by everything from Twitter to Guitar Hero.” As evidence of Tinseltown’s enduring ability to tell a great story, Cieply cites the high expectations studios executives have for two upcoming holiday films, Yes Man and Bedtime Stories, starring Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler, respectively.
The demise of storytelling began a long time ago, and the scholars at the Center for Future Storytelling might take a peek at a certain essay on the subject by Walter Benjamin, who found the source of this predicament, somewhat paradoxically, in the invention of the printing press. Zadie Smith—in her identification of “lyrical Realism” as the thing standing between the novel and its progress—at least understands that Twitter and Guitar Hero are the least of storytelling’s problems. And, for that matter, that Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler are not its saviors.—Benjamin Strong