Pay attention to the world

By presenting us with a limitless number of nonstopped stories, the narratives that the media relate – the consumption of which has so dramatically cut into the time the educated public once devoted to reading – offer a lesson in amorality and detachment that is antithetical to the one embodied by the enterprise of the novel.

In storytelling as practiced by the novelist, there is always – as I have argued – an ethical component. This ethical component is not the truth, as opposed to the falsity of the chronicle. It is the model of completeness, of felt intensity, of enlightenment supplied by the story, and its resolution – which is the opposite of the model of obtuseness, of non-understanding, of passive dismay, and the consequent numbing of feeling, offered by our mediadisseminated glut of unending stories.

Television gives us, in an extremely debased and un-truthful form, a truth that the novelist is obliged to suppress in the interest of the ethical model of understanding peculiar to the enterprise of fiction: namely, that the characteristic feature of our universe is that many things are happening at the same time. (“Time exists in order that it doesn’t happen all at once … space exists so that it doesn’t all happen to you.”) —Susan SontagPay attention to the world (Guardian)

A previously unpublished essay, written shortly before the author’s death. A defense of the unique values of the novel, against the advances of television and the computer.

I did enjoy reading Sontag’s particular take on the value of novels, but I found myself reading it like an archaeological text.

The printing press changed forever the career prospects path of people with really good handwriting. The printed page did lose the subtleties and personal traces left by the scribe’s touch. The path of literature was forever changed when the financial power and aesthetic tastes of the merchant class began to attract the interests of storytellers who wanted to make a living. The rise of the novel meant the disappearance of much of what was good in the media displaced by the novel.

And the rise of a scribal culture threatened the oral culture that flourished before it.