The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television

The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television

Kathleen Fitzpatrick

Language: English

Pages: 288

ISBN: 0826515207

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

It almost goes without saying that the rise in popularity of television has killed the audience for "serious" literature. This is such a given that reading Fitzpatrick's challenge to this notion can be very disconcerting, as she traces the ways in which a small cadre of writers of "serious" literature--DeLillo, Pynchon, and Franzen, for instance--have propagated this myth in order to set themselves up as the last bastions of good writing. Fitzpatrick first explores whether serious literature was ever as all-pervasive as critics of the television culture claim and then asks the obvious question: what, or who, exactly, are these guys defending good writing against?

Fitzpatrick examines the ways in which the anxiety about the supposed death of the novel is built on a myth of the novel's past ubiquity and its present displacement by television. She explores the ways in which this myth plays out in and around contemporary fiction and how it serves as a kind of unacknowledged discourse about race, class, and gender. The declaration constructs a minority status for the "white male author" who needs protecting from television's largely female and increasingly non-white audience. The novel, then, is transformed from a primary means of communication into an ancient, almost forgotten, and thus, treasured form reserved for the well-educated and well-to-do, and the men who practice it are exalted as the practitioners of an almost lost art.

Such positioning serves to further marginalize women writers and writers of color because it makes the novel, by definition, the preserve of the poor endangered white man. If the novel is only a product of a small group of white men, how can the contributions of women and writers of color be recognized? Instead, this positioning abandons women and people of color to television as a creative outlet, and in return, cedes television to them. Fitzpatrick argues that there's a level of unrecognized patronization in assuming that television serves no purpose but to provide dumb entertainment to bored women and others too stupid to understand novels. And, instead, she demonstrates the real positive effects of a televisual culture.

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in each case, though the Badass owes his power to extrahuman forces, those forces are distinctly nonmechanical. They celebrate rather a belief in the supernatural that makes human transcendence seem possible: “To insist on the miraculous,” Pynchon argues, “is to deny the machine at least some of its claims on us, to assert the limited wish that living things, earthly and otherwise, may on occasion become Bad and Big enough to take part in transcendent doings” (41). Luddism, in this rendering, is

word and the text in a crisis continuing from the late Victorians to the deconstructionists” (xv). Poststructuralist theorists, then, in 70  |  The Anxiety of Obsolescence their progressive subversions of textual stability, operate in a feedback loop with a technology-obsessed culture, creating a deepening sense of crisis for the contemporary author. Literary representations of the machine in the novel of obsolescence thus frequently comment on the practice of reading itself. While for

and, in his term, “dismantling,” and its implication for the fragmentation of the subject in the postmodern novel, pointing out that [if ] “dismemberment” connotes the destruction, through fragmentation, of an organically integrated physical whole, “dismantling” suggests the division of an assembled entity into its constituent parts. The very form of “dismant­ ling” suggests its origin as a designation for the removal of a person’s outer garment, or mantle. Insofar as a garment and its wearer’s

however, hiding the image’s status as sign behind an apparently unmediated presentation of the referent. In fact, while images may seem to be “direct representations of things” whose meanings are “experienced immediately,” they are neither so direct and immediate as they seem, nor are they representations of particular things. To treat the photographic image, for instance, as no more than a “transparent envelope” reduces it to an indexical sign—like footprints, mere evidence that something once

of stark pages, and that allows us to find an unconstraining otherness, a free veer from time and place and fate. (DeLillo, “Power” 63). Spectacle  |  111 DeLillo borrows from the tools of visual representation—writing becomes “decorating” with words, thus obviating the need for the image—while he simultaneously valorizes language in its very differences from the visual media. History as it is conventionally known, it would seem from this passage, is built of images rather than words,

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