Literature as a Two-Way Conversation

Posted by @ 5:18 pm on April 7th, 2011

After we posted about reading Alexander Chee’s blog Koreanish as though it were a book whose ending hasn’t yet been written, Chee tried to read Koreanish as though it were a book whose ending hasn’t yet been written, and he was surprised that what he found was different from what he thought he would find. An excerpt:

“What struck me, in other words, is that Koreanish the blog, is, if read narratively, something of a dystopic novel, in which a writer is living inside a country that is blind to its own destruction, a destruction it pursues relentlessly, to his increasing dismay.” (Read the rest at Koreanish.)

It’s a strange feeling to read a blog as a book whose ending hasn’t yet been written, then to have your note about reading the blog as a book whose ending hasn’t yet been written become part of the fabric of the book the blog has become, and in so doing to influence the future trajectory of the blog-as-book, which means the ending of the book you’re reading and about whose ending you are curious has now been influenced by you the reader as you act upon the writer by responding to what he has already written but has not yet finished.

If this seems newfangled and Back to the Future-ish (I briefly worried about the possibility of erasing my own existence, but, fortunately, time is only moving in one direction, for now), maybe it’s not. It seems likely to me that writers who serialized their novels in magazines or newspapers before they appeared in book forms (Dickens, for example, or Dostoevsky), and their readers, might well have been candidates for similar experiences. Ditto writers whose books appear in successive volumes over time, before they are complete — Cervantes, Proust, more recently Murakami. Or writers of trilogies or quartets — Updike, or Justin Cronin’s, which is one volume in progress.

This would be a useful subject for inquiry, I’d think — how does the reception of an in-progress book by its readership impact the future trajectory of that work. And then, of course, we’re soon thinking about the entire arc of a writer’s career, where these matters likely influence future work more often than we purists might imagine. Almost all the time, would be my guess, even if your name is Thomas Pynchon or Cormac McCarthy. Even Salinger’s great long silence seems a function of his response to the audience’s response to his work.

Maybe literature is more of a two-way conversation than we would prefer to imagine.