Geoff Kloske, the head of Riverhead Books, publisher of George Saunders and Aleksandar Hemon, thinks current stylistic variety makes it impossible to claim we are in either a minimalist or maximalist period. “More, I fear, there is a flaccidity and casualness of style that has come from writing habits born out of e-mail and social media.” A kind of death of the sentence by collective neglect. Kloske is right that the incessant dribble of mini-messaging has made most people’s daily use of written language brutally factual in character, more private ad copy than prose. I’m old enough to have written letters to friends when I was younger, which took time and a bit of thought. Like most people, I don’t do that any more, and e-mail hasn’t replaced the habit. The writing of complete sentences for aural pleasure as well as news is going the way of the playing of musical instruments – it’s becoming a speciality rather than a means most people have to a little amateur, unselfconscious enjoyment. This isn’t the end of the world for literature. In a sense, it only intensifies its role as the repository of our linguistic imagination. But it’s a pity none the less; there’s a difference between pure spectatorship and semi-participatory appreciation. The latter is much warmer. It creates more room for fellow feeling and a bit less for the glare of celebrity and the correlative abjection of envy and fandom.
But things change. Will we still have Henry Jamesian prose in an age where popular writing has condensed from concision to near-hieroglyphics? And, is it really social media/technology that’s wrecked how we communicate or has it perhaps rather broadened the audience for text-based communication in a time when no one makes time for long thoughts? Culture: Facebook; Chicken; Egg.Data will come. For now, we can know that schoolchildren will still read Strunk and White while texting under the table. They will still read Proust while going home to play Call of Duty: Black Ops. The snows of yesteryear are, axiomatically, historic, but we will see the creation of new works of literature. The next generation of great writers will learn how to write in the same way they always have: by reading books that move them.