Writing at the Limit: The Novel in the New Media Ecology

Writing at the Limit: The Novel in the New Media Ecology

Writing at the Limit: The Novel in the New Media Ecology

Writing at the Limit: The Novel in the New Media Ecology


While some cultural critics are pronouncing the death of the novel, a whole generation of novelists has turned to other media with curiosity rather than fear. These novelists are not simply incorporating references to other media into their work for the sake of verisimilitude, they are also engaging precisely such media as a way of talking about what it means to write and read narrative in a society filled with stories told outside the print medium y examining how some of our best fiction writers have taken up the challenge of film, television, video games, and hypertext, Daniel Punday offers an enlightening look into the current status of such fundamental narrative concepts as character, plot, and setting. He considers well-known postmodernists like Thomas Pynchon and Robert Coover, more-accessible authors like Maxine Hong Kingston and Oscar Hijuelos, and unjustly overlooked writers like Susan Daitch and Kenneth Gangemi, and asks how their works investigate the nature and limits of print as a medium for storytelling riting at the Limit explores how novelists locate print writing within the contemporary media ecology, and what it really means to be writing at print's media limit.


Media in the Contemporary Novel

Novels written today spill over with references to other media—television, film, music, the Internet. The presence of such alternate media in the novel can be seen as simply a natural reflection of contemporary life. During an average day, most of us spend some time watching television, sending e-mail, reading the newspaper, and listening to the radio. Is it any wonder that these media make their way into the contemporary novel?

It’s hard to shake the impression, however, that contemporary writers are doing more than simply adding media to their stories as part of the narrative furniture of contemporary life. Indeed, everywhere we look we find examples of novels that use other media as models for their own narratives. We might think about that most canonical of contemporary American novels, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, which not only includes copious references to music and comic books but also ends with the audience in a movie theater, blurring the line between film and novel. Or we might recall Toni Morrison’s Jazz, a novel that uses the metaphor of being trapped in the track of a record to describe the destiny of the narrative as a whole. Or Sherman Alexie’s Reservation Blues, a novel that is both a story about music and a kind of narrative lament about deadend life on the Spokane Indian reservation. Or even more tellingly, we might think of contemporary authors who have referenced many different media. Paul Auster, for example, writes a novel called The Music of Chance but then in another, The Book of Illusions, turns to silent film as a metaphor for his story. Ronald Sukenick writes the novel Long Talking Bad Conditions Blues as a kind of musical improvisation but then shifts to the film industry in his next novel, Blown Away.

I will discuss many of these novels in more detail, but at the outset let me be explicit about my claim: in a significant portion of contemporary fiction, references to other media are more that just backdrop or theme . . .

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