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‘Silicon Valley, literary capital of the 21st century’ by James McGirk, which considers David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers, Jennifer Egan, David Mitchell and Dennis Cooper, and begins:

Technology seeps into our imaginations, changes the way we think and the way we write. The novel may seem like a relic, a low-bandwidth version of virtual reality better suited to the 19th and 20th Centuries than today. But beneath its grim monochrome interface (a.k.a. “pages”) it glows like the neon-piped suits in Tron. Contemporary fiction is nearly as much a product of Silicon Valley as the integrated circuit.

Fiction, on a crass, fundamental level, isn’t much more than a container for a story. Most stories have already been told (by William Shakespeare — or at least it feels that way), so the challenge of writing fiction is to find a new way to contain a story. This experimental impulse is tempered by a reader’s ability to decode what is going on. As readers have grown more accustomed to following hyperlinks and leaping about the Internet, their ability to understand information out of sequence has changed too.

Consider three popular, experimental novels and the technology of the era: David Foster Wallace’s (1996) Infinite Jest was written at the dawn of the Internet Age. The Internet was in an ugly growth spurt then. Amateurs created most online content. Big chunks of the Internet blossomed and died seemingly overnight. It was common to see gaping holes where content was no longer compatible. Following hyperlinks from page to page felt jarring (particularly given how slow most connections were). Wallace wanted to compress information in the Infinite Jest but he didn’t want to disrupt his timeline. So he chose endnotes to digress with — a fairly conventional device, although one not often used for fiction. He even said (to The New Yorker): “I pray they are nothing like hypertext.”

First posted: Monday, February 18th, 2013.

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