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The Life, Death—And Afterlife—of Literary Fiction

Will Blythe at Esquire

Photo by Annie Spratt / Unsplash

Those of you who are reading this essay, let me ask you, right away—is your smart phone next to you? Or is it in your hand? Are you reading this on your phone, swiping up the paragraphs, swipe, swipe, swipe, wondering how far you're going to have to swipe to actually finish this thing? (Just so you know, it’s gonna take a lot of swiping.) Or are you reading on your computer screen, as I've been writing this on mine? I happen to know you’re not reading this in a print magazine. Ha! And ouch!

As you read, is your smart phone or computer or iPad simultaneously acquiring notifications, texts and emails, along with promotions, advertisements and daily venues of news, opinions and games such as Wordle and Spelling Bee, an altogether constant onslaught of information, incessantly demanding that you spend every waking hour of every day focused on this unrelenting digitality that keeps showing up on the screen in front of you, that screen with which you likely indulge in more back-and-forth than you generally do in person with an actual human being, like, say, your husband, wife, son, daughter, brother, sister, friend, lover, boss, employee?

Are you multi-tasking as well, working online, Zooming, Googling, communicating with your fellow employees, but also darting off now and then to your favorite venues (like, maybe, this), and then back to your job, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth?

Another question: when you’re reading a short story (on this same site, for instance) or a novel, do you remain immersed in the narrative, able to stay there for quite some time without going anywhere else? As if you were having sex for fifteen or twenty minutes, maybe even half an hour, unwilling to allow any interruptions? Or as if you had dived into a swimming pool or a lake or a sound or a sea and were floating across the water, staring up at the sky?

Can you read anything at all from start to finish, ie. an essay or a short story, without your mind being sliced apart by some digital switchblade? Without your seeking distraction as a form of entertainment, or entertainment as a form of distraction? Or is all of this just ordinary life in the internet era, with your every thought and feeling and perception being diverted or fractured or dissolved or reiterated endlessly with utter normality in a digitalized world to which nearly all of us are fixated, or might we say, addicted? Did you ever even know a different world?

Idid know a different world, at least once upon a distant time. I arrived at Esquire in the late eighties to work with the legendary fiction editor Rust Hills, whose passion for literature arose in him every single morning like daylight. He and I would occasionally drink two or three Negronis at lunch, sometimes at the New York Delicatessen on 57th Street, and talk about the writers and novels and short stories we loved (and hated). Often we met with the writers themselves, and if they were young and didn’t have much money, Rust might slide them across the table a check of his own, just so they could keep scribbling away in their precocious days of writing. Then he and I would happily weave our way back to the office at 1790 Broadway, plop down in our cubicles and make enthusiastic phone calls to writers and agents, our voices probably a little louder than usual. Rust always believed that we could ask anyone for anything. “Let de Gaulle do his own refusing,” he liked to say. Our jobs never felt like work—we played for a living.

The tech world back then seems almost non-existent by comparison to that of this century, even though New York City in the 1980s was economically soaring, having been resurrected from its financial crisis in the mid-Seventies. Yes, cable television had arrived en masse that decade, as had VHSs, Blockbuster movie rentals, dual-cassette answering machines, and far more CDs than the sadly dying vinyl records.

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