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May 18, 2010, 10:50 a.m.

Food for thought: Sontag and Chee on shrinking the world

I came across a blog post by the novelist Alexander Chee last night that opened this way:

Lately I keep thinking of a quote of Susan Sontag’s from a posthumous essay referring to the novel as the antidote to the modern problem of knowing too much about what is happening elsewhere. She began with the appearance of the telegraph, and comments from 19th Century writers who found themselves disarrayed by news from abroad that left them feeling helpless. Her theory was that the novel reduced the world to one person in one place doing one thing at that one time, and brought us back to ourselves, and at the time, I agreed with her.

But now I am thinking about this idea of the novel because I no longer think it is how anyone lives. And also, if that is no longer how anyone lives, then the novel has to represent this new condition, with the clarity and intensity we can only get from prose fiction.

I’m not certain which Sontag essay Chee is referring to here, but I think it’s probably “At the Same Time: The Novelist and Moral Reasoning” (from the similarly named book), which doesn’t quite include what Chee remembers but does include these bits:

Hearing the shattering news of the great earthquake that leveled Lisbon on November 1, 1755, and (if historians are to be believed) took with it a whole society’s optimism (but obviously, I don’t believe that any society has only one basic attitude), the great Voltaire was struck by the inability to take in what happened elsewhere. “Lisbon lies in ruins,” Voltaire wrote, “and here in Paris we dance.”

One might suppose that in the 20th century, in the age of genocide, people would not find it either paradoxical or surprising that one can be so indifferent to what is happening simultaneously, elsewhere. Is it not part of the fundamental structure of experience that “now” refers to both “here” and “there”? And yet, I venture to assert, we are just as capable of being surprised — and frustrated by the inadequacy of our response — by the simultaneity of wildly contrasting human fates as was Voltaire two and a half centuries ago. Perhaps it is our perennial fate to be surprised by the simultaneity of events — by the sheer extension of the world in time and space. That here we are here, now prosperous, safe, unlikely to go to bed hungry or be blown to pieces this evening…while elsewhere in the world, right now…in Grozny, in Najaf, in the Sudan, in the Congo, in Gaza, in the favelas of Rio…

You can also say that it’s not “natural” to keep remembering that the world is so…extended. That while this is happening, that is also happening.


But that, I would respond, is why we need fiction: to stretch our world.

Novelists, then, perform their necessary ethical task based on their right to a stipulated shrinking of the world as it really is — both in space and in time.

Characters in a novel act within a time that is already complete, where everything worth saving has been preserved — “washed free,” as Henry James puts it in his preface to The Spoils of Poynton, “of awkward accretion” and aimless succession. All real stories are stories of someone’s fate. Characters in a novel have intensely legible fates.

Chee and Sontag are talking about fiction, but I don’t want to hand over the task of world-shrinking to the novelists. Chee’s post goes on to talk about the literary inspiration he used to get from reading print newspapers and how that’s disappeared online: “…by 2004, the news no longer generated that lovely click in my head. Instead, there was an urgency I read with, of someone watching for a sign the ship was not going to strike the iceberg. But of course there is always a new iceberg we ‘may’ hit.”

Chee’s complaint is fundamentally about content — the conflict-driven storylines, the permanent dire predictions about the future, the intentional state of ill-at-ease I associate primarily with local and cable TV news — all of which build up anxiety in the service of news organizations. Jay Rosen stuff.

But I think there’s also an argument to be made about form. The feelings of anxiety people feel in reading online news are, I think, driven by the sense of neverending sprawl — that the news never ends, that there’s always another link, that reading is a march of unending choices about where to click, what site to visit, what to read and what to skim and what to skip. Print aficionados love to talk about the sense of completeness they get from a newspaper: Run through a circumscribed number of newsprint pages, it promises, and you’ve completed the task of learning about the world for the day. Another 200 tweets didn’t pile up on your coffee break; there aren’t 2,000 unread items in your RSS reader; your news inbox is empty.

We talk a lot in the future-of-news game about how the Internet has changed the “atomic unit of news” to (variably) the individual article, the individual fact, the individual topic, the individual “hyperpersonal news stream,” the individual tweet, or the individual post. (Everyone thinks our atom is changing, but no one’s quite sure what to.)

But what we sometimes forget in that metaphor is that we as humans don’t deal with anything on an atomic level. The sandwich I’ll have for lunch can, intellectually, be broken down into its constituent atoms. But I plan on eating it at a much more macro scale — bite by bite. My iPhone is, fundamentally, made up of individual atoms, but I experience it as a series of user interfaces, which operate on a more human, finger-sized scale.

Maybe our problem isn’t defining our “news atoms,” or even a shortage of those atoms — maybe it’s more in how those atoms are arranged and ordered and rendered into something human-scale, something that extends beyond molecules and into identifiable matter.

I guess my point here is that journalists’ natural reaction to the enormous transition going on now is to think about the stories that aren’t being written, or won’t be written when the number of professional journalists shrinks even further. “Who’ll write the city council story,” right? And that’s a perfectly legitimate point of view. But that’s not the point of view most readers or viewers bring to the table.

How many people think the tragedy of 21st century America is that there isn’t enough information to consume? How many people feel a desperate need for more “content” in their lives? If they consume much online news, there’s a good chance they experience some version of the anxiety Chee and Sontag talk about, the hyperinformed, undercontextualized mind. The major news organizations are engaged in a massive land grab, spreading their sites as wide as possible, adding in more blogs, more citizen journalism, more slideshows, more everything. I get the pageview-driven economics behind that. But have we made much progress in figuring out ways to present news in structures that reduce the information anxiety of our readers, not increase it? That have a satisfying beginning and end, not just an endless stream of “content”?

Sontag believed that it was up to novelists to create “a stipulated shrinking of the world as it really is — both in space and in time.” I think it’s journalists who need to take up that challenge — to learn how to spin something coherent and absorbing and contained and in-the-moment and satisfying from the chaos of the world around us. Think of it as a New Urbanism for news: a retrenchment from endless sprawl, the construction of concentrated experiences, a new consciousness of how we obtain and consume. A new shrinking of the world.

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email ( or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     May 18, 2010, 10:50 a.m.
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