How the Internet Can, and Cannot, Help You Read Fiction

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What I’d like to do in this short essay is identify two very different kinds of fiction and briefly discuss an example of each. These are not genres but, rather, types – general classifications if you will.

The first type is what I’ll call Fiction Enhanceable by Internet, or FEBI for short. The second is a kind of antithesis, the opposite – Fiction Not Enhanceable by Internet, or Non FEBI. An example of the first is Tripmaster Monkey by Maxine Hong Kingston; of the second, Mohawk by Richard Russo. I would surmise, without really having any way of knowing, that there are almost infinite examples of each kind, so consequently the examples I choose here are wholly arbitrary.

So what do these terms mean? Let me preface the discussion by saying that I’m not interested in literary criticism or analysis here – that is, I won’t be talking about plot, character, style, point of view, theme or anything else like that. I’m going to be discussing how readers can either enhance, or not enhance, the reading experience – how they can, or cannot, make the reading of a novel or short story more pleasurable and develop a fuller grasp and understanding and increase enjoyment considerably by looking things up on the internet in a manner that, before the internet was universally available, would have been impossible as a matter of practicality. In a FEBI this is almost a necessary element of the reading, and in a Non FEBI it cannot help at all because there is nothing to Google.

Let’s start with Tripmaster Monkey. Kingston’s novel is astoundingly erudite, and her erudition is largely responsible for what concerns me here. How so? Just this – the first chapter (I’m using the first paperback Vintage edition of July, 1990) runs from page three to page thirty five. In that space I count forty references to either literature or cinema. (The rest of the book is much the same, though perhaps not in quite so high a ratio.) I will list a few of them shortly for purposes of illustration.

First, let’s consider an imaginary Ideal Average Reader – thirty years old, not a specialist in books or movies, average intelligence, average or moderate level of education. I submit to you that, without the ability to Google (or, what almost seems unimaginable today, the ability to conduct research the old fashioned way, in a library with reference books), the novel would be infinitely less rewarding and perhaps incomprehensible.

And I’m only speaking here of direct references to proper names and titles. There are also inferences that have to be made and understood if the work is to be properly appreciated. For example, a woman complains about her philosophy course:

“I thought we were going to learn about good and evil, human nature, how to be good. You know. What God is like. You know. How to live. But we’re learning about P plus Q arrows R or S. What’s that, haw? I work all day, and commute for two hours, and what do I get? P plus Q arrows R.”

The reader is required to understand that the character evidently doesn’t know that the subject of Philosophy is broken down into many subdivisions; she signed up for a course in Mathematical Logic, a la Gottlob Frege, when what she wanted was a course in Ethics. But if the reader doesn’t know this, or doesn’t have the ability to research it, the whole passage will be hieroglyphics. This is what I mean by Fiction Enhanceable by Internet – the work becomes infinitely more interesting, understandable, enjoyable, and appreciable.

I said I would list some of the allusions Kingston makes in the first thirty odd pages, so here they are:

Page 3: Hemingway’s suicide; Olivier’s film of Hamlet

Page 5: The Lady from Shanghai

Page 7: Count Ilya Tolstoy; Michael Sullivan in King Lear

Page 8: Rilke

Page 9: Saroyan; Steinbeck; Kerouac; Twain; Stevenson; Muir; Stegner; Fante; Bulosano; Atherton; Bierce; Norris; Harte

Page 10: Helen Hunt Jackson; Sam Spade and Miles Archer

Page 11: Cecil B. DeMille

And so it’s easy to see how prepared a reader has to be in order to read a novel such as this and, while it might be an extreme example, it serves to illustrate the general point well. Readers who might otherwise be put off and intimidated by Kingston’s (or anyone else’s) polymath approach need no longer fear it because Google puts everything within easy reach.

But this is not so with a Non FEBI. The example I’ve selected of this type of fiction, Mohawk by Richard Russo, is a powerful case in point. Coming in at 418 pages, there is absolutely nothing that the Ideal Average Reader would have to Google whatsoever. (There are perhaps three small exceptions and even they, in context, are not vital to grasping the novel – Mickey Spillane, Keats, and David Copperfield.) But nothing is required of the reader other than to read. Define literature however you wish – whether in terms of F.R. Leavis style Liberal Humanism or in any of the numerous ‘-ism’s of Theory, Mohawk is pure story in the sense that all that needs to be grasped are the characters and what they say and feel and do. Reading the novel cannot be enhanced by the internet one iota (I discount trivial objections such as “Well some readers may not know too much about cutting leather and they may want to Google some information on it.” We can say that about absolutely anything at all.) References to outside forces of any kind are simply not given by Russo (they are not required in order to tell the story).

I hope the differences between the FEBI and the Non FEBI have been made clear; I love all implications and conclusions about the differences between the two to be investigated by more adventurous scholars and readers.

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