Writing in an Age of Universal Access

I always prefer reading collections of authors’ letters to published diaries. Like diaries, letters can offer a glimpse of intimacy, but because they are addressed to an interlocutor, they (often) avoid the self absorption and enclosure that can plague a diary or journal. The back and forth of a dialogue can draw each conversation partner out of themselves, spark new perspectives and threads of thought, but in a medium (writing) where authors thrive (as opposed to other sorts of conversations the reader might have access to – interviews etc.).

I read Paul Auster and J.M. Coetzee’s collection, Here and Now: Letters 2008-2011 this summer (I read Knausgaard and Ekelund’s Home and Away last summer – so something about the summer months makes me want to dig into collections of letters, I guess?). I am less familiar with Auster than Coetzee, but Coetzee is about as open as he ever is in public in the collection. There seems to be a genuine fondness between the two, and the collection includes gems on friendship, travel, writing, and sports (along with some rather cranky old man complaining, and stretches on the mundane details and frustrations of ordinary life … at least ordinary life for famous authors in their 60s/70s). Parenthetically, sports seems to run through so many male friendships as a sort of minimal “friendship glue” – even among those who have other shared external interests, as Coetzee and Auster do (it’s there in the Knausgaard and Ekelund collection as well – but please note: “many” not “all”).

The mechanics of the exchange seem … complicated. Coetzee faxes his letters from Australia, with Auster responding via physical letters sent in the mail – although every once in a while Coetzee emails Auster’s wife, Siri Hustvedt, who (I think) prints off the emails for Auster’s perusal. All this is due to the fact that Auster does not have an email address or use a computer. Auster’s choices prompt a brief exchange between the two authors about the use of technology in fiction. Coetzee asks:

The presence/absence of mobile phones in one’s fictional world is going to be, I suspect, no trivial matter. Why? Because so much of the mechanics of novel writing, past and present, is taken up with making information available to characters or keeping it from them, with getting people together in the same room or holding them apart. If, all of a sudden, everyone has access to more or less everyone else—electronic access, that is—what becomes of all that plotting?

And then later:

Is it going to become the norm of the fiction of tomorrow (indeed, of today) that everyone always has access to everyone else, with the corollary that if in a specific fictional world everyone does not have access to everyone else then that fictional world belongs to the past?

Auster seems relatively unconcerned about the prospect of needing to include modern communication technology in his fiction. He suggests that access provided by contemporary communication technology promises availability “only in a fragmented, ad hoc sort of way” – in contrast with the ease of looking up someone’s number and address in a city telephone directory in the time of landlines (note that this is pre-iPhone, and social media was not yet registering for the 50+ crowd). Coetzee remains concerned,

You say that you are quite prepared to write novels in which people go around with personal electronic devices. I must say I am not. The telephone is about as far as I will go in a book, and then reluctantly. Why? Not only because I’m not fond of what the world has turned into, but because if people (“characters”) are continually going to be speaking to one another at a distance, then a whole gamut of interpersonal signs and signals, verbal and nonverbal, voluntary and involuntary, has to be given up. Dialogue, in the full sense of the term, just isn’t possible over the phone.

There are a couple of interesting things about this exchange. I’ll just point out that it’s not really the case that Coetzee’s books are particularly marked by the sorts of plots that might turn on a missed phone call or a late arriving letter. It’s hard to imagine a character in a Coetzee novel sprinting through the airport before his one true love boards her plane. The effect of electronic communication purely on “plotting” seems to be a minimal concern for the sort of fiction Coetzee writes.

Coetzee’s concerns regarding the effect of the loss of in-person dialogue on characterization seem more serious. There is something to the idea that a flattened communication will result in a flattened character (Elif Batuman’s The Idiot is an exploration of this dynamic, with an infatuation – I can’t bring myself to call it a relationship – sustained via email). This should sound a warning bell for those of us who communicate primarily through these various technologies. There does seem to be a risk of some sort of flattening, and the “all surface, no depth” aspect of social media has been noted before. Of course, I’m the guy reading a collection of letters between Auster and Coetzee and thinking I’m learning something real about them and their relationship.

Since I’ve been reading so much Knausgaard over the past year, I did also think of autofiction as a way of responding to technology via fiction. When we all have access to one another via technology, and are all flattened as a result, autofiction could be read as an attempt to restore some sort of deeper dimension to character. The in-depth exploration of particular lives, of interior states, using the weight of the real world and real histories is an attempt to generate characters with three dimensional density. If technology has deflated the balloon of character, autofiction is an attempt to reinflate identity from the inside.

Coetzee is no stranger to autofiction, with his Scenes from Provincial Life trilogy being an especially skilled example of the genre (I’ve commented on them before here, and in relation to Knausgaard, here). But, Coetzee is not so much concerned with giving a story depth through reference to the real world. Instead, he is much more interested in questioning the truth of any of the stories we tell about ourselves – his forays into autofiction emphasize instability and fictionality. Who is telling a story and what is its relation to the truth, is perhaps the overriding concern in Coetzee’s fiction. In The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction, and Psychotherapy, an exchange with the psychotherapist, Arabella Kurtz, Coetzee returns again and again to the question of the truth (or fictionality) of the stories we tell about ourselves (the collection is less engaging than Here and Now, more abstract and formal).

This perhaps gets to Coetzee’s real concern with loss of embodied dialogue: that in the flattening of the communication the truth gets squeezed out. Again, at this point everyone is aware of the level of curation and performance that goes into the construction of the self on social media, of the the way our communication technologies allow us to hide as much as they allow us to connect. Dialogue, embodied and in person, is one countermeasure to this concealment and control. There is simply more and richer information being shared. It is harder to hide in an embodied encounter than when a person is behind a screen. Dialogue shines light on identity from different angles, and so helps reduce the shadows we use to hide those aspects of ourselves we want to conceal, or at least not bring forward for attention. And, to return to where I began, while letters lack the embodiment of true encounter, this revelatory aspect of dialogue does illustrate why letters beat diaries, every time.