Anna Karenina vs. The Internet, or Children of Children of TV, or Post #151: This Blog at One Year

A high school classmate of mine recently spoke with a former teacher about the state of public school lit-teaching. He talked to me about their conversation shortly thereafter. The teacher, to hear my friend tell it, was exasperated. The man not only competes with text messages and YouTube for students’ attention, he also believes that these tools have changed the way that students process all forms of content. When my friend first mentioned this last part to me, I was skeptical, but the next time I opened Anna Karenina, I became increasingly convinced the teacher might be right. I’m at about page eight hundred of the eight hundred seventy-something pages Tolstoy’s second-biggest book, and—full disclosure—the last couple hundred have been a slog. Which I hate to admit, and even typing it makes me feel vaguely like the people I thought were clods in high school English classes (‘What do you mean you didn’t like Slaughterhouse Five??’ thought Greg-at-sixteen, and then he sipped from the thermos of green tea he brought to school each day). But it’s true. If you want to test your own hunger for instant gratification, try reading one of the Great Russian Novels.

The reasons for Tolstoy’s reputation as one of the most talented dudes ever to write novels are obvious from the start of Anna Karenina. His prose is not line-by-line incendiary, although this may say more about the translator of my edition, Joel Carmichael, than Tolstoy himself. What it is is panoramic and relentlessly thorough. In places, the writing-in-translation is striking even for its matter-of-factness, the amount of hand-holding Tolstoy’s willing to do throughout a scene, noting the social status and former occupations of an ancillary character who happens to be seated in the same parlor as more important figures or describing the disposition of a carriage driver who’s taking the central characters from one place to another.

Tolstoy’s thoroughness pays the greatest dividends as he describes the interiority of his characters, at least for those modern readers not interested in the debate over modernizing 19th century Russian agribusiness. The inner lives of the passionate, perpetually unsatisfied Anna, her opaque, slightly rakish lover Vronsky, her propriety-obsessed husband Karenin, the brooding, maladroit Levin, Anna’s contentedly callow brother Oblonsky—all are realized with staggering richness and depth. Most characters in the book are either learning to live with unhappiness or refusing to live with unhappiness and learning the difficulty of finding a different way to live, and we’re privy to the steps each one takes, whatever direction he/she chooses.

What’s frustrating about Anna Karenina, at least to me, is that—minor spoilers for a 140-year-old book—by the end of the first five hundred pages, the problems facing its characters are partially resolved, and replaced with less interesting ones. Levin has found love and married, Anna has left her husband and begun to live with Vronksy. Most characters’ circumstances past the midpoint are still dramatically rich—and Tolstoy does wring drama out of them—but perhaps less so than the situations nearer to the book’s beginning. (Also, a fifteen- or twenty-page scene in which Tolstoy describes a morning bird hunt seems to go on for four or five times its actual length.) My impulse is to blow through these pages, a problem for which Tolstoy is not to blame (which, yeah, I’d probably be a real asshole to lay the blame on Tolstoy), but which—attempting to absolve myself a little bit—I’m not sure I take full blame for either.

I suspect, and I could be very wrong, it could just be me that the last third of Anna Karenina doesn’t square with, but I suspect that as we get farther away from the time in which the book was written, more and more readers will have trouble reading the book on its own terms, trouble accepting (among other things) the odd partial release of tension throughout the novel’s middle third. People used to have, if not more time to devote to a work like Anna Karenina, at least the perception that they had more time—fewer distractions.

* * *

Consider, instead of Anna Karenina, “Superduperman!” from 1953’s Mad #4, layouts by Harvey Kurtzman and finishes by Wally Wood. The story begins with the panel above, a piece of cartooning which—in the true spirit of early Mad—is almost willfully uncooperative as an opening panel. Wood’s details interrupt the story before it starts, demanding that readers pause over the panel, taking in as many gags as they can. The smaller gags compete with each other for the reader’s attention, but they also work together to make the reader STOP, a conspiracy of fractured mini-narratives. This panel is goofy, it’s dumb, but it’s also pretty radical stuff.

Wood had many possible incentives for including so many gags inside one rectangular border—the simply joy of doing so, probable encouragement from Kurtzman, and the eight short pages in which he and Kurtzman were required to tell a story. The cartoonists needed to fit as much as possible into a small area, to make use of a limited page count and to make sure children of the baby were getting every cent’s worth out of their parents’ newfound disposable income. Time and space are frequently the same thing in comics, and they were both of the essence. But despite the fact that Kurtzman and Wood were working in a hyper-compressed mode of storytelling, they, like Tolstoy, produced something to be lingered over, an act which presumes of readers a surplus of time and a willingness to use it, something no contemporary producer-of-texts can safely take for granted.

* * *

Consider also (and I promise that isn’t a deliberate allusion to Consider the Lobster) this clip from a Charlie Rose interview with David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and Mark Leyner (latter two not visible). Wallace articulates his thoughts about TV at length in “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” but the Rose interview functions as a sort of retroactive thesis statement for that essay—an introduction to Wallace’s ambivalence about writing fiction for, and generally being a part of, a generation for which TV was “the main artistic snorkel.”

“E Unibus Pluram” includes a lot of talk about irony, and about American culture’s ability to critique itself, but also about the challenges of writing fiction for an audience that’s infinitely more comfortable with TV than books, i.e. an audience expecting constant volleys of novelty launched from within familiar territory. Wallace first published the essay in 1993, which begs the question, (Jesus,) what kind of audiences do we make up now?

Wallace died shortly before the Twitter boom. Whether or not he would have registered a Twitter account had he lived longer is irrelevant. (Though if the example of Wallace’s friend Franzen is any indication, he likely would have opted out.) But Twitter is relevant to Wallace’s writings about TV inasmuch as, between that service, Tumblr, and a handful of others, an odd form of prose-based expression has emerged in the last few years, one that has–in terms of probable cognitive effects—much more in common with TV than with literature, both in terms of how it’s read and how its authors consider audience.

Microblogging—hell, let’s open it up to all blogging—is a perversely accommodating form of expression. One can register a Blogspot blog and post a 10,000 word entry each day, with no regard to whether anyone will actually read any of the posts; one has that right. But lots of blog posts/tweets/etc. are almost pure concession, written (consciously or not) for an audience craving Newness, Right Now, Or We Will Click Away So Fast–. (This post, by the way: too long! I write parentheticals because I can’t help it, and keep them in because I hope it helps you keep reading.) Twitter and Tumblr being probably the purest incidences of this trend—and both are great in some ways!—but the conditioning effects of either platform (and man, I hate sounding like a luddite, but here we are) are worrying things. Short, endless bursts of information—really nice, right? And why would you go anywhere else?

Returning to Anna Karenina: the world Tolstoy has created is a fascinating place, but it is hard doing the mental labor to get there, and it’s going to get harder. (You can show a heroin addict a bountiful Thanksgiving dinner, and he/she might think ‘that looks great!’ but he/she will still really want to shoot heroin.) I’d like to think that good readers will always be able to reach Tolstoy’s Russia, and I hope that they typically hit fewer speed bumps than I have. I also hope that good readers are able to do so while still setting aside time to browse new Tumblrs. (Who would want to give up Fake Criterions, now that we have it?)

I can’t volunteer too many qualities that I’m sure these good readers will possess—again, I’m doing just-OK, and I’m trying. But I will guess that the good readers, while sometimes distractible, even media-saturated, will be cautious of what they’re bored by. That they possess the benefit of the doubt, and it will prove to be one of the most valuable tools of the literate twenty-first century person. Incidentally: if you’ve made it to the end of this post—if you’ve kept up with this blog at all over the last year—then thank you sincerely.

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One Comment on “Anna Karenina vs. The Internet, or Children of Children of TV, or Post #151: This Blog at One Year”

  1. trashmash Says:

    …thought Greg Hunter as he wrote a 1000+ (??) word blog post! Come on! Also, have you finished the book yet? ANYTHING OF NOTE HAPPEN??

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