Susan Sontag in the Guardian

The Guardian has a lucid and very perceptive essay on literature and its place in the world written by Susan Sontag.

A novelist, then, is someone who takes you on a journey. Through space. Through time. A novelist leads the reader over a gap, makes something go where it was not.

There is an old riff I’ve always imagined to have been invented by some graduate student of philosophy (as I was once myself), late one night, who had been struggling through Kant’s abstruse account in his Critique of Pure Reason of the barely comprehensible categories of time and space, and decided that all of this could be put much more simply.

It goes as follows:

“Time exists in order that everything doesn’t happen all at once … and space exists so that it doesn’t all happen to you.”

By this standard, the novel is an ideal vehicle both of space and of time. The novel shows us time: that is, everything doesn’t happen at once. (It is a sequence, it is a line.) It shows us space: that is, what happens doesn’t happen to one person only.

If you’re a writer, read it now. She has a wonderful critique of of the “hyper-novel.” I have never understood the pull of such things, like hypertext fiction. I have always found it to be a weird form in which the author abdicates their role, responsibility, and authority to the reader.

This new model for fiction proposes to liberate the reader from the two mainstays of the traditional novel: linear narrative and the author. The reader, cruelly forced to read one word after another to reach the end of a sentence, one paragraph after another to reach the end of a scene, will rejoice to learn that, according to one account, “true freedom” for the reader is now possible, thanks to the advent of the computer: “freedom from the tyranny of the line “. A hypernovel “has no beginning; it is reversible; we gain access to it by several entrances, none of which can be authoritatively declared to be the main one “. Instead of following a linear story dictated by the author, the reader can now navigate at will through an “endless expansion of words “.

I think most readers – surely, virtually all readers – will be surprised to learn that structured storytelling, from the most basic beginning-middle- end scheme of traditional tales to more elaborately constructed, nonchronological and multi-voiced narratives, is actually a form of oppression rather than a source of delight.


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