In Defence of Novels

Daniel Punday, Writing at the Limit: The Novel in the New Media Ecology

University of Nebraska Press, 280pp, £45.00, ISBN 9780803236462

reviewed by Mélissa Mahi

We live in a time that is more saturated by information than any time before in history. That information is no longer limited to text, but arises out of multiple media. The convergence of audio, video and text in digital culture challenges the traditional role of the written word as society’s primary source of knowledge production. In Writing at the Limit, Daniel Punday introduces us to authors who are ‘eager to understand what makes the traditional novel distinctive among storytelling forms’, despite these changes. He analyses how contemporary American authors integrate other media into their novels (film, television, music, audio recording, graphic novels, etc.) in order to investigate the nature, strengths, and ambiguities of text. Punday’s book traces these patterns in an impressive variety of authors, including Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo, Paul Auster, Thomas Pynchon, Oscar Hijuelos and Robert Coover.

According to Punday, authors nowadays are not interested in the definition of the novel as simply a source for entertainment. They are interested instead in the new nature and vocation of written narratives in a contemporary context: they want to explore what it means to write and read stories now, when storytelling is being actively challenged by other media. To do so, they manipulate the complexity of modern media in order to create tensions between their narratives and other forms of communication. Punday looks in particular at the use of media as a component of plot and setting, and finds that references to media have become a crucial component in authors’ questioning of the nature and limits of the written medium. One of the examples he uses is an audio recording in Ronald Sukenick’s short story ‘Duck Tape’, where the author strategically blurs the boundaries between fiction (the written story) and reality (the recorded conversation) to comment on the potential ambiguities of writing. Sukenick emphasises the power of the writer, and ultimately turns the audio recording into a means of illuminating the versatility of the written story.

What does it mean to read in a digital environment? Punday describes ‘fan communities’ and the sharing of information through digital platforms, skilfully analysing how contemporary novelists respond to new interactions between readers and media. He finds that authors are depicting an increased anxiety over the interstices between private and public spaces. In Robert Coover’s short story ‘The Babysitter’, for instance, the television becomes an object of spatial tension: it intrudes upon the household and constantly draws the characters out of their private lives towards a multiplicity of external plots and spaces. Punday suggests that Coover’s creation of anxiety around the television is meant to emphasise the complexity of the modern setting, to transform the objects of modern media into narrative concepts and thus to comment on the new responsibilities of writing.

Punday is greatly interest in the relationship between literary and computing culture. He discusses the role of new digital media, which he defines as ‘the mixture of writing, image, audio, and video that is made possible by the computer screen’. Although interested in the directions in which this media will develop, he nonetheless challenges its much-vaunted promise to transcend the limits of print. He boldly compares the limitations of character identification in video games to novels, but instead of questioning the similarities between a video game’s avatar and a novel’s protagonist, Punday embraces them. His goal is to subtly condemn the new media’s promise of improvement and transcendence of the written word’s limitations by showing the ‘new’ dynamics promised by the ‘new’ media can already be found in print. And, for the most part, he succeeds.

The book’s major claim is that if authors of contemporary novels continue to concern themselves with the nature and limits of media, they will continue to debunk the myth of an imminent ‘media fullness’ that is constantly being gestured at by the digital form’s deconstruction of boundaries between text, image, video and sound. Punday insists that these boundaries, preserved by the novel, are far from obsolete. In a culture that is constantly trying to peel limitations away, they have become more necessary than ever before.