In a previously unpublished essay, written just before her death in 2004, Susan Sontag makes a passionate case for the moral superiority of the novel in a mass-media age [from the collection of essays: At the Same Time.]:
Long ago - it was the 18th century - a great and eccentric defender of literature and the English language - it was Doctor Johnson - wrote, in the preface to his Dictionary: "The chief glory of every people arises from its authors." An unconventional proposition, I suspect, even then. And far more unconventional now, though I think it's still true. Even at the beginning of the 21st century. Of course, I am speaking of the glory that is permanent, not transitory. [...]
There is an essential - as I see it - distinction between stories, on the one hand, which have, as their goal, an end, completeness, closure, and, on the other hand, information, which is always, by definition, partial, incomplete, fragmentary.
This parallels the contrasting narrative models proposed by literature and by television.
Literature tells stories. Television gives information.
Literature involves. It is the recreation of human solidarity. Television (with its illusion of immediacy) distances - immures us in our own indifference.
The so-called stories that we are told on television satisfy our appetite for anecdote and offer us mutually canceling models of understanding. (This is reinforced by the practice of punctuating television narratives with advertising.) They implicitly affirm the idea that all information is potentially relevant (or "interesting"), that all stories are endless - or if they do stop, it is not because they have come to an end but, rather, because they have been upstaged by a fresher or more lurid or eccentric story.
By presenting us with a limitless number of nonstopped stories, the narratives that the media relate - the consumption of which has so dramatically cut into the time the educated public once devoted to reading - offer a lesson in amorality and detachment that is antithetical to the one embodied by the enterprise of the novel.
In storytelling as practiced by the novelist, there is always - as I have argued - an ethical component. This ethical component is not the truth, as opposed to the falsity of the chronicle. It is the model of completeness, of felt intensity, of enlightenment supplied by the story, and its resolution - which is the opposite of the model of obtuseness, of non-understanding, of passive dismay, and the consequent numbing of feeling, offered by our mediadisseminated glut of unending stories.
Television gives us, in an extremely debased and un-truthful form, a truth that the novelist is obliged to suppress in the interest of the ethical model of understanding peculiar to the enterprise of fiction: namely, that the characteristic feature of our universe is that many things are happening at the same time. ("Time exists in order that it doesn't happen all at once ... space exists so that it doesn't all happen to you.")
To tell a story is to say: this is the important story. It is to reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path.
To be a moral human being is to pay, be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention.
When we make moral judgments, we are not just saying that this is better than that. Even more fundamentally, we are saying that this is more important than that. It is to order the overwhelming spread and simultaneity of everything, at the price of ignoring or turning our backs on most of what is happening in the world.
The nature of moral judgments depends on our capacity for paying attention - a capacity that, inevitably, has its limits but whose limits can be stretched. But perhaps the beginning of wisdom, and humility, is to acknowledge, and bow one's head, before the thought, the devastating thought, of the simultaneity of everything, and the incapacity of our moral understanding - which is also the understanding of the novelist - to take this in.
Perhaps this is an awareness that comes more easily to poets, who don't fully believe in storytelling. The supremely great early-20th-century Portuguese poet and prose writer, Fernando Pessoa, wrote in his prose summum, The Book of Disquiet:
I've discovered that I'm always attentive to, and always thinking about two things at the same time. I suppose everyone is a bit like that ... In my case the two realities that hold my attention are equally vivid. This is what constitutes my originality. This, perhaps, is what constitutes my tragedy, and what makes it comic.
Yes, everyone is a bit like that ... but the awareness of the doubleness of thinking is an uncomfortable position, very uncomfortable if held for long. It seems normal for people to reduce the complexity of what they are feeling and thinking, and to close down the awareness of what lies outside their immediate experience. [read on...]