There’s something inherently wrong with the way publishers and readers alike commodify literature. It goes without saying that commercial appeal is no measure of the success of a piece of literary art. Poets strike me as more comfortable with that assessment, perhaps because they’ve long accepted that their books might not sell well, and that this wasn’t the point in the first place.
It needs to be said over and over again: the short story is not a warm-up for a novel. It’s the real thing.
So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:
What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded . . . sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.
One reason I’m so fascinated by people’s aversion is my own devotion to the stuff. I eat canned fish almost weekly. For breakfast, I’ll heat Japanese glazed saury in a skillet to serve over warm white rice. For lunch, I’ll lay oil-cured Spanish anchovies on toasted white bread. On a solo trip to Tokyo, I ate a one-Yen can of sardines for breakfast outside my hotel window and sent a photo of the precarious set up to my other half Rebekah back in Oregon. Pretty much every white person I know thinks I’m disgusting. I think they’re missing out.
The extended franchise worlds of Marvel and DC Comics are a ruthlessly commodified way of experiencing the same pleasure. A keen consumer of contemporary mass culture has many opportunities to indulge in this feeling of marinating in an imaginative canon. (My fourteen-year-old son and his friends use the word “canon” more often than literature Ph.D.s.) What we don’t have enough of, however, is the genuinely new. More new stories! Give us more things that are as sexy and unpredictable and new as the first vampire, the first werewolf! Is that too much to ask?
James Gleick’s illuminating and entertaining Time Travel is about one of these once-new stories. We have grown very used to the idea of time travel, as explored and exploited in so many movies and TV series and so much fiction. Although it feels like it’s been around forever, it isn’t an ancient archetypal story but a newborn myth, created by H.G. Wells in his 1895 novel The Time Machine. To put it another way, time travel is two years older than Dracula, and eight years younger than Sherlock Holmes. The very term “time travel” is a back-formation from the unnamed principal character of the story, whom Wells calls “the Time Traveller.” The new idea caught on so quickly that it was appearing in the Oxford English Dictionary by 1914.