The Struggle for the Soul of the Sentence

The Struggle for the Soul of the Sentence

Sven Birkerts

Ours is the great era of infotainment, of the much lamented migration away from serious reading. The...

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Ours is the great era of infotainment, of the much lamented migration away from serious reading. The communications revolution—everything from e-mail to the ubiquitous cell phone—has spawned what seems to many an impoverished, phrase-based paradigm. The sound byte, the instant message—with every year, increments of meaning and expression seem to shrink. One might naturally expect American fiction of the last quarter-century to reflect that contraction, and gifted young writers, the products of an accelerated culture of distraction, to map in their prose the rhythms and diction patterns of our times.

Instead, almost to a writer, a new generation of novelists and short-story writers are forging styles of notable complexity and of cultural, if not always psychological, nuance. Life as presented in fiction has never seemed more ramified, more mined with implication, more multiplex in possibility. This shocking reverse of expectation marks a major shift in the how and what of literary fiction in America. A pitched battle between ways of seeing and representing the world—what might be called a struggle over the soul of the sentence—has been fought for at least a half-century now, and skirmishes during the past two decades have brought a victory for complexity that few would have predicted.  

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