So you know how there’s this idea of a singularity, a moment in human history where the rate of change accelerates non-linearly to the point where the whole world abruptly transforms into something unrecognizable?
Like the Industrial Revolution. Or when “they” invented agriculture. Or our imminent merger with our iPhones to form transcendent beings like Ray Kurzweil.
I was thinking about this with reference to literary history. Sometimes a book appears that by the sheer power and radical-ness of its ideas forcibly transforms how we think about and write all future books in that genre. Basically they bring about a literary singularity.
Like Jane Austen’s first (published) novel Sense and Sensibility. The more you study the early history of the modern novel, the more amazing it is how much contemporary fiction looks like Jane Austen novels, and how ancient everything that came before her looks.
When Austen arrived, everything changed. She was a Chicxulub-level event. But in a good way. She brought about a literary singularity.
More examples: Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Possibly Chandler’s The Big Sleep. (I don’t really know, I’m crap on the history of crime novels.)
Or more recently: Watchmen for superhero comics. Neuromancer for science fiction.
What these books have in common is that they question the basic assumptions that underlie their genres. They’re like the little kid who asks: but why do people put on tights and beat up muggers? But what language do elves speak? What if we never found out who killed the chauffeur? If computers and prosthetics mimic the functions of the human mind and body, then what’s really the difference between people and machines? etc.
And paradoxically, instead of collapsing, the genre that has its assumptions questions in this way emerges stronger and faster, with enhanced senses, and cleaner, shinier hair.
Obviously that impression of sharp, instantaneous transformation is in part a historical illusion. Lesser-known works influenced and led up to these books, but we forget about them now. Ulysses would look less radical if anybody still read Édouard Dujardin, but they don’t. Moore warmed up a lot of the themes of Watchmen in Marvelman (a.k.a. Miracleman), but it was Watchmen that drove them home.
Still, it seems like there should be a word for this. I use “literary singularity” internally (internally = inside my brain) so I figured I’d try the idea out on you.
Done. Next post: more stories about drinking and failure!