Friday, June 25th, 2010

The Literary Singularity

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 cheapest generic zithromax 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!

10 comments on “The Literary Singularity

  1. Alvy Singer says:

    I’d like to read an expanded version of this idea, Mr. Grossman.

  2. Karen Valihora says:

    I think Richardson’s Clarissa was a singular literary event in the manner you describe. Because of the first-person narration, with which Richardson did things that fascinated Austen. I don’t think narration, or the conception of interior life, was ever the same after that novel appeared. Our collective memory, for very interesting reasons, does not extend back to Richardson — it stops somewhere in the nineteenth century. It is interesting to me that whenever I say I study c18, people come back with, “oh, you mean Austen/Dickens/Tennyson?”

  3. Dennitzio says:


  4. M says:

    i feel like my college education was useful just now, we talked about unilinear theory in one of my classes, and it suggests we move from primitive to more advanced proceedings; therefore suggesting that Austen’s work is far more advanced and more ‘civilized’ than its predecessors, in accordance with the theory.

    although im not too familiar with more classical literature. it’s similar to Citizen Kane being a landmark film, if you showed it someone today, they might not find it as groundbreaking because they’ve seen all of that before.

    But the films today are all using details that made citizen kane so groundbreaking in the first place.

    i dont know if that made sense.

  5. qbertina says:

    Karen, I actually think of that — internally — as a schism, a sort of double literary singularity with Richardson at the root of one fork and Fielding at the root of the other. The Richardson track leads to all ithe internal character-driven first-person stuff and Fielding goes spinning off in the other direction , the low road if you will, and gives us the purely story-driven stuff. The future was certainly Richardson’s in the sense you’re talking about, and three thousand cheers for that, but we would have neither Dickens nor the plot blockbuster of today without the Fielding strain and in some respects it’s still the task of (at least a certain kind of) novelist to knit them back together and re-create something bigger than either.

  6. Church says:

    Hrm. “Singularity” is current, so that’s good. “Watershed Moment” was, I believe, the previous term. Maybe we could combine them?

    I nominate “Singular Drip.”

  7. Alison says:

    Carl Jung was bats, but he had this idea about the nature of deity. He believed that the deified archetype already existed in collective consciousness and the power of collective imagination would kind of wear into the fabric of reality until this anthropomorphic being was actually sort of there; extant and animate; so animate in fact that you could interact with it and ask it stuff and sometimes ask it to do you a favor. What was animating the deity was the godstuff of consciousness, illuminating a single form created by collective human imagination.

    I spent the most of the nineties in a dark blue cyberworld writing and playing ffrpg with my friends. We’ve all been really shocked over the years by how inevitably most of what we made ended up in the movies. I’m thinking for example of a certain blockbuster teen vampire romance storyline. If that woman ever credited the people who really invented that world I’m convinced she’d have to pay the whole internet.

    There’s no way one lone brilliant genius breaks the culture and steers it in a new direction. We’ve already wished what appears into being; think about it. It can’t be otherwise.

  8. Nicholas D. says:

    Congratulations on +1 to your Halcyon rating, Mr. Grossman! May she always roll twenties.

    Best wishes,


  9. Heather says:

    Is literary singularity close to what scientists call a paradigm shift? Historians, literary and otherwise, have adopted this term handily.

    Also, I’ve been thinking lately about the contradiction of originality – it relies fundmentally on context, but also implicitly devalues that context. For instance: “Mr. X is the most original thinker of his generation.” Mr. X’s generation is both crucial and valueless to his originality. I wonder if there is a way for originality to be multiple rather than singular.

  10. Sister Lea says:

    Couldn’t originality be both singular AND multiple? Hasn’t it ALWAYS been so?

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