Talking about the Internet with Margaret Atwood, Titiou Lecoq, and Tao Lin by Adam Biles

The Salle Carlos Fuentes is Festival America’s bunker. A windowless, underground hall, it feels like a final bookish refuge from the zombie apocalypse (AKA smartphonageddon) overrunning the streets above. Festival-goers were asked to check their skull-caving implements at the door.

An appropriate venue, then, for a conversation that can bring out the quivering doomsayer in even the most well-balanced novelist: Internet and Technology — will they change literature?

France is probably the last European country where that question can still be posed in the future tense without provoking squalls of manic laughter. While the British book industry pitches in the wake of the transatlantic digital tsunami, its French counterpart is only now feeling the first ripples and — like a pack of Cnuts — is commanding those ripples to halt.

Distinctly un-Cnutish, were my three panelists, who have not only engaged with technology in their novels, but also maintain active Internet presences through websites, blogs and Twitter. They were French novelist and blogger Titiou Lecoq (author of Les Morues), American Tao Lin (author, most recently, of Taipei) and Canadian Margaret Atwood (author of…well, of far too many to mention, so insert your favourite here).

Adam panel

As if mirroring the fabled adolescent attention span — as fickle as a butterfly if reports are to be believed — our conversation flitted:

On whether her tweets counted as part of her œuvre : Atwood shared with us the cruel fate of her archivist, who had pleaded with her not to use Twitter as it would transform his previously pleasant job into a task to rival Sisyphus’.

As for the shelf-life of technological references, Lecoq spoke from personal experience. In her first novel she had referenced Myspace… My-what-now? “It’s strange. When you write it, it’s relevant. Then very quickly it becomes tacky. My belief, though, my hope, is that as time goes on, it’ll cease to be tacky and just be understood as a specific reference to a specific time.”

And Lin talked about how Paul, Taipei’s narrator, believes that technology is just indiscriminately fulfilling its only function — transforming regular matter into computerised matter, until the whole universe eventually becomes a single computer. As he spoke Lin’s hands moved in front of him, as if englobing an invisible crystal ball. “Paul finds that reassuring,” he said. “I do too.”

Atwood and Lin confessed to recreational e-reader habits, although both expressed optimism that the unique aesthetic experience of reading a printed and bound text meant that there was life in the old book yet. As for Lecoq, she greeted the question with a grimace and a shrug, as if the very idea of the Kindle was a targeted affront to Gallic good taste: “I can’t explain it,” she said, when pressed. “I just can’t imagine reading with one of those things.”

As for the future, 74-year-old Atwood was bullish about the novel’s prospects, adding, however, “That’s for my fellow panelists to reflect on. It doesn’t concern me.” Let’s hope she’s wrong.

Afterwards, as the spectators filed out, I was cornered by one: “What’s the point in a debate about technology,” she said, annoyed, “if it happens underground and you can’t live tweet when the authors are talking?” It was then that I realised I’d been mistaken and the zombies had in fact breached the perimeter…

 

Adam Biles is a Paris-based writer and regular Shakespeare and Company event chair