I can't read fiction anymore.
I came to this unfortunate conclusion while trying to finish On the Road for a class. As far as postmodern hallmarks are concerned, it's a slim volume, but I still struggled to make it through to the last chapter. And it had nothing to do with the quality of the writing, which I enjoyed very much.
No, like many things, I blame this problem on the Internet. Let me explain.
Remember life before the Internet? Half my life has been spent, as it were, online, but I still recall the basic facets of real life before "IRL" became a necessary acronym. I remember how entertainment was just that, entertainment; I watched cartoons and sitcoms on television, devoured Goosebumps books and immersed myself in Jerry Spinelli's childishly tragic worlds, saw movies, and read newspaper comics--all this when I wasn't racing toy cars or building cities out of wooden blocks. When I was alone, I was never really alone, having my imagination or Super Mario for company. For the most part, the video games I played were realistic; never a fan of Zelda or his ilk, I chose to play sports games and--especially--Mario games, which contained hard-and-fast rules for engagement, limits to the universes their creators had crafted, fictional only in their "Easy" setting that allowed me to win every time (which made them quite fictional, indeed). The only time I discussed "real world" things--news events that affected my juvenile self, and the like--was with friends and family, our conversations peppered by silly witticisms and rueful observations. Such was life before the Internet, at least the way I remember it; entertainment was entertainment, and you could easily avoid the real world if you had to. (And being a closeted nerd, there were many times during my adolescence when I felt I had to.)
Do you remember? This was before Jon Stewart helmed The Daily Show, and despite the scandals of the Clinton years, the show had yet to really take off, the way it did upon the arrival of the second Bush and Stephen Colbert. Mad magazine and The Onion provided much of the mass-consumed satire of the day. Commenting on real life as a viable profession made you a journalist or a comic, two niche professions that in my eyes involved their own kinds of self-limiting asceticism, having always to keep up on current events.
Then came the Internet, and not long after that, blogs. Suddenly, entertainment seemed more of a trifle. YouTube brought the absurdities of real life into everyone's living rooms, and I don't think it's a coincidence that reality TV gained prevalence at the same time. At this point, the concern for the real has reached its seeming zenith, with Twitter and Tumblr streamlining the transmittance of what we experience out there onto the laptop screens of thousands of avid readers across the world. The Daily Show and its offshoots are arguably the most important shows on television; The Onion has an endless number of online imitators. I know I've grown up since my days of Super Mario, but technology has shifted my perception of entertainment just as much as the natural age progression that afflicts us all. When I am alone, I am never really alone, but instead of fictional characters occupying my time, I read blog posts and view pictures online, glimpses into other peoples' realities, appropriating someone else's tiny, recorded tragedy--falling down a flight of stairs, drunken revelry in an anonymous dorm room--and making it my own entertainment.
This is why fiction doesn't--or hasn't yet figured out how to--work on the Internet, a medium for the documentation of real life. Why should I read a book about two people affected by a recession when I can read a hundred peoples' true tales of economic woe online? The veracity of their stories lends a certain comfort, the notion that I'm really not alone. Why should I watch a screwball comedy when I can YouTube just the same? The unassuming nature of YouTube videos, the unintended mishaps and unplanned catastrophes--these are where the comedy lies.
So it's not even a matter of cyber-ADD. A great story will still engross me, period. But I find it harder to believe in fictional worlds when I learn, every day, just how strange this world can be. A lot of people talk about the death of print journalism, and rightly so, but perhaps we should start a conversation about the possible death of fiction.