Rita Dove on the Future of Literature

The Pulitzer-Prize winning poet discusses how new technologies will affect the creative process

Rita Dove
Literature, says poet, novelist and playwright Rita Dove, will look "for different ways to distinguish itself from mass media." Damon Winter / The New York Times / Redux

Rita Dove was 41 years old when, in 1993, she became poet laureate of the United States—the youngest person and the first African-American to serve in the post. She has published nine books of poetry, including the 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning Thomas and Beulah, based on her grandparents, and this past year’s Sonata Mulattica. Dove, who has also written short stories, a verse play and a novel, is Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. She spoke with associate editor Lucinda Moore.

What is the future of literature?
With the advent of technology and cyberspace and iPads and Kindle, I feel change happening even at the level of composition. In the past, a reader had to rely upon the author to supply all the details of what it was like to hike in Nepal, let’s say. Thanks to search engines, now you can quickly look it up, and that’s going to change the way literature is written.

How will blogs, YouTube and other technology affect authors?
The intimacy that literature affords—that feeling that you are really in the head of the characters portrayed—used to be almost the private privilege of plays, novels and poetry. Now there’s another place that has it—be it blogs, Facebook or Twitter—and it gives you second-by-second accounts. That does not diminish the power of literature, because literature is shaped intimacy. For the writer, it raises the bar, as it should. The very fact that we can be found at any moment, through a cellphone or whatever, changes the way plot will work. How many plots were dependent upon the fact that a note had to be passed here or there or that someone didn’t answer the phone?

What is shaping literature and its future?
I flash back to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, which came out in 1969. It seemed to be a plot that had exploded, which you then had to piece together. It seemed to acknowledge the fact that you couldn’t put all the pieces together right away. At the end of the novel, it still felt like it was going on. The acknowledgement that things are going to be playing out beyond the provenance of the work of fiction had some of its seeds right there. I think you see more of a willingness in literature to acknowledge the fact that this is not a perfectly shaped whole, that lives are going to be messy.

Things like the iPad and Kindle will allow us to carry around massive amounts of literature. Because of that, literature is going to be looking for different ways to distinguish itself from mass media, and it’s going to feel freer to experiment. Because of movies, which satisfy so many people’s need for a visual effect and aural effect combined, theater is going to go increasingly toward things that only theater can do. In the new poetry, I see a fascinating confidence in switching viewpoints very quickly, in mid-sentence practically. So there’s a speeding up of changing viewpoints and expressions that comes from technology speeding us up and the fact that you can keep several screens open at a time and divide your attention. The narratives are getting faster and are having more interruptions because we can tolerate interruption.

Genealogical research is causing more people to embrace a multiracial heritage. How will this affect literature?
It cuts down on stereotyping and the fear of the other, because we all are the other or the other is us. The assumptions of the mainstream change. A mainstream novel of the early ’70s or so would contain the dilemmas of, say, a household in Connecticut. Everything that had to do with country clubs or the tensions at a cocktail party was assumed to be the mainstream. That left a burden of explanation for any writer who was not of the mainstream. So a Jewish-American writer had to go into great details to explain Seder, or an African-American writer had to explain—somehow in the context of their story—how they did their hair. Now that we are more and more identifying ourselves as multiracial, these elements of other cultures are becoming better known. That will change the nature of the mainstream, and that is quite a tidal wave.

You once asked, “Why can’t we find the universal in our differences?” Is literature getting there?
Absolutely. That’s one of the great shining lights of the future. I think as we become more multicultural and able to look at each corner of the world, the more at ease we are with our differences. And we are going to be more comfortable reading something about experiences which are, on the surface, very different from ours. Yet we’ll still feel confident that we can access the common humanity.

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