Revenge of the Nerd: Junot Díaz and the Networks of American Literary Imagination

Ed Finn, Digital Humanities Quarterly, Volume 7, Number 1 (2013)

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In this article, CSI director Ed Finn considers the complicated cultural coding of author and MIT creative writing professor Junot Díaz and his literary fiction blockbuster (and Pulitzer Prize winner) The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007). Ed also grapples with the ways that digital technology, online shopping and social networking sites have transformed the way we buy, read, discuss and interpret literature.

The article explores how a variety of people, groups, and entities interpret, debate and negotiate the meaning of Oscar Wao: literary consumers, professional book critics, inveterate bibliophiles on the “social reading” website LibraryThing and the algorithms employed by Amazon and LibraryThing to quantify, guide and monetize their users. For Ed, this is all a complex game in which readers, authors, booksellers and critics all vie for cultural dominance in determining the meaning of Díaz’s work, and of Díaz himself. But it’s also all business – some players are trying to sell more books or chasing clicks and user data to sell to advertisers, while others are vying for influence and cultural capital.

Díaz is playing the cultural game along with us: Ed argues that Oscar Wao is a transgressive blend of New Yorker­-style high culture, politicized social commentary and unadulterated nerdiness. Oscar Wao refuses traditional ideas about what makes for “great” literature, felicitously slithering between a multitude of genres, modes of address and even languages, from English to Spanglish to Elvish. If there is a winner of the Oscar Wao game, it’s Díaz. Despite the best efforts of Big Data and a legion of well-meaning readers clinging to settled genre categories to make sense of his book, his work continues to defy easy categorization.

But what Ed is really doing here is experimenting with a new method for figuring out how people make sense of literature and share their ideas with one another. The algorithmic ecosystem of e-commerce and social networking has irrevocably transformed our relationship with literature by shaping the way we discover books and decide what to read, and plugs us into a sprawling worldwide conversation about literary meaning and value. Algorithms like the ones used by Amazon and LibraryThing are powerful and active players in the game of culture, and we need to be attentive to the way that they influence the meaning of books, movies and games by connecting them, as if by magic or nature, with a universe of other texts. As Ed puts it, “It’s not enough to recognize how algorithms read us – we need to learn how to read them.”

Image courtesy of the American Library Association, used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.