Want To Grasp Intel Surveillance Better? Read More Classic Novels

The Long March

Today, issues of surveillance dominate the news as FISA procedures, practices and their implications grab attention. As someone trained to read novels, I absorb these stories with a particular interest, because surveillance is central to the novel.


Not only is the novel a deeply visual form that vividly brings characters and settings in front of a reader, but it is also a form obsessed with watching, with characters looking at one another. The novel isn’t just visual, though; novel readers are hipped on the question “Who speaks?” Reading a novel is, in fact, an act of watching and of listening, of observing and hearing. So novel-reading teaches its practitioner not only how to look and listen, but how to keep track of information. To add in one more layer, we’ll see that novel reading is an act of keeping track of keeping track of information.

Charles Dickens is especially celebrated for the pictorial quality of his novels. A well-known fan of popular visual entertainments, including the theatre, the panorama, and the diorama among others, that allowed viewers to achieve new and interesting points of view Dickens brings this interest into his writing. Early lines of Bleak House run, “Fog everywhere… Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all around them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.” Dickens shows off here, and more than a little. In writing of the obscuring effects of the fog, the unnamed London-dwelling characters look down only to see fog, Dickens parades his ability to show his readers a scene that is about the difficulty of looking experienced by people in that scene.

Of course, there are plenty of times when people in novels do watch, look, observe and examine. Jane Eyre may be the poor relation in a brutally unfair household, but Charlotte Brontë creates a character that knows how to keep her eyes open. It’s through Jane that other characters, events, and settings come into view. When she and her spoiled cousin stand face to face in the opening scene of the book Brontë has Jane report, “John Reed was a schoolboy of fourteen years old; four years older than I, for I was but ten; large and stout for his age, with a dingy and unwholesome skin; thick lineaments in a spacious visage, heavy limbs and large extremities.” Through Jane’s eyes, the reader sees John Reed in all his grimy pudginess.

Novelists also speak openly of the difficulty of accurately painting a world for their readers. George Eliot’s narrator lays out her troubles on just this score, “[M]y strongest effort is to … give a faithful account of men and things as they have mirrored themselves on my mind. The mirror is doubtless defective… the reflection faint or confused; but I feel as much bound to tell you as precisely as I can what that reflection is.” Accuracy and precision, painstakingly achieved, are Eliot’s watchwords. The acutely self-aware novelist is aware that their writing is, for all that it strains towards the truth, a representation of things and not the thing itself. The mirror shows an image; a novel captures the image of that image. It turns out that keeping tracking of information, of its sources and its origins is crucial to fiction.

No type of fiction dramatizes this more fully than detective fiction. In addition to looking closely, there’s a reason that the magnifying glass so easily stands in for the detective, the detective also asks questions and listens. The recent film version of Agatha Christie’s classic Murder on the Orient Express wonderfully captures how full the narrative is of dialogue between Poirot and his suspects. Kenneth Branagh sweeps up and down the carriage, fills trains rooms, sits at tables in the dining car and stands outside of doors, all in the service of talking to people, often singly but sometimes in groups. During these conversations two things happens. The detective learns things, he gains information, about people’s pasts, their families, their jobs and their movements. He keeps track of information. Poirot also links the actual information with the person who gave it to him. He has to keep track of keeping track of information.

This all happens within the world of the fiction, but reading about that world makes readers, too, keep track of keeping track. Moving with Poirot through the carriage and listening in on conversations he has with his suspects makes the reader follow along as Poirot does what he does best. Of course the reader doesn’t literally follow Poirot, and the reader knows this. Remembering that there is a line between a world of words and the worlds in which we live, taking seriously the plausibility of fiction even as we recall its very status as invention is the hallmark of novel reading.

So it is that consumers of fiction are surprisingly avid and critical consumers of information. We’re in the midst of a national screaming match about information, its origins, its sources, and how it flows. To be sure reading fiction doesn’t automatically make one conversant in FISA anymore than knowing about FISA makes one an astute reader of novels. Of all the recent explainers and comments about surveillance the one that sticks closest to me comes from another English Ph.D., Virginia Heffernan, who says of those concerned that their conversations have been overheard: “They are their own wiretaps.”

Katherine Voyles teaches, reads, writes and observes in Seattle.

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