In a 2015 piece for the New Yorker (“Music, Fiction, and the Value of Attention”), literary critic Nicholas Dames thus muses on the dwindling cultural prestige of the novel: its difficulty in sustaining relevance, sales, and above all, attention. Music, Dames posits, has access to a cognitive power that prose cannot command, and perhaps this is why it has become the object of such elaborate description in contemporary fiction (Richard Powers's Orfeo, Colm Tóibín's Nora Webster, and Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, among other novels). Here, sustained accounts of musical listening aspire to the “waves of [neural] connection” or the “rapt submergence” inspired by sound—forms of focus seemingly...

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