Don’t believe for a second that the “novel-is-dead” article is dead. Imagine if that were true: The whole great, grand journalistic tradition of delineating, every six months or so, why long-form fiction cannot survive contemporaneity, imagine that whole glorious enterprise of punditry finished, over! And in its place, what? Book reviews?
Don’t believe it. Every time someone claims that this staple of newspaper arts pages has finally lost its position at the summit of literary criticism, a new and even more ferocious novel-is-dead essay pops up, proving the fantastic longevity and flexibility of this powerful form.
I have been writing about novel-is-dead articles for some years now. I have never imagined their demise. I have argued about the future of fiction with jaded novelists, far-seeing postmodernists, technologists, television critics. The argument that future generations will not know the pleasures of the novel has been a staple of book reviewing since at least 1960.
The novel-is-dead genre is one of my favourite pastimes. I would hate to see it die. What, without end-of-the-novel essays, will intellectuals be left to test their wits with? Television? Video games?
Well, take heart, fellow fans of the genre: Another glorious exemplar of the form has just been published and is once again stirring excited response. There’s life in the art yet! This time it’s British novelist Will Self’s essay in The Guardian – itself an excerpt of a lecture he gave this week. It’s titled “The novel is dead (this time it’s for real).” The day it came out I must have been sent 10 links to it by thrilled acquaintances. See, with such continued popularity, how could anyone doubt the continued weekly existence of this highly codified fixed form?
Self’s article has, however, occasioned less impassioned defence of literary fiction than other previous novel-is-dead classics, I think because it is so damn difficult to read. His style is about the densest you’re ever likely to find in the pages of a newspaper. His sentences are baroque; his vocabulary demands a dictionary. He describes the whole discussion as “at once Panglossian and melioristic,” which may leave the average newspaper reader wondering if she has wandered into the wrong section (medicine, perhaps?), or just wondering if the future of educated novelists is something she truly cares about. Self manages to find a use for ourobouros, senescence, tyro and Gesamtkunstwerk in the space of 1,000 words. There is a long and possibly unnecessary digression into Marshall McLuhan. If the unpopularity of the highly educated mind is something he is trying to demonstrate, he is showing determination.
To save you some rather hard work, let me attempt to summarize Self’s wandering series of arguments. Basically, he thinks future generations won’t read literary fiction because his teenage son isn’t very interested in it. People in an age of digital distraction are no longer into what’s difficult. (He says, more eloquently, “The hallmark of our contemporary culture is an active resistance to difficulty in all its aesthetic manifestations, accompanied by a sense of grievance that conflates it with political elitism.”)
Digital media destroy the ability to focus, both for readers and for writers faced with constant distraction. If, as Yeats said, “Poetry is the social act of the solitary man,” then writing and reading in an age of creative-writing groups and Facebook updates have become “the solitary acts of social beings.”
Meanwhile, the economics of the activity have also become inimical to production. No more bookstores, too many free texts, too many unedited texts, a monopoly such as Amazon driving down remuneration for authors. Now authors can only make a living teaching writing to those whose ambition is to teach writing to yet more writing teachers.
He concludes that novels will continue to exist not as massively popular commercial forms but as recherché hobbies: “The serious novel will continue to be written and read, but it will be an art form on a par with easel painting or classical music: confined to a defined social and demographic group, requiring a degree of subsidy, a subject for historical scholarship rather than public discourse.”
That’s not a very radical proposition; in fact, some would argue that we’re already at that point. It doesn’t mean the novel is dead any more than the poem might be dead. Self just seems to mean he laments not being able to be as big a star as Dickens was. Most of us, unless we write One Direction fan fiction, have already given up on that.
That, I think, is actually what keeps the whole novel-is-dead genre alive: the slightly straitened economic circumstances of highly educated novelists, and their feeling that they have been demoted from the most important talk shows. What this endlessly fruitful lament actually reflects is not any kind of worry about the intellectual or aesthetic capacities of the novel form, but a rather venal resentment about Harry Potter and Fifty Shades of Grey. The novel is just fine: It’s novelists who aren’t doing so well.
What Self can at least be proud of, however, is perpetuating the ascendancy of the novel-is-dead essay. Obviously, whatever boredom with the genre the hip naysayers might express, the form is here to stay for a while. Self is even proud to be part of its canon: “The omnipresent and deadly threat to the novel has been imminent now for a long time – getting on, I would say, for a century – and so it’s become part of culture.”