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Oct 21 2006

The Death of the Novel?

Matisse_woman_readingMy friend Kanani and I were talking about books last weekend, and one of the topics on the table was the fact that, even though we’re both voracious readers, neither of us reads very many novels any more. (Not contemporary ones, anyway.) This brought up an idea/rant I’ve been wanting to blog about for some time — a response to people who complain about the fact that almost nobody reads serious novels anymore, and who bewail the impending doom of literary fiction.

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Pride_and_prejudiceThis is going to make me sound like a Philistine. But I think that living in the late 20th/early 21st century and griping about the fact that nobody reads novels anymore… well, it’s a bit like living in the early 19th century and griping about the fact that nobody reads sermons or epic poetry, because they’re all reading those darned newfangled novels.

Guns_germs_and_steelWe are living, right now, in a time of tremendous blossoming in the field of non-fiction. There is just an enormous amount of amazing non-fiction out there right now — compelling, insightful, allusive, funny, petrifying, inspiring, and beautifully written. (BTW, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the most exciting and interesting cinematic form right now is the documentary…)

PersepolisAnd we’re extraordinarily lucky to be living in a time when an entirely new literary form is blossoming like mad — the graphic novel.

MausYes, yes, I know. Graphic novels aren’t all that new, and comics as an art form have been around for a while. By the same token, the novel had been around for a while by the early 19th century as well — and I’d still peg that as the time when the form really began to come into its own. At the risk of sounding like an SAT question, I would argue that the last 20 years or so is to comics and graphic novels what the early-to-mid 19th century was to the novel: not the time when it was born, but the time when it began to really flourish and take hold as a serious — and seriously recognized — art form. (Art Spiegelman is to the graphic novel as Jane Austen is to the novel? Okay, I’ll stop now.)

Sim_cityOf course, fiction hasn’t just been losing readers to non-fiction and graphic novels. It’s also been losing readers to TV and video games and the Internet. I get that. (Although I’ve seen some interesting defenses of video games as a new and valid art form..) And of course, something dear and precious would be lost if the novel dwindled away completely… just as I’m sure something precious was lost when epic poetry began to fade.

Lisa_saxophoneMy point is this: If one creative form is in fact diminishing in impact and importance, that’s certainly sad if you’re attached to that form. But it doesn’t mean that creativity itself is disappearing. Creativity seems to be hard-wired into the human brain, and as long as we’re around, I don’t think it’s going anywhere.

10 comments

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  1. 1
    Rebecca

    I think you have good points, but I also think that this debate is missing something: genre novels and “literary fiction” do not have to be mutually exclusive. And yet, they are treated as such.
    Look at bookstores: “literature” is almost always separate from “mysteries” and “science fiction” and “young adult.” The arrangement is convenient, but it also reinforces a false division.
    I’m not saying their are lots of “serious novels” scattered among the mystery and science fiction and young adult novels; those are still few and far between. I’m saying that the novel as an art form still flourishes in genres; novels are still written and novels are still read.
    There are two phenomena leading to overwhelming mediocrity in the genres I have named. The first is the tendency for authors to write series instead of stand alone works of fiction. I think there is something about writing novels that are chapters of a series that makes authors lazy. They use the same descriptions and plot twists over and over and allow characters to languish without change or growth. They don’t have to follow any particular idea to a satisfying (or deliberately unsatisfying) close, because there is always the next book.
    The second problem is the trap of success. Once an author has developed a following, no one fracking edits their novels! They aren’t sitting in a room with an experienced editor struggling to make a good novel into a work of art. They are just churning out the next in a series and the publisher seems happy to cut the costs of editors and just run the damn thing through spell check before sending it to the printer. Thus the first novel may be agonized over, in order to get it published, but the seventeenth is often overwritten dreck.
    Let me give just one example of an author who is getting the novel right: Walter Mosely. He could easily have churned out Easy Rawlins novels until the cows come home, each one a little less than the last. Instead, he has explored young adult fiction and now science fiction, stretching his talent, rather than reclining on it. He has also explored a type of fiction of which I am quite fond, the collection of short stories that interweave, developing into something resembling a novel by the end.
    And yet, since his books reside in the mystery section, or the science fiction section, or the young adult section, no one goes looking for them in literature. But I encourage you all: go read Mosely’s mysteries, AND his young adult AND his science fiction. Then tell me that the novel is dead.

  2. 2
    Greta Christina

    Those are all excellent points, Rebecca. (I was actually thinking of making a couple of them myself in my original post, but decided to keep the focus simple.)
    One of the things Kanani and I were talking about was the fact that people bemoan the death of the novel — and yet the genre novel is doing reasonably well. It’s the “literary” or “serious” novel that’s dwindling.
    And as Kanani said (sorry if I misquote you here, K.) — maybe the literary novelists need to be paying attention to what the genre novelists are doing right. The complaint that people are abandonding literary fiction for genres usually implies that genre readers are lowbrow Philistines who either don’t want good/great writing or don’t know any better. But frankly, one of the main reasons I don’t read much literary fiction anymore is that so much of it is so fucking grim that it’s unreadable.
    There’s this all-too-common assumption that to be “serious” means to be depressing, enervating, and devoid of hope. Qualities like humor, excitement, entertainment, and hope are considered sops — or even lies, pretty illusions concealing the essential awfulness of existence.
    (Quck caveat/tangent — I may not be being fair. I haven’t been reading a lot of contemporary literary fiction lately, so maybe I’ve jnust been unlucky. And I’ve seen this tendency in art forms other than fiction — graphic novels sometimes suffer from it as well.)
    Where was I? Oh, yeah. Myself, I prefer the philosophy of writing laid out by Fay Weldon in her excellent book “Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen.” In it, she talks about literature as the City of Invention, and talks about books as buildings — which have to have doors and windows to invite the readers in.
    I’m probably biased here, since just about the only fiction I’ve written has been genre — i.e., porn. But I do think genre fiction is very good at creating doors and windows — excitement, suspense, sexual arousal, etc. — that invite the reader in. They don’t always have much inside once you get in — Sturgeon’s law, 90% of everything is crap. But my own experience is that, if you’re a serious writer, writing genre fiction is actually harder than non-genre fiction. You have to satisfy the needs of the genre — to be suspenseful, arousing, scary, whatever — AND you have to satisfy the needs of literature. But when you’re successful (Raymond Chandler, Philip K. Dick, etc. — or Jane Austen, for that matter, who was after all a romance writer), you can be doubly effective, because you can tap into the power of the genre as well as the power of literature.
    Oh, BTW: Walter Mosley has thrown his hat into the non-fiction ring as well, with a political book about being a black intellectual in America called “Life Out of Context.” I haven’t read it yet, but I very much want to. And yes, what I’ve read of his work has been excellent, and I’d like to read more.

  3. 3
    Iamcuriousblue

    You’re certainly describing a real phenomenon – I’m literate, college-educated, I read quite a bit, but its mostly non-fiction. And its been years since I cracked open a novel and even longer since I’ve finished an entire novel.
    On the other hand, I love comics/graphic novels (mainly in the underground/alternative/indie genre) and I love film. In fact, I like film so much, I even occasionally read screenplays.
    I just don’t know why novels fail to engage me. Perhaps its because I’m such a visual person, that I’m just inherently drawn to mediums like comics and film that combine narrative storytelling with visual art.
    I’ll have to make a point of cracking open a novel again soon and making myself finish it, and see if it can’t engage myself with it.

  4. 4
    Kanani

    Philistine here!
    I’ve been trying to think of the most recent non-genre “literary” fiction books I’ve read recently, and it ocurred to me that they’re really all genre fiction (mystery, specifically): Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories; and Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. A couple of my favorite genre authors occasionally get reviewed as “literary” fiction (George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane), even as their books continue to live in the mystery ghetto.
    The thing is, they write dark, gloomy see-into-the-underbelly kinds of stuff. I’d really like it if more “literary” fiction were like that. But it’s not; it’s boring. It doesn’t speak to me. If I’m reading fiction, I want some amount of what-happens-next suspense, and I also want to learn something: I want to learn how people think, how they act; I want a different window onto a world I’m already familiar with (i.e. the world of people). I want characters that I like, or at least ones I’m interested in. Maybe I just don’t care about what most contemporary fiction writers are writing about – angst in suburbia, or whatever. (Though that’s not really fair, since many of them don’t write about suburbia, and anyway, I still love me some Cheever.)
    I’m slowly picking my way into the thickets of graphic novels, and I have a few sf/f/speculative fiction folks I read. But these days, when I go into a bookstore, I head straight for the nonfiction section (then, of course, to mysteries).
    (Hey, Rebecca – I’ll make you a deal: I’ll read Walter Mosley – don’t know why I haven’t, really, just complacency, I guess – if you read George Pelecanos (if you haven’t, already). Start with King Suckerman.)

  5. 5
    Rebecca

    1. I love that I demonstrated my own point about spellcheck by writing “their” instead of “there” in my post.
    2. George Pelecanos, King Suckerman. Check.

  6. 6
    DBHoward

    I don’t agree that the novel is dead or even dying. I have heard the death of the novel predicted with regularity for years, since the 60′s. I suppose graphic novels will find their place, but they won’t replace novels. Nothing can match the traditional novel for depth and texture of communication of experience in its range. Your comparing it to epic poetry is a false analogy. Epic poetry was not, after all, replaced by the novel. Epic poetry was a social form, public, in preliterate or just-literate societies. It was replaced by things like the Bible, not by the novel. It died out because its social function was lost, not because its artistic use was superceded. …But I digress.
    The novel is a development and intensification of forms of written storytelling that have existed for centuries. Graphic novels, if anything, resemble the blue books, pamphlets, and chapbooks that the novel replaced: cheap and easy to read, with pictures and sensational content. Maybe graphic novels will (someday) grow into a form that will complement other forms of storytelling, but they will not replace novels, any more than novels have ever replaced poetry or cartoons.
    I do agree that the “literary” novel is frequently boring. That is because editors at publishing houses have created a false category of “literary” fiction vs. “genre” fiction. This didn’t exist when Austen and Dickens were writing, after all, or even when Hemingway and Faulkner were. The idea that fiction ought to be interesting, tell a good story, be thought-provoking, socially relevant, _and_ be well written, seems be have been forgotten.
    But really, there are plenty of traditional words-only writers who don’t even worry about it. The whole literary-vs-genre thing seems to me to boil down to how much the focus is on character/relationships vs plot/action in the book. Just because something is set in the West doesn’t make it a genre Western. Just because it involves lots of sex doesn’t make it genre erotica. Just because it has ghosts doesn’t make it genre horror. Et cetera.
    I would also challenge the idea that video games are any sort of new literature. Games are toys. They don’t contain the element of story, but they do have the interactivity of play. The two elements seem to me to be contradictory. The more story there is, the less play. Games with a strong storyline are less interesting as games.
    As far as why you’re reading fewer novels, consider how much recent non-fiction is being told as “story.” The recent trend toward narrative history and memoir are satisfying the basic need for narrative drive and good plain story. They have characters, narrative drive, and resolution. Another turn of the wheel, and cracking good novels will be back.

  7. 7
    Greta Christina

    Many good points, DB.
    You may be right that reports of the death of the novel have been greatly exaggerated. More on that in a skosh.
    I don’t agree, though, that epic poetry was supplanted by the bible rather than the novel. But to clarify, I didn’t mean epic poetry as in Homer or the oral tradition. I meant epic poetry as in Byron and Pope. My understanding is that, in the 18th and early 19th century, poetry – especially epic poetry – and sermons were considered to be the serious forms of literature, what serious sensitive people of the educated classes read. When the novel first came along, it was considered for some time to be sensationalist junk
 but by the mid-Victorian age, it had become the primary form of serious literature, and both epic poetry and sermons were read less and less. Obviously poetry still exists, even in long forms – but it doesn’t have nearly the same cultural impact that it used to,
    And I think you’re being needlessly harsh on graphic novels. Would you really call Alison Bechdel or Daniel Clowes “sensationalist” or “cheap”? I think it’s clear that graphic novels don’t just have potential to grow into a form that will complement other forms of storytelling – they’ve already done so, in trumps.
    But I take your point (and several other people’s points) about genre fiction. It does seem that the people who whinge about the death of the novel consider the popularity of genre novels to be a sign of Philistinism – another sign of the novel’s impending doom, rather than a sign of its health. And I agree that that’s silly.
    Oh, just to clarify: I didn’t say that video games could be defended as a form of literature. I said they could be defended as a form of art. (I couldn’t say personally – I spend to effing much time on a computer for work to want to play games on one – but I’ve seen some interesting arguments saying that video games are an authentic new art form.)
    I do think there’s a non-trivial difference between narrative-style non-fiction and fiction. Which brings me back to the main point: While I agree that the human desire for stories is so deeply ingrained that it’s probably hard-wired, I also think that the forms we mainly want those stories in have changed many times over the centuries, and will probably continue to do so. (Arguing over whether graphic novels will eventually supplant novels is a little pointless in the age of movies and TV
)

  8. 8
    Dan W

    Just got through reading Akira, the 6-volume graphic novel about psychic teenage boys in angst by Katsuhiro Otomo.
    Although as art it’s probably not up there with Dickens, it’s certainly up there with any contemporary American novel I’ve picked up in a while. (To indulge in broad stereotypes for a moment, I’ll call it the Middle Aged Intellectual Attempts to Break Out of His/Her Emotional Isolation Novel. Tell me you haven’t read that dust jacket recently.)
    What Akira does that a standard novel does is explore themes through action: in this case the conflict is that of loyalty versus betrayal. Just about all of the characters, in an attempt to be loyal to a person or a cause or a nation, end up betraying a friendship, cause, or nation.
    But what the graphic novel does in this case that the standard novel never can do is show the extent of the suffering and the changes the characters undergo. The ruined buildings and machinery of neo-Tokyo fill almost every frame, and it creates a sense of both the physical and mental obstacles that the characters who are still human face.
    As in most science fiction I’ve read there are a couple of notes that go clunk rather than sing. As an artistic achievement, I’d have to rank it above almost any of the fiction I’ve read in the New Yorker in the past few years.

  9. 9
    Anonymous

    Its kind of funny reading this because my dad who i kind of rely on to find books has move away from sifi fantasy to serious novels. Witch i just dont like. Although i am also teribly bored of most fantacy these days. although “Spin Control” was realy realy cool. An entire socity of cloned insestual homosexuals aranged in a caste system was just realy cool espicialy how it clearly had problems but was also pritty good for most people most of the time. and AIs and spaceships and spys.
    My bigist frustration reading fiction is that there arent any romances writen for guys. (at oreigenal works in english, a large number of the herem animes/ mangas are romances, althou a large number are not)
    and I dont have car and live in a town that has exactly one bookstore, so cant shop for books often so just end up reading the ranma fanfiction on the web.

  10. 10
    Bachalon

    A few things.
    First, DBHoward, correct me if I’m wrong, but I get the feeling you don’t play many video games. I say this because one of the problems I have with many games now is an over-reliance on story. It used to be that there was a plot, but a deep, complex story meant nothing next to game-play. That is, how easy, intuitive, and above all fun it was to play a game.
    I grew up a video gamer and comic book reader, and I’d like to attest to the fact that games aren’t fun. Sure they have amazing graphics, but you can’t beat something like Mario 3 for just being entertaining. This is not to say that the two are mutually exclusive. Just that it seems that there’s a trend in games I don’t care for.
    Second, Greta! Hello, again. Leave it to your posts on literature to get me to come out of lurking. I suppose that this is because I have nothing to add to your other posts (though I do keep meaning to leave even “thank you” notes there. As you are a writer like myself, and I assume you love all feed back no matter how long or short).
    I’m upset by the lack of “serious” reading. As someone who’s been accused of being a literary snob (that’s another story), I’m dismayed by the amount of people who say, “I read to be entertained. Isn’t life serious enough?” as if “good” and “entertaining” can never go hand in hand. I’ll admit some of the classics can be tough going, but I’ve found that I think quite well of them in hindsight even if I disliked reading them at the time.
    I think one of the reasons there’s this push towards series and entertainment, is the devaluing of the intellect (which you’ve written upon). Why should I want to learn while reading? Y’know?

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