My 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.
This 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.
We 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…)
Yes, 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.)
Of 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.
My 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.