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The novel is dead!
May 2, 2014 4:35 PM   Subscribe

The literary novel as an art work and a narrative art form central to our culture is indeed dying before our eyes. Will Self on the future of the novel.
posted by dng (56 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
Of course the novel is dead. Barthes killed the author years ago.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 4:36 PM on May 2 [3 favorites]


Hmmm, given Self has displayed only the most tenuous investment/interest in the novel as a form, and cared more for deconstructing it, it doesn't surprise me he would think this.

But I would say this, the novels of his that I've read i don't really care for, and postmodern trickeries I don't really care for in general. His idea of a novel may be faltering, but actual novels are still plenty relevant for plenty of people.

Novels haven't been central for at least half a century, indeed the era they were central was a very very short period. Nonetheless, plays have arguably never been central, yet Shakespeare has a huge impact.
posted by smoke at 4:42 PM on May 2 [8 favorites]


Sorry, I meant to say "on the future and the past of the novel."
posted by dng at 4:42 PM on May 2


This is yet another in a very, very long line of obituaries for the literary novel. I'd imagine it won't be dead until people stop talking about it.
posted by nevercalm at 4:42 PM on May 2 [3 favorites]


Well, he can say the "novel" is dying only by defining "novel" to as exclude anything he doesn't personally consider worthy. The stuff us hoi polloi read doesn't count, you see.

And, worse, now I can't get that "chirp-a chirp-a cheep cheep," song out of my head.
posted by tyllwin at 4:52 PM on May 2 [5 favorites]


Oh that old Barthes line....

To be honest re: the article. tl;dr

Off to do some writing.
posted by mandonlym at 4:53 PM on May 2 [2 favorites]


I'm trying to be objective when reading this essay, but it's hard. His self absorbed cleverness (no pun intended) makes the experience of reading for comprehension feel like bathing in a mild acid. His cynicism is washing my innocence away!

Anyway, if I understood him correctly after wading through the analogies and witty banter, Self's hypothesis is that books are becoming electronic, and that's bad because E-readers are inherently unsuited for serious literature. They're all net connected or have hundred of other books available to be read on the same device, which makes it too difficult to concentrate. He seems to think that serious literature can only be appreciated when one concentrates deeply upon a work, and that's only possible when the physical format of the text removes distractions.

Don't think I agree with him on any of it.
posted by Kevin Street at 4:56 PM on May 2 [7 favorites]


Funny, I just got through reading another piece on the death of the novel. Said it was fine for the nineteenth century but modern life had rendered it irrelevant. It was written by Mandelstam in 1922.
posted by languagehat at 4:58 PM on May 2 [36 favorites]


I'm not sure he's saying it's a bad thing, so much as just that things change, and are changing, and that's okay.

My apprenticeship as a novelist has lasted a long time now, and I still cherish hopes of eventually qualifying. Besides, as the possessor of a Gutenberg mind, it is quite impossible for me to foretell what the new dominant narrative art form will be – if, that is, there is to be one at all.

What I can do is observe my canary: he doesn't read much in the way of what I'd call serious novels, but there's no doubting that he's alive, breathing deep of a rich and varied culture, and shows every sign of being a very intelligent and thoughtful songbird. On that basis, I think it's safe for us both to go on mining.

posted by dng at 5:01 PM on May 2 [2 favorites]


Anyway, if I understood him correctly after wading through the analogies and witty banter, Self's hypothesis is that books are becoming electronic, and that's bad because E-readers are inherently unsuited for serious literature. They're all net connected or have hundred of other books available to be read on the same device, which makes it too difficult to concentrate. He seems to think that serious literature can only be appreciated when one concentrates deeply upon a work, and that's only possible when the physical format of the text removes distractions.

Which is absolute reactionary nonsense. I now exclusively write for eReaders and I have never been happier with a medium: I can use mini-chapters with chapters; have hybrid novel/short story collection that makes sense in an eBook format and then have interconnected short fiction and magazines that relate with the central book. I could never do that with a traditional book.

I am the author of three print books, but the freedom to experiment, take risks and try new models of writing were opened up to me with the modern format.

I celebrate the eReader and cannot imagine an author not having the courage and creativity to play around with it. It is like clay only a lot less messy!
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 5:31 PM on May 2 [2 favorites]


as the possessor of a Gutenberg mind, it is quite impossible for me to foretell what the new dominant narrative art form will be – if, that is, there is to be one at all.

Dude! You're a writer! Watch those misplaced modifiers!
posted by IndigoJones at 5:57 PM on May 2 [1 favorite]


I thought Amtrak was here to save us?
posted by OHenryPacey at 6:00 PM on May 2 [1 favorite]


The irony is that novels themselves are distractions. The novel arose with the middle-class which has the free time to read, and the desire to let the world know it has free time. Novels are just one of many competing distractions for free time. One could argue novels are a better way to spend free time than some other activity. But that novels are being distracted by other distractions is precious (#3).
posted by stbalbach at 6:10 PM on May 2 [2 favorites]


So, if they become rare enough, would that make them novelties?
posted by happyroach at 6:33 PM on May 2 [4 favorites]


When I teach Victorian fiction, I joke with my students that I'm corrupting them by assigning such evil things. Novelistic plots make you want EXCITEMENT! And you become unable to distinguish between FICTION AND REALITY! And if you read too many novels, you no longer have the ability to concentrate on SERIOUS WRITING, like HISTORY and THEOLOGY! Before you know it, you'll be ELOPING WITH AN UNSUITABLE MAN! All honest-to-goodness nineteenth-century complaints about the novel.

So the very notion that it would be difficult to concentrate on a novel b/c of e-readers would probably amuse/astonish many Victorians, who presumed that the novelistic form itself destroyed the attention span and unfitted readers for more substantial fare.
posted by thomas j wise at 6:33 PM on May 2 [24 favorites]


Seems like Harry Potter, "The Hunger Games", "Fifty Shades of Gray", "Twilight" and "Game of Thrones" are all novels and have all had significance to the culture in recent years.

Those must not count.
posted by chrchr at 6:39 PM on May 2 [2 favorites]


One of my favorite alternative perspectives on what is wrong with novels.
posted by johngoren at 6:39 PM on May 2 [4 favorites]


That's a remarkable snowstorm of tired cliches, facile analogies and trite observations, right there, like some tired, deadline-addled editor decided to make Self take the Cinnamon Challenge with a ground up copy of Bartlett's Quotations and print whatever he sneezed out.
posted by mhoye at 6:43 PM on May 2 [1 favorite]


Silly Will Self. He just hasn't met the right eBook.

More seriously, I hope he's wrong, because I think novels (especially the more conventional, less formally experimental ones) help to exercise certain critical higher order mental and social functions that are relatively recent developments in human evolution and without which we're even nastier and dumber than we usually are. Not that it's the end of the world or anything, of course, but a lot of cultural trends are converging to discourage the development/reinforcement of those abilities right now, so it would be a shame if we lost more ground. And I don't know what I'd do without novels.

that the novelistic form itselfdestroyed the attention span

Well, these were people so dense they couldn't quite bring themselves to understand that dark skinned people--or sometimes their own mothers--were real humans, so why wouldn't we expect them to get a thing like that exactly backwards?
posted by saulgoodman at 6:46 PM on May 2 [2 favorites]


if the novel is dead, he certainly isn't going to resurrect it with his overblown and somewhat turgid prose
posted by pyramid termite at 6:50 PM on May 2 [5 favorites]


Newspapers have always folded.
posted by crazylegs at 7:02 PM on May 2 [4 favorites]


Funny, I just got through reading another piece on the death of the novel. Said it was fine for the nineteenth century but modern life had rendered it irrelevant. It was written by Mandelstam in 1922.

To be fair, he did state that the novel had done its job by the time of Finnegans Wake (1939). There's no question that the novel was most central to culture in the 19th century and was sucked up into modernism and even arguably completed by it. Yet it's also obvious that much of the best of the literary novel was seen in the 20th century after that. But maybe that's how long it takes something to die. At the moment, it does look like the literary novel, like jazz or theatre, is lowering itself into a place where it doesn't help to define how we live around about now. And like jazz or theatre, it won't disappear: it'll just be a niche, slightly refined interest. Eventually, all of these things will become as outdated as opera - which itself will never ever finally die.
posted by cincinnatus c at 7:21 PM on May 2 [1 favorite]


Just let me finish Mason & Dixon before it dies.


It might be a while.
posted by crazylegs at 7:26 PM on May 2 [3 favorites]


Novelistic plots make you want EXCITEMENT! And you become unable to distinguish between FICTION AND REALITY! And if you read too many novels, you no longer have the ability to concentrate on SERIOUS WRITING, like HISTORY and THEOLOGY! Before you know it, you'll be ELOPING WITH AN UNSUITABLE MAN! All honest-to-goodness nineteenth-century complaints about the novel.

And of tumblr, had they only known.

well maybe not so much the eloping
posted by hap_hazard at 7:28 PM on May 2


the hallmark of our contemporary culture is an active resistance to difficulty in all its aesthetic manifestations

I'm not at all sure how this notion could possibly be justified.
posted by shakespeherian at 8:00 PM on May 2


(Checks royalty statement)

Nope, the novel's not dead yet.
posted by jscalzi at 8:06 PM on May 2 [21 favorites]


As long as there are airport bookstores, there will be novels.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:10 PM on May 2


Hey, I didn't read this. Is there a tweet that summarizes it?
posted by shmegegge at 9:10 PM on May 2 [2 favorites]


Self's hypothesis is that books are becoming electronic, and that's bad because E-readers are inherently unsuited for serious literature. They're all net connected or have hundred of other books available to be read on the same device, which makes it too difficult to concentrate.

I agree with the net connection; it's harder to read a book on the laptop or tablet because so many other things I could do than read, and they're so easy. An ereader has inconvenient internet access, and sure I have a zillion other books I could read -- but when I have read physical books, this has also always been true.
posted by jeather at 9:43 PM on May 2 [1 favorite]


Seems like Harry Potter, "The Hunger Games", "Fifty Shades of Gray", "Twilight" and "Game of Thrones" are all novels and have all had significance to the culture in recent years.

Those must not count.


Except for Martin, those authors all lack the major requirement to create Serious Literary Novels- a peener. They will never write the Great American Novel.

Now Martin, not only is he doing a big thick book largely about white males, he's probably going to die while writing it- instant classic!
posted by happyroach at 9:45 PM on May 2 [1 favorite]


Hey, I didn't read this.

Based on this thread, it's apparently quite all right to comment anyhow! But ideally you should also have remembered to denigrate Will Self's prose style, erudition, and wit. It's not like he's widely celebrated for those qualities — at least not by anyone as discerning and highly literate as us.

jesus christ this place sometimes
posted by RogerB at 9:49 PM on May 2 [8 favorites]


I'm really pleased with the commentary here.

I rarely care for stories that end in points, but I was glad that Self eventually got past the canary parable stuff and identified the villain of the piece:

But what is already no longer the case is the situation that obtained when I was a young man.

Bold honesty. I like it.
posted by clockzero at 10:23 PM on May 2 [2 favorites]


I predict the young generation brings the novel roaring back just because they weren't 1990s English majors and nobody told them it was pointless to write anything because it was proven useless by depressing postmodernism essays. Cervantes got enslaved for five years but he didn't have to deal with that shit.
posted by johngoren at 10:29 PM on May 2 [5 favorites]


jesus christ this place sometimes

Also if you want to read better cheap shots, read the comments to the article itself. Examples:
> If the novel is dead, it's perhap unwise to write an article longer than the average one.

> The death of the novel would certainly explain all the novels about zombies we're getting
You people are getting worse than the newspaper comment sections you're so glad you're not a part of. Step up your game!
posted by furiousthought at 10:47 PM on May 2 [2 favorites]


My good friend who is Norwegian but has lived in the U.S. about ten years now got a kindle paperwhite about two years ago and is suddenly an absolutely VORACIOUS reader of English-language novels. Because now when he runs into a word he doesn't know? He can just tap on it and get a definition instead of going through all the distraction of stopping to find a dictionary and looking it up, or skipping over language he doesn't know. Now he's constantly up in my grill, like, "What do I read after Mark Twain?" and "Have you finished The Goldfinch yet? I want to taaaaaalk about it!" and "I need more disaster novels!"

Anyway maybe for some people who aren't Will Self, the very seamlessness of an ereader provides LESS distraction.

I don't know, I've had to discipline myself in new ways to read on the ereader and not flip tabs, as it were. But reading paper books requires habits of discipline too ... like since I got a kindle, I've noticed how many paper books are just very awkward to hold and I end up with a distractingly stiff neck or cramped fingers. I can't adjust the type size. Sometimes my eyes just travel down the page without taking anything in which, I don't know why, but I don't do on an ereader. I'm watching my kids learn to read and they have to learn to filter out distractions and give sustained attention to the book ... But these are habits of mind that can be learned with practice, and I bet focused, sustained ereading can be too.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:59 PM on May 2 [9 favorites]


they also keep saying the author is dead
posted by philip-random at 11:39 PM on May 2


I seem to recall John Barth traced the idea of the death of the novel back centuries, to the very beginnings of the form; in his words, the novel was "born a-dying".
posted by baf at 11:59 PM on May 2 [3 favorites]


The world has always overcounted the readers of Ulysses and Gravity's Rainbow (to name just two) while undercounting (and secreting away guiltily) the reading of writers like James Patterson or Stephen King (to name just two).

I think it's a sign of cultural progress to be evermore proud of "low" culture & to engage it honestly than to be faffing on all the time about how no one pays any attention to "high" culture anymore (get off my lawn &c.). And if all you can do is focus on the past and lament, you won't ever get anything new in the world.
posted by chavenet at 2:33 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]


A lot of the division comes in because of a distinction between reading for style and reading for content, or alternatively on novels that get their work done through stylistic complexity against novels that do their work through plot.

Ulysses is arguably low on content, if you're defining content as "basic plot" and its immediate satisfactions; but a Patterson novel does so little work outside of their basic plots that someone reading for style gets almost nothing from them. (I leave aside Gravity's Rainbow, if only because it's got a surfeit of plot and style; this doesn't make it "better" or "worse," just not as useful for comparative purposes.)

There's certainly a lot of classism involved in the reception of Patterson vs. the reception of Joyce, the latter of whom quite deliberately made his book a collectible in one of its earliest editions and who was quite conscious of appealing to the lit-crit establishment. Patterson, conversely, is deliberately more accessible, both in prose style and in sales format: it's a popular brand versus a luxury brand. (It's striking how much of this "high"/"low" distinction is native to 19th and 20th century marketing, some of which doesn't make much sense today.)

But I do find that Patterson's work doesn't let me do the kinds of thinking that, say, Joyce's work does. Alex Cross is a less interesting character than Leopold Bloom. He's a less interesting character than Sethe or Clarissa Dalloway or the protagonist of Invisible Man. Hell, he's not even as interesting as Gravedigger Jones of Phillip Marlowe. The world of Alex Cross feels small, conventional, and dull in comaprison to these characters' worlds; his modes of engaging with it are similarly empty and rote. And so I don't spend much time on Patterson.

What I find distressing, maybe unfairly, is the number of readers who simply treat the novels they read as if they were quantitative information delivery systems, a storehouse of facts and transparent experiences laced with a bit of entertainment, that is, a sugar-coated medicine. At their worst, this means that the novel is only as good as the quality of the "historical" or "scientific" information it conveys, which seems reductive as reading practices go; at worst, it means that the novel, for many people, really is dead on arrival, a kind of inferior or slightly different, equally uncreative form of popular nonfiction with no particularly distinctive function or social meaning of its own.

It also means that there's no effort to think through someone else's experience as theirs; the novel, for such readers -- and I have met them -- is about transforming radically different experiences into variations of, say, American middle class sentimentalism so that they can say, "people are alike all over" and "isn't it terrible how those people are treated, they're such nice people, but I suppose that's how it is over there because those nasty Other people are in charge." This is not an active or engaged response; it's sentimentalist narrative as the palliative of conscience and the limit of thought.
posted by kewb at 4:59 AM on May 3 [8 favorites]


We are in the process of trading reflective contemplation (the privileged art object) for sensuous immersion (group experience) -- what McLuhan characterized as the move from "eye" culture to "ear" culture. I think Self is right.
posted by temporicide at 6:13 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]


Will Self is talking about Literary Fiction dying. In short he's talking about one specific deliberately high brow genre (the one he happens to write in) being in trouble. And if I was saving books genre by genre, literary novels would come only slightly before Mills and Boon/Harlequin Romances. Not that there aren't great literary novels (although most of them, like The Name of the Rose, can be filed under other categories as well). But written to be timeless, one of the great paradoxes of literary fiction is that it is ephemeral in the same way that science fiction always reflects the future seen from the period it was written in. And Literary Fiction is ephemeral; I believe that Hugo winners remain in print far longer than Booker winners.

And I'd appreciate knowing when literary fiction was central to the culture. I believe that if it ever was (rather than an extremely minority interest) it was central precisely because literary was a title given to what were considered the best novels and ones hallowed by time rather than because it was something people set out to do. "A Modern Classic" is not and has never been more than marketing speech.
posted by Francis at 6:50 AM on May 3 [2 favorites]


But ideally you should also have remembered to denigrate Will Self's prose style, erudition, and wit. It's not like he's widely celebrated for those qualities — at least not by anyone as discerning and highly literate as us.

Is he also widely celebrated for his appeal to authority?
posted by Etrigan at 7:53 AM on May 3


It seems the narrative art form most central to our culture these days are big budget tv shows that everyone watches then spends the next day at work discussing.
posted by pravit at 9:56 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]


> At the moment, it does look like the literary novel, like jazz or theatre, is lowering itself into a place where it doesn't help to define how we live around about now.

I simply don't believe it. You're just rephrasing the same thing people have been saying forever. And who is "we"? The novel was never central to the lives of people who didn't have the time, energy, or ability to read long pieces of prose; it became more popular when those things became more widespread, and it is still popular. It isn't the Most Popular Thing in the World, but it never was. It is popular among people who like to read novels, and there are a lot of those people—look at the bestseller lists. All this talk about the novel "dying," or "lowering itself into a place where it doesn't help to define how we live," or whatever is just so much Chicken Little oratory.
posted by languagehat at 10:12 AM on May 3 [4 favorites]


Self is right. Your choice is between books that refuse to grow up (Potter, Twilight) or ones that are already dead (Pynchon etc). The other option is just do a creative writing course like everyone else and write your own.
posted by colie at 10:15 AM on May 3


Your choice is between books that refuse to grow up (Potter, Twilight) or ones that are already dead (Pynchon etc). The other option is just do a creative writing course like everyone else and write your own.

Gravity's Rainbow is pretty lively for a corpse.
posted by thivaia at 10:16 AM on May 3


I'd like to be constructive, but attempting 40 or so pages of 'Gravity's Rainbow' was one of the worst experiences of my life.
posted by colie at 10:27 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]


Sounds like a pretty good life.
posted by shakespeherian at 11:29 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]


Self compares the present to an imaginary past. As others have pointed out here, it has never been more than a very small fraction of the population that reads "serious" novels. That fraction might be declining, I don't know, some data would be nice.

(Checks royalty statement)

Nope, the novel's not dead yet.
posted by jscalzi a


Cute, my friend, but I am pretty sure Self was not writing about Redshirts.
posted by LarryC at 1:06 PM on May 3


And Mason & Dixon is a riot.

Nonetheless, plays have arguably never been central


How about Athens from 5th century BC until the Hellenistic era? Incorporated into public life, prestigious, connected to religion, free entry etc.
posted by ersatz at 1:14 PM on May 3


Self is right. Your choice is between books that refuse to grow up (Potter, Twilight) or ones that are already dead (Pynchon etc). The other option is just do a creative writing course like everyone else and write your own.

This is actually a false dichotomy. There's lots of great fiction being written which is neither young adult nor impenetrably Literary. Perhaps the terrain of the latter's reception and celebration has shrunk, but that's quite different.

Besides, I think the sentiment I quote above somewhat misses the point (no offense, colie). It seems to me, anyway, that Self is quite clearly stating that he's sentimental for the world of his past, specifically. This essay isn't about the state of the novel, really.
posted by clockzero at 1:28 PM on May 3 [1 favorite]


Except for Martin, those authors all lack the major requirement to create Serious Literary Novels- a peener. They will never write the Great American Novel.

Your wide horizon narrowed very quickly.
posted by biffa at 1:29 PM on May 3


attempting 40 or so pages of 'Gravity's Rainbow' was one of the worst experiences of my life

I've tried to read it on three or four occasions. Every single time, it's like getting blind, staggering blackout drunk and attempting to read Neal Stephenson.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 2:53 PM on May 3 [4 favorites]


It's all worth it for the story of Byron the bulb
posted by thelonius at 5:23 PM on May 3 [1 favorite]


LarryC:

Then more the fool he.
posted by jscalzi at 1:33 PM on May 4 [1 favorite]


as the possessor of a Gutenberg mind, it is quite impossible for me to foretell what the new dominant narrative art form will be – if, that is, there is to be one at all.

I thought we already agreed it was gonna be Youtube videos
posted by obliterati at 11:45 PM on May 4


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