Dead Again: The Novel

Will Self is the latest novelist to sound the death knell for his chosen art form, linking its demise to the rise of the Internet:

There is one question alone that you must ask yourself in order to establish whether the serious novel will still retain cultural primacy and centrality in another 20 years. This is the question: if you accept that by then the vast majority of text will be read in digital form on devices linked to the web, do you also believe that those readers will voluntarily choose to disable that connectivity? If your answer to this is no, then the death of the novel is sealed out of your own mouth. …

I believe 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. The current resistance of a lot of the literate public to difficulty in the form is only a subconscious response to having a moribund message pushed at them. As a practising novelist, do I feel depressed about this? No, not particularly, except on those occasions when I breathe in too deeply and choke on my own decadence. I’ve no intention of writing fictions in the form of tweets or text messages – nor do I see my future in computer-games design. … [I]t 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.

James McQuade reframes the argument:

While the truth of Self’s proposition is hard to refute—writing this, I’ve checked my Facebook, Gmail and Instagram more times than I’d care to say—I don’t think what’s really at stake is the existence of the “serious” novel (there will always be people crazy enough to write them) but the existence of solitude, or portions of our day spent in profound concentration. It seems to me that human agency is often absent in discussions of how internet access is killing close reading and serious writing. As Self relates:

I switched to writing the first drafts of my fictions on a manual typewriter about a decade ago because of the inception of broadband internet. Even before this, the impulse to check email, buy something you didn’t need, or goggle at images of the unattainable was there—but at least there was the annoying tocsin of dial-up connection to awake you to your time-wasting. With broadband it became seamless: one second you were struggling over a sentence, the next you were buying oven gloves.

I find it strange that Self makes it sound as though he went from wrestling with a rather feisty sentence to placing an order for (probably overpriced) oven mitts without making the choice to do so, as if his life flash cut from the notebook toAmazon’s homepage. When we talk about the future of ‘serious’ reading and writing, the question that needs to be asked is how do we live with the incessant distractions, since the web isn’t leaving us any time soon.

Meanwhile, rolling his eyes at Self’s declaration, Daniel D’Addario collects a century’s worth of writers’ suggestions that the novel is in its death throes. The earliest:

1902: “[Novels] will be supplanted altogether by the daily newspaper… Newspaper writers have learned to color everyday events so well that to read them will give posterity a truer picture than the historic or descriptive novel could do.” –Jules Verne