The Death of the Novel, Again

Novelist Will Self published an essay, “The novel is dead (this time it’s for real)” Is that so?

Daniel D’Addario asked in response, “Aren’t we tired of discussing this?” and provided a range of quotations, dating back one hundred and twelve years, each one a prophesy of the death of the novel, the death of print, the death of the author, and so on and so forth. I’m inclined to take D’Addario’s side on this one. I wish someone would prophesize the death of “the death of”. While we’re at it, can we inaugurate the era of post-post-ism? I think it’s a cheap trick to say that something is “dead” just because it has changed, or because something else has come along, but examples of that cheap trick are everywhere.

D’Addario stops short of a rebuttal, though. Self provides his own. He says:

"Literary critics - themselves a dying breed, a cause for considerable schadenfreude on the part of novelists - make all sorts of mistakes, but some of the most egregious ones result from an inability to think outside of the papery prison within which they conduct their lives' work."

If the paper codex is going the way of the daguerreotype (or to use Self’s example, the wax cylinder) the appropriate response, in my opinion, isn’t to stage a funeral for it, but to honestly evaluate the situation. What are we losing, here? I’m guessing that there wasn’t much mourning for the blurry photos and noisy recordings because what followed them was considered by most to be a superior medium.

So, with books, what is it that’s superior? Self mentions the uninterrupted experience that books provide. I’m not really sure that particular argument holds up, what with all the paperback, portable and pocket editions that have been so popular for so long, what with all the books you can stack on a nightstand and read simultaneously – Self admits to being guilty of this as well. If it isn’t their (imaginary) imperviousness to interruption, then what else is it about books that makes their form a superior form?

Self conflates “serious writing” with “the codex” but this conflation is predicated upon that first point. He says you have to read “Ulysees” multiple times before you catch all the allusions, and mentions that in a critical edition you can reduce that effort with the help of footnotes. Annotation and reference can be enhanced in an electronic edition, of course. Aside from the potential for distraction, Self doesn’t indicate whether this is much of an improvement. Is it somehow better, as an aesthetic experience, to read a book that doesn’t completely make sense? He might be on to something with this point, I think. A good work of art typically isn’t something that you can fully realize all in one gulp. It takes several servings. It takes an appreciation of the ingredients and the process, and of course, the context. It is possible that the annotated experience of “Ulysses” is a better quality experience, just as it’s possible that museums with curators are more enjoyable. Granted, it takes time to deal with serious ideas, but does it take paper?

Yes, it isn’t a good reading experience to be distracted by an video commercial for galoshes or whatever, but neither is it a good reading experience to have to put the book down for any reason at all. The problem of distraction from reading is not a new one and the printed book does not posess a unique immunity to the problem. But what about the problem of distraction from the text? All those footnotes, cross-references and editorial notes, for example. (Here we go with the “death of the author” bit.) I’m not perfectly comfortable with Self’s aversion to distraction from the text. I can think of another argument that resembles Self’s, in an unsettling way. The argument goes something like this. There’s a book. Everything you need to know is inside that book. Reference to material outside of that book weakens its power, and besides, everything you need to know is inside that book. The book is difficult to understand, but insofar as any attempts to clarify the book are outside the book, well, everything you need to know is inside that book. I’m not going to go so far as to call Self a fundamentalist, but I do want to point out that a book without context leads to a limited understanding. I would argue that increacingly accessible context (if properly mediated) is an enhancement to, not a detraction from, what self calls “serious” writing.

As I said at the outset: 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.

It has only been recently, in the grand scheme of history, that literacy itself has moved beyond “a defined social and demographic group” and the history of the printed book itself has been entwined with the history of the people who could read it. I would argue that perhaps the decline of a medium that requires large amounts of uninterrupted leisure time required to read (let alone to write) is an an evolution, not a death, and as literacy continues to spread to more and different people, the people will change but also they will change the nature of what literacy is. It will take time to survey whether or not the ideas expressed in these new ways are “serious” or not, but I don’t think we should discount them just because they’re not written on paper.