Stop Saying "The Novel is Dead"

Last Friday in the Guardian, the novelist Will Self declared the novel dead, inert, lifeless, kaput. Self himself (whoa) tries to hedge his bold headline, but it still leaves him sounding like a much more verbose Jonathan Franzen. Also: he's wrong.

Self said he was not writing the obituary of "prose fiction" altogether. He admitted that "the kidult boywizardsroman and the soft sadomasochistic porn fantasy" were doing just fine. What he is worried about is the literary novel. He expresses sorrow at the loss of the "general acknowledgement" that:

[T]he novel was the true Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk.

Ah, yes. Last night I dreamed I went to Wagnerian Manderley, too. How fondly we all remember the hours we bright young things whiled away around the fire, discussing Gesamtkunstwerks instead of that dreadful Gillian Flynn person. Back then I had not yet worn the waling on my corduroy smoking jacket down to the nub. Etcetera, etcetera.

This stuff is easy to make fun of because in his efforts to be narrow and precise Self uses so many words that he comes off as an insufferable prig. The problem is not so much the "difficulty" of his language as it is that his tone sounds off. For example: there is an element of judgment of the reading habits of other people in such arguments, no matter how hard you try to take it out. And a man who uses terms like "kidult boywizardsroman" isn't trying very hard, at all.

It's not just the potential for "snobbery" that bugs, though. It's the fact that essays like these always seem to present feeling "out of touch" as some new and novel condition afflicting only the men of today. (I use the term "men" advisedly.) Besides nostalgia, Self also cloaks his argument in observations about the pace of social media and its interruption of the "codex" of a book to suggest that what is dying is the serious or difficult novel. Which would be more convincing if he did not have so many ancestors in his argument.

Do a little search, and lo and behold, the "death of the novel" has been fertile soil over the years! See, for example, from the New York Times in 1925:

Stop Saying "The Novel is Dead"

There we have someone complaining in a lecture that novels in those days were written "not so much with a pen as with a bicycle pump," meaning the novels were too airy, not "serious."

There was also this, from the Los Angeles Times, in 1968:

Stop Saying "The Novel is Dead"

(Goddamned Vidal.)

Or this, from the Observer on Sunday, in 1954:

Stop Saying "The Novel is Dead"

Or even this, an announcement of the death of the "sex novel" from the Chicago Tribune, in 1889:

Stop Saying "The Novel is Dead"

There were always skeptics, too, as in this piece from the Los Angeles Times, in 1970:

Stop Saying "The Novel is Dead"

Conclusion from this non-comprehensice survey: the novel has pretty much always been clinging to a kind of life support.

This is pretty clear to most people who aren't literary writers given that they don't read literary novels. And it's also pretty clear to a lot of literary writers, who are spending their days eking out an existence on meager advances, adjunct salaries, and temp jobs, that what they do is marginal. The difference between those people and Will Self, a lot of the time, is that they do not expect that what is important and meaningful for them personally must be important and meaningful for everyone.

Do not get me wrong. I believe in novels. One reason I will always and forever refuse to accept arguments like Self's is that they provoke an emotional reaction in me. The end of novels would be for me something like the end of trees. And yeah, I read the "serious, literary" kind. But my admiration for them does not depend on their standing astride some kind of Culture Mountain. I just happen to like to read.

[Image via Shutterstock.]