Tuesday, January 09, 2018

The novel ain't dead

 There seems to be a perpetual market for thumbsucker pieces predicting the end of the novel. The piece is never written from the point of view of good riddance to bad rubbish – the Surrealists stance on the novel – but rather as an exercise in concern trolling. It starts out with how the novel was once important, then moves on to what is important today – which may be video games, or movies, or television.
“The question, however, remains: Should the demise of the literary novel trouble us? I think the answer is “yes,” but not nearly as much as some literary novelists would have you think.
Great television is taking over the space occupied by many novels, and taking with them many excellent writers. And by and large, it’s delivering the same rewards to its audience. But what about novels that exploit the opportunities that are available only to the form of the novel, such as novels that explore interiority, or rely on the novel’s versatile treatment of time and causation? Who will speak for such novels?
If I seem reluctant to sound the alarm for the demise of the literary novel, even as a novelist myself, it is because modern fiction, particularly English-language fiction, has moved in the direction of the televisual, anyway. Much so-called literary fiction is evidently written with an eye to an option for film or TV adaptation. The response to the challenges from television and other media has been to become more like the offerings of those media. In some ways, this is understandable behavior on the part of each novelist. For all but a tiny few, it’s nearly impossible to make anything even approaching a living from writing literary fiction.”
There are two arguable premises that underlie all these laments about the death of the novel.
The first one is that there is one space allotted to every media form, with the implication that it’s a jungle out there, and social Darwinism gives us a precise outline of how our larger social forces work. This, it seems to me, has been amply disproven by the real history of technology, which is much more about the intermeshing of media than the competition between same. In other words, if TV competes with the novel, it also borrows from it, uses it, promotes it. And vice versa. They are in other words symbiotic, exist in linked spaces, rather than in a struggle for the crown that leaves one dead on the field. Same thing is actually true for poetry, which is in the same symbiotic relationship with song.
The struggle for the crown has always been an American macho thing. This gets us to our second hidden assumption: that the novel is losing out because it is losing its important MALE audience.
Undoubtedly, white American males at the moment are much more like Donald Trump – a vindicative non-reader – than Barack Obama – an erudite guy who could discuss lit with the likes of Marilynne Robinson. Let’s say that as a class, this group of the population has been suffering a disastrous deficit of narrative intelligence, which is in inverse proportion to their grasp on our lives.
For proof, look at the discourse leading up to the invasion of Iraq. It was conceived and talked about exactly like some primitive video game – in fact, the ones that first came on the market in the eighties, when these guys were kids – in which the important fact about the “enemy” is that they are programmed to sneak attack and you win by wiping out as many of them as possible. The enemy, in these games, has no memory or imagination. They have no content, only form: they form a “side.” They are the “bad guys”. That the good guys with weapons in their hands are invading the space of the bad guys doesn’t even register. After all, who owns the video game?
It is no coincidence that, as the novel lost its male readership, all of these bemoanings of the end of the novel appear in all the midlevel media places. Just as the feminization of certain forms of work – say, the replacement of male secretaries in the late nineteenth century with a female workforce – led to the financial and symbolic downgrading of the role of secretary, so, too, the same sexist shit happens with the novel.
Even here, though, we can see a meshing, rather than a competition for the crown. Tom Clancy, who names not an author but an industry of military wankership, preceded and in some ways projected the form that those early vid games would take – and of course soon he developed a whole line of those games himself.
The reason for this is that the novel form comes from what the Russians call skaz. Skaz are routines – the story-routine in oral form. Go to, say, Reddit, or comparable sites, and you will find guys – very male-y guys – skazzing away. If your sense of the novel is delineated by the commodities  sold on Amazon, you will, of course, lament and lament the decline of the literary novel. So few peeps can make their living on them! But in truth, it was always thus. Samuel Johnson’s London, Baudelaire’s Paris, Joyce’s Dublin – always, always, the writer (whether poet or novelist) is a scrounger.
However, the novelist today – Margaret Atwood, or Joan Didion, or Rachel Kushner, etc. – does fairly well for herself. Besides which, there is the teaching. This is, from a financial point of view, really the golden age of the literary novelist, not its flameout. It is just that the patrons of the art have changed.
Big deal. In the end, the responding echo is not monetizable. And guess what? It was always like this. I would like thumbsuckers about the sad plight of the daycare worker and the nursing home caretaker, but as for the novelist, they are doing all right.

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