In 1955, Normal Mailer was declaring the death of the novel. A bit more than a decade later, it was John Barth’s turn. There have now been a string of writers of a certain sort who clang the alarm and declare the imminent demise of the novel, the latest being a selection of former enfants terrible like Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace.
Philip Roth did so a few years back, adding that reading is declining in America. The irony of this is that he made such claims at a time when polls suggested exactly the opposite, as more people were reading books in 2005 (as percentage of adult population) than ever before. In my capacity as one-time president of the Missouri Center for the Book I was happily able to address a group of bright adolescents with the fact that reading among their demographic had, for the first time since such things had been tracked, gone precipitously up in 2007.
And yet in a recent piece in the Atlantic, we see a rogues’ gallery of prominent literateurs making the claim again that the novel is dying and the art of letters is fading and we are all of us doomed.
Say what you will about statistics, such a chasm between fact and the claims of those one might expect to know has rarely been greater. The Atlantic article goes on to point out that these are all White Males who seem to be overlooking the product of everyone but other White Males. To a large extent, this is true, but it is also partly deceptive. I seriously doubt if directly challenged any of them would say works by Margaret Atwood or Elizabeth Strout fall short of any of the requirements for vital, relevant fiction at novel length. I doubt any of them would gainsay Toni Morrison, Mat Johnson, or David Anthony Durham.
But they might turn up an elitist lip at Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany, Tannarive Due, Nalo Hopkinson, Walter Mosley, or, for that matter, Dennis Lehane, William Gibson, and Neal Stephenson (just to throw some White Males into the mix as comparison). Why?
The declaration back in the 1950s that “the novel is dead” might make more sense if we capitalize The Novel. “The Novel”—the all-encompassing, universal work that attempts to make definitive observations and pronouncements about The Human Condition has been dead since it was born, but because publishing was once constrained by technology and distribution to publishing a relative handful of works in a given year compared to today, it seemed possible to write the Big Definitive Book. You know, The Novel.
Since the Fifties, it has become less and less possible to do so, at least in any self-conscious way. For one thing, the Fifties saw the birth of the cheap paperback, which changed the game for many writers working in the salt mines of the genres. The explosion of inexpensive titles that filled the demand for pleasurable reading (as opposed to “serious” reading) augured the day when genre would muscle The Novel completely onto the sidelines and eventually create a situation in which the most recent work by any self-consciously “literary” author had to compete one-on-one with the most recent work by the hot new science fiction or mystery author.
(We recognize today that Raymond Chandler was a wonderful writer, an artist, “despite” his choice of detective fiction. No one would argue that Ursula K. Le Guin is a pulp writer because most of her work has been science fiction or fantasy. But it is also true that the literary world tries to coopt such writers by remaking them into “serious” authors who “happened” to be writing in genre, trying ardently to hold back the idea that genre can ever be the artistic equivalent of literary fiction.)
The Novel is possible only in a homogenized culture. Its heyday would have been when anything other than the dominant (white, male-centric, protestant) cultural model was unapologetically dismissed as inferior. As such, The Novel was as much a meme supporting that culture as any kind of commentary upon it, and a method of maintaining a set of standards reassuring the keepers of the flame that they had a right to be snobs.
Very few of Those Novels, I think, survived the test of time.
And yet we have, always, a cadre of authors who very much want to write The Novel and when it turns out they can’t, rather than acknowledge that the form itself is too irrelevant to sustain its conceits at the level they imagine for it, they blame the reading public for bad taste.
If the function of fiction (one of its function, a meta-function, if you will) is to tell us who we are today, then just looking around it would seem apparent that the most relevant fiction today is science fiction. When this claim was made back in the Sixties, those doing what they regarded as serious literature laughed. But in a world that has been qualitatively as well as quantitatively changed by technologies stemming from scientific endeavors hardly imagined back then, it gets harder to laugh this off. (Alvin Tofler, in his controversial book Future Shock, argued that science fiction would become more and more important because it taught “the anticipation of change” and buffered its devotees from the syndrome he described, future shock.)
Does this mean everyone should stop writing anything else and just do science fiction? Of course not. Science fiction is not The Novel. But it is a sign of where relevance might be found. Society is not homogeneous (it never was, but there was a time we could pretend it was) and the fragmentation of fiction into genre is a reflection that all the various groups comprising society see the world in different ways, ways which often converge and coalesce, but which nevertheless retain distinctive perspectives and concerns.
A novel about an upper middle class white family disagreeing over Thanksgiving Dinner is not likely to overwhelm the demand for fiction that speaks to people who do not experience that as a significant aspect of their lives.
A similar argument can be made for the continual popularity and growing sophistication of the crime novel. Genre conventions become important in direct proportion to the recognition of how social justice functions, especially in a world with fracturing and proliferating expectations.
Novel writing is alive and well and very healthy, thank you very much, gentlemen. It just doesn’t happen to be going where certain self-selected arbiters of literary relevance think it should be going. If they find contemporary literary fiction boring, the complaint should be aimed at the choice of topic or the lack of perception on the part of the writer, not on any kind of creeping morbidity in the fiction scene.
Besides, exactly what is literary fiction? A combination of craft, salient observation, artistic integrity, and a capacity to capture truth as it reveals itself in story? As a description, that will do.
But then what in that demands that the work eschew all attributes that might be seen as genre markers?
What this really comes down to, I suspect, is a desire on the part of certain writers to be some day named in the same breath with their idols, most of whom one assumes are long dead and basically 19th Century novelists. Criticizing the audiences for not appreciating what they’re trying to offer is not likely to garner that recognition.
On the other hand, most of those writers—I’m thinking Dickens, Dumas, Hugo, Hardy, and the like—weren’t boring. And some of the others—Sabatini, Conan Doyle, Wells—wrote what would be regarded today as genre.
To be fair, it may well be that writers today find it increasingly difficult to address the moving target that is modern culture. It is difficult to write coherently about a continually fragmenting and dissolving landscape. The speed of change keeps going up. If such change were just novelty, and therefore essentially meaningless, then it might not be so hard, but people are being forced into new constellations of relationships and required to reassess standards almost continually, with information coming to them faster and faster, sometimes so thickly it is difficult to discern shape or detail. The task of making pertinent and lasting observations about such a kaleidoscopic view is daunting.
To do it well also requires that that world be better understood almost down to its blueprints, which are also being redrafted all the time.
That, however, would seem to me to be nothing but opportunity to write good fiction.
But it won’t be The Novel.
Addendum: When I posted this, I was challenged about my claim that Mailer said any such thing. Some suggested Philip Roth, others went back even further, but as it turns out, I have been unable to track down who said exactly what and when. Yet this is a stray bit of myth that refuses to die. Someone at sometime said (or quoted someone saying, or paraphrased something ) that the Novel Is Dying and it persists. It has become its own thing, and finding who did—or did not—say it may be problematic at best. It is nonetheless one of those things that seems accepted in certain circles. It would be helpful if someone could pin it down, one way or the other.