Reports of Novel’s Death Greatly Exaggerated

May 5, 2007 | 3 books mentioned 2 3 min read

For better or for worse, Salman Rushdie is never at a loss for words. At a star-studded PEN reading last week, Rushdie surveyed the youthful audience and said something to the effect of, Maybe the novel’s not dead after all. Hermione Lee makes the same observation, though for different reasons, in the current issue of The New York Review of Books. Her tone is light, almost tossed off:

“But 2006 seemed, to me at least, to be a year when the novel’s survival and significance were not in question.”

Her import, however, is important.

coverOnce upon a time, the novel was derided as frivolous, ephemeral, commercial – even an incitement to immorality. In Book XIII of Tom Jones, Henry Fielding invoked not Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, but “fat Ufrow Gelt” – Mistress Money. “Instructed by thee,” he joked, “some Books, like Quacks, impose on the World by promising Wonders; while others turn Beaus, and trust all their Merits to a gilded Outside.” The commercial printing press, Fielding suggested, was unseating the substantial in favor of the superficial.

coverSuch arguments against the novel recall Socrates’ argument against writing in the Phaedrus, as well as the more recent arguments privileging analog over digital media. Without weighing in on those debates, though, I’d argue that the barriers between writing and speech, print and writing, online and print, have proven infinitely permeable. The virus of triviality (if virus it be) can infect words no matter what form they take. And in the centuries following Fielding, the novel’s fortunes have ascended like those of a Balzac hero. Its reputation burnished by Austen and Eliot, Flaubert, Tolstoy, and Joyce, its base beginnings have receded into the mists. Now we look to the novel as the repository of the best that has been thought. Hence the periodic outbreaks of hand-wringing over its death. (See, for example, this well-worn Philip Roth quotation).

What Rushdie and Lee have noticed, however, is that the myth of the “Death of the Novel” has lately lost its potency. Perhaps because we have not, after all, reached the end of history – perhaps because we, like the Moderns, find ourselves in a time of both shimmering possibility and immersive fear and suffering – a form built on “belief in the value of the individual” is vital again. I’m not sure that a young, hyper-educated, and largely white audience at a PEN event exactly proves this point, nor that the novels anointed by the critics and Nielsen BookScan are those likely to be read in a century from now. But in the moral universe of the novel, these quibbles seem minor, at best. Lee quotes Edward Mendelsohn:

“The novel offers one of ‘the most intellectually and morally coherent ways of thinking about human beings. [That is,] as autonomous persons […] instead of as members of any category, class, or group.'”

Think about the literary sturm und drang of the past decade: Tom Wolfe’s too strident manifestos, B.R. Meyers’ too close readings, Jonathan Franzen’s too public anguishings, James Wood’s critical dialogue with Zadie Smithn+1 versus McSweeney’s, Ben Marcus versus Franzen, Dale Peck versus nearly everything, and, most recently, Marilynne Robinson’s and Cynthia Ozick’s attempts to synthesize it all. Or read the Hermione Lee article, citing an entirely different set of sources. Or, if these strike you as too Ivy League, peruse the mission statements of The Underground Literary Alliance. The vital arguments in 2007 are not about whether the novel is alive, but about what kinds of novels we should be writing, and how we should be reading them. These are, of course, insoluble questions. But the mere fact that we are asking them again seems to bear out an idea of DeLillo’s: “If serious reading dwindles to near nothingness, it will probably mean that the thing we’re talking about when we use the word ‘identity’ has reached an end.”

It’s possible that the sense of the novel’s vulnerability has in the past spurred authors to their best work. But now we must write from a larger awareness: the vulnerability of the world as we know it. So quit your damn web-browser, novelists of tomorrow, and get to work!

is the author of City on Fire and A Field Guide to the North American Family. In 2017, he was named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists.

2 comments:

  1. An interesting analysis of the state of play. Here in London you see novels being read avidly on the tube, discussed on the radio and in book groups + they come out in profusion on a weekly basis. Nothing very challenging — usually the backpacker classics Tolkien, Marquez, Salinger or Harry Potter–although I saw someone reading Huysmans at the Oval.

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