Is the Novel Dead? Plus, Art Auctions and Green Composer

TODAY in Oxford, Will Self gives a speech about the death of the novel that many of my friends and colleagues have responded to with hostility and disbelief. Self’s piece is at times over the top, and his persona is that of an ornJamesjoyce_tuohy-ohneery crank, but his speech — reprinted here in the Guardian — is essential reading.

The story’s deck, of subhed, goes like this: “Literary fiction used to be central to the culture. No more: in the digital age, not only is the physical book in decline, but the very idea of ‘difficult’ reading is being challenged. The future of the serious novel, argues Will Self, is as a specialised interest.”

Here’s Self, um, himself:

The literary novel as an art work and a narrative art form central to our culture is indeed dying before our eyes. Let me refine my terms: I do not mean narrative prose fiction tout court is dying – the kidult boywizardsroman and the soft sadomasochistic porn fantasy are clearly in rude good health. And nor do I mean that serious novels will either cease to be written or read. But what is already no longer the case is the situation that obtained when I was a young man. In the early 1980s, and I would argue throughout the second half of the last century, the literary novel was perceived to be the prince of art forms, the cultural capstone and the apogee of creative endeavour. The capability words have when arranged sequentially to both mimic the free flow of human thought and investigate the physical expressions and interactions of thinking subjects; the way they may be shaped into a believable simulacrum of either the commonsensical world, or any number of invented ones; and the capability of the extended prose form itself, which, unlike any other art form, is able to enact self-analysis, to describe other aesthetic modes and even mimic them.

Part of the reason for the resistance to Self’s argument, which ambles a bit, is that we’ve been declaring the novel, or serious reading, or whatever, moribund for a long time now. (Remember “the literature of exhaustion”? A Salon colleague takes issue with Self here.) And those who dislike this kind of pessimistic piece will point to the good work still being published: What about Junot Diaz, or Jennifer Egan, or Hilary Mantel, or whoever. All great writers — there are others.

But in two important ways, Self is right. First, the culture has “moved on.” A handful of friends read novels, but many tell me they get their aesthetic jolts from TV, which is far better than it was when were kids. In the last few years, I’ve worked for several publications whose editors have decided that they will have no, or almost no, book coverage of any kind. That doesn’t just damage my own well being and pleasure as a scribe, it means that less talk and criticism circulates in general-interest publications. (The renaissance of specialty publications devoted to literature, like, say, the LA Review of Books, is good news indeed.)

Second, for related reasons, the ability of writers who do not have another source of income — inheritance, celebrity, tenured post — to make their living from writing has plummeted. You probably heard about how much money Lena Dunham earned for her memoir; you may not have heard that most non-blockbuster writers are getting about half what they drew before the ’08 collapse, as my onetime agent told me. The midlist author struggles, and many of these writers are not second-raters, but accomplished and serious scribes.

One parting thought: Those invested in an art form tend to shriek when someone — including another insider — declare it troubled or dead. We’ve seen this with discussions about classical music, poetry, jazz and so on. These cautionary pieces seem to me crucial to a clear-eyed assessment of reality, as well as ensuring that these genres we care about survive in some form. The novel is not dead, but the divorce between it and the larger marketplace, and the middle-class non-specialist audience, had dire implications for insiders and outsiders alike. Let’s pay attention to the matter rather than defensively shrugging it off.

ALSO: More proof that despite the tough economy, and the struggles of many visual artists, it is a great time to be a wealthy collector or the heirs to deceased blue-chip artists: “Thanks to the growing number of collectors willing to spend more than $25 million on a single Picasso or Rothko,” writes Carol Vogel, “along with the increasing perception of art as investment, this season more buyers are jumping at the chance to put bids in early, becoming what are called guarantors of desired works.”

The New York Times story here.

FINALLY: There’s also a new profile of southern-reared, Alaska-dwelling composer John Luther Adams, who recently won a Pulitzer. He wrote one of the most distinctive and amazing pieces I’ve ever seen, which was performed at last year’s Ojai Music Festival. He’s a dedicated environmentalist, and often brings the sounds of nature into his work.

“I like to be on that razor’s edge between beauty and terror,” Adams told the Times. “What in the 19th century they called the sublime. That element of fear just makes it more beautiful.”

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  1. Neil McGowan says

    Norman Lebrecht – another AJ blogger – declared classical music to be ‘dead’ several years ago.

    This hasn’t stopped the old charlatan from living handsomely off the proceeds for the years that followed. Self is no less a charlatan than Lebrecht. His own faltering failure as a novelist may fractionally exceed Lebrecht’s output (ie none) as a musician. Probably if he hadn’t stuffed his publisher’s advances up his nose, the results wouldn’t have been so execrable? As it is, he’s just a washed-up druggie who still drones on about the time when he used to be a ‘writer’.

    The British establishment loves idiots like Self. Probably some university or other will find some sinecure for him, so that he can prattle on until he retires – without publishing anything else. In exchange, like Christopher Hitchens and Martin Amis, he’ll be asked to produce some propaganda supporting the government’s wars now and again… in fact Self is already an expert at paid-to-prattle trash in The Guardian.

    Provided you’re born in Hampstead, and you talk with a plummy accent, you need never be poor, or ever actually have to work for a living.

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