Will Self has declared the novel is “absolutely doomed” – ironically, in an interview to promote Phone, his latest outing in the very medium he is condemning to death. Even casual readers will note that this isn’t the first time that the reigning Eeyore of British literature has announced the imminent passing of our most popular literary form.
Since 2000, Self has used the occasion of the release of his own books to repeatedly argue that the novel is destined to “become a marginal cultural form, along with easel painting and the classical symphony”. During his promotional duties for Umbrella, Self asked whether we are evolving beyond the need to tell stories, while in 2014 he announced the declining cultural centrality of the novel due to the digitisation of print culture in an article to promote Shark.
Self’s obsession with killing off the novel might be more about ego than revenge, but his repeated attempts to plot its downfall form part of a much wider lament. For centuries, writers have been proclaiming the imminent passing of the novel form. More than 60 years ago, JB Priestley called it “a decaying literary form” which “no longer absorbs some of the mightiest energies of our time”. More recently, Zadie Smith complained of novel-nausea, while David Peace has asked how it is still possible to “believe in the novel form” because “storytelling is already quite ruined by the individualism of Western society”.
Reading beyond the exhausted sentiments and sensationalist headlines provided by self-harming novelists, what these sentiments collectively highlight is not the death of the novel at all, but the decline of “literary fiction”. Self’s explicit cultural fear is that a serious kind of novel – novels such as his own – that confront us with “difficult reading” are destined for relegation to the realms of classical music and fine art. What Self’s repeated attempts on the life of the novel actually articulate is a deep-seated fear of the devaluation of literary fiction and its dethroning from a position of economic, popular and critical dominance as a result of the new contexts provided by a social media age.
Prophesying the imminent demise of the novel at the hands of digital technology has become popular in contemporary critical discourse, especially as the form entered the new millennium. Self is one of many authors who have publicly debated the challenges of writing novels in a digital era.
Andrew O’Hagan recently argued that the intense personal perspective offered by platforms such as Twitter and Facebook means that the novel has nowhere left to go in offering an inside account of the lives of others. The crux of both O’Hagan and Self’s sandwich-board arguments ultimately lie in a belief that future readers will be unwilling to disable connectivity and engage only with a physical form of text in relative isolation from the hyper-networked society around them.
But the “death” of literary fiction does not have to come at the expense of the rise of the popular – or of the digital. Smartphones and streaming can sit alongside literary awards and “difficult” novels and offer us vital insights into, and ways of representing, contemporary experience. The novel is perhaps the most hospitable of all forms and opens itself willingly to new voices, languages and technologies. And not all writers are hostile to the impact of the digital on literary form – in their use of social media to tell stories in new ways, both David Mitchell and Jennifer Egan have proved that the novel has an innate ability to ingest and adapt to a rapidly changing world.
Importantly, the novel also presents us with perspectives and experiences different from our own. In its contemporary concern with the trope of an “other” who transgresses the boundary of the domestic home, the 21st-century novel offers a vital consideration of the implications of a post-Brexit Britain. The novel disrupts and challenges, and in turn elicits responses from readers to, the contemporary concerns it presents.
Understanding the world
The etymology of the word “novel” lies in the “new” – and all evidence suggests that the form will continue to evolve – and ingest, rather than ignore, the new languages of the contemporary. The novel – whether in the form of literary or “popular” fiction – helps us to understand the world in which we now live and informs our attempts to navigate both the past and the future. As well as its long-argued innate value, this capacity of the novel to help us negotiate the changes of the present is also key to its survival – and evolution – in the coming century.
As a case for its vitality, Self’s pervasive campaign against the novel couldn’t be more helpful. In repeatedly citing the death of the novel, Self and his band of merry naysaying novelists whip up resolve and resurrection of the form in a context of challenge and change. In doing so, their comments remind us to value this familiar, yet continually innovative form that continues to adapt, ingest and shape-shift, remaining relevant to each generation of readers – and writers.
Literary snobbery and Modernist nostalgia aside, Self’s headline-grabbing soundbites encourage new understandings of wider shifts in novel writing and reading in the 21st century. With writers continually sticking more nails in its half-open coffin, the novel seems destined to remain stuck in critical debates that remain wilfully oblivious to its sustained success in the new millennium.
Emerging from a long winter of discontent, perhaps it is the strange fate of the novel to exist in a permanent state of imminent demise and doom, with an innate awareness of itself as the one genre that literature simply cannot do without.
Katy Shaw, Professor of Contemporary Writings, Northumbria University, Newcastle.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.