The Death of the Novel

In Commentary, HOME, LITERATURE by Sam Prance

If Game of Thrones characters were on Reality Shows. What your favourite High School book says about you. 22 classic book titles made better with butter. All of these (clearly necessary) bits of information are literally at our fingertips – they are only a scroll and a click away on Buzzfeed. They are also all handily grouped together under the banner of ‘Buzzfeed Books’, so all us bookworms out there know we are in a safe space. Keep your Kardashians, over here it’s a strictly Kafka zone. Well, Kafka and as many references to The Fault In Our Stars as possible.

Screen Shot 2014-06-26 at 08.18.30And this can only possibly be a good thing, right? There’s no need to wait around for a talking rabbit to chivvy us down a hole these days, the Internet opens up a Wonderland to anyone with good connectivity. What did the bookworms of our parents’ generation do without the chance to see classic authors reimagined as punk rockers? Did readers of the past have to, like, actually read?

The dangers of the endless scroll are well known by Generations Y and Z – the generations who swapped 80s hair and political protest for nail art and apathy. We are the Facebook kids, the ones who flick between ten tabs and maintain multiple conversations on different devices simultaneously. It is unsurprising that we are notoriously deficient in the attention span stakes, when list articles flood the interwebs and thoughts and opinions are broken down into character counts. We can have everything at the touch of a button, from personality quizzes to cat videos to JK Rowling’s latest soundbite.

So in this digitised age, when books have morphed to Buzzfeed Books, where do printed paperbacks come in? If it is hard to get through a single article without being tempted by a series of word-nerd tattoos, or any other online update that may as well be inked with the words ‘eat me’, then it is easy to imagine a complex 500 page work of literature being constantly interrupted by internet interference, before being finally put down around page 230. 

Tim Parks, whose novel Europa was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1997, recently spelt out this fear that we are living through the death of the long novel. Parks points his finger at ‘the seductions of email and messaging and Skype and news websites’ lurking inside the very technology many of us use to access our latest literary work. A 21st century Dickens, Joyce or Bronte would have to compete with this buzzing background of updates. Our current horde of esteemed novel writers like Parks, Ian McEwan, Margaret Atwood, Hilary Mantel or Will Self (there’s one more list for you) are battling against ‘the constant state of distraction we live in’.

PicturesIf our senses are bombarded on all fronts at all times, then ‘the concentration, the focus, the solitude, the silence’ which are Philip Roth’s prerequisites for ‘serious reading’, as opposed to light, fluffy airport reading (because if literary grand masters don’t like lists, they often love hierarchies), may be out of reach. Perhaps Will Self is correct that ‘the literary novel as an art work and a narrative art form central to our culture is indeed dying before our eyes.’ Will we soon have every novel broken down into a series of episodes, with convenient ad breaks, tea breaks and pauses to tweet our response?

Parks’ anxiety about the erosion of literature is seeping into many writers’ circles, with echoes of digital fear emerging from many leading novelists’ mouthpieces and pens. However, this pessimism is hardly a shockwave really is it? It’s Will Self and Philip Roth for goodness sake – they are not exactly known for their sparkling sunshine perspectives on the modern world. Their darkness and intellectual questioning and probing are some of their attributes that make their works of fiction so compelling.

174144125And compulsion is surely the point in this discussion. So this generation and the rising generation of Millenial readers, who were born already caught in the World Wide Web, are easily distracted by bitesize chunks of information and social media, that does not necessarily mean that we will not be equally as distracted from the physical world by a literary masterpiece. We are greedy with our information consumption, that is true, but if something has the ability to fascinate then the cat videos may have to wait. If we are the generation that can devote 24-hour stretches to Netflix series and camp out for book and film releases, then we must have some concentrated staying power. Could it really be that this ringing of literature’s death bell may in fact be a panicked over reaction from a set of authors worried by the rapidly changing world they see around them?

And, if this is the case, could it be that this is the younger sibling to the panics of 200 years ago, when printing was the big technological dog threatening the written word? After all, as British critic Frank Kermode wryly observed in 1965, ‘the special fate of the novel, considered as a genre, is to be always dying.’ And anyway, what could be more hipster than reading a hardback with your vinyl playing?

Eloise Hendy

Eloise Hendy is an English Lit student at Edinburgh University. She’s also the Deputy Editor of LITERATURE at PTL. She’s the kind of philanthropist who pushes you to double donate and those who know her will be aware that she’s partial to many a suspect mash-up (Snoop Dog/Grease – anyone?). Eloise wishes life played out more like a festival.

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