The Future of the Novel: A few recent transitory quotations gathered together and mused upon for a panel at the Carol Shields Symposium in Winnipeg, May 8, 2009

May 29, 2009

After 9/11 my reading of fiction dropped off enormously. 9/11 provided a new lens, a critical lens for the literary novel in the west. It felt like a time for the putting down of childish things and somehow novels, both the writing and the reading, seemed to slip precipitously into that category. I was watching news, reading news, reading more and more obsessively on the net, discovering Chomsky, Naomi Klein’s essays, and Samantha Power’s book on genocide. I only wanted to read the immediate, the simultaneous, the just transpired. In the five years that followed I read some novels, the new translation of Anna Karenina, Graham Green’s The Power and the Glory, Unless by Carol Shields of course, or an entertainment like A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, but fiction suddenly seemed a bit beside the point. This dry novel period was extended by the two year American presidential election, which had me checking blogs and newspaper websites every hour, looking for that feeling of having my hand on the pulse of history. In August of 2005, V.S. Naipaul published an article announcing the death of the novel and his intention to devote himself henceforth solely to non-fiction. Then Jay McInerney wrote a valiant defense of fiction published in the Guardian (click here for link to that article) in which he pointed out that no one would even care what Naipaul had to say about anything, except for the fact that Naipaul had written two good novels. However McInerney had to admit that even for him the foundations of fiction had been shaken. “Most novelists I know,” he wrote, “went through a period of intense self-examination and self-loathing after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. I certainly did. For a while the idea of “invented characters” and alternate realities seemed trivial and frivolous and suddenly, horribly outdated. I abandoned the novel I was working on and didn’t even think about writing fiction for the next six months. In fact, I was so traumatized and my attention span was shot to such an extent that for months I was incapable of reading a novel, or anything much longer than a standard article in the New York Times.” McInerney polled Ian McEwan about the situation. “‘For a while,” McEwan confessed, “I did find it wearisome to confront invented characters. I wanted to be told about the world. I wanted to be informed. I felt that we had gone through great changes and now was the time to just go back to school, as it were, and start to learn.” McInerney’s piece supported fiction, but it did not entirely rescue the novel from seeming thin and frivolous next to tomes about ‘real life.’ Publishers and agents started hinting, and then overtly pushing the fiction writers on their list to tackle that non-fiction book they must have lurking in their brain – a biography of someone they admired or a memoir. International sales of literary fiction at the Frankfurt Book Fair tanked. I was sweating bullets trying to eke out the final draft of my second novel, after 7 years. (Carol Shields commented to her daughter my dear friend Anne, that seven years was too long to lavish on a novel, and I turn that over like a stone, wondering) This book, The Continuation of Love by Other Means was published in 2003. I immediately began writing the third but after half a year I worried the novel I had started would be unpublishable in the current environment and set it aside to try my hand at a light comedy instead that I planned to call, How George Bush Saved My Marriage. During this time I was thinking about justifications for the ‘novel’s’ continued reason for existence, since I was barely reading them anymore myself. What does the novel do that movies don’t, that non-fiction doesn’t, that blogs and newspapers and television don’t do? Is the novel losing its place near the head of the table next to feature films, and slipping over to the purer, money-free place reserved for poetry and theatre in our culture? Should I lavish another five or seven years on writing one? Was I clinging to novel-writing out of fear of the new and unknown? Should I get more involved in politics, go back to school, retrain in digital media, lavish attention on my growing sons? Maybe now was the time to organize those twelve years of digital photos, or, lavish attention, heaven forfend, on my husband. I am now at work on the final draft of that third novel and excited about it but, added to the usual existential anxieties of writing, now there is also the question: are novels in general really desired anymore or do people just think they should want them? Have people abandoned even thinking they should want to read novels, and now only want to know which novels they should appear to have read? Charlie Brooker, a columnist at the Guardian, noted recently that, “According to a survey released last week to help promote World Book Day, 65% of respondents admitted lying about which novels they’d read in a desperate bid to impress people. The news was accompanied by a top 10 rundown of the least-read and most-lied-about books. Top of the list: George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Dishonestly claiming to have read novels as a means of raising one’s social status is behaviour that we writers might not applaud, but it is behaviour we might want to encourage. At least people have to buy the books and display them in their bookshelves, or download onto their electronic reading devices. It’s a good thing that no status is to be gained from having read the Spark’s notes to Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, Palahniuk’s Choke or Niffenegger’s Time Traveller’s Wife. Still that’s not an easy balance to strike – writing a book that’s elevated enough to bestow status, yet appealing enough to actually be heard of. And when a civilization or culture reliably chooses appearance over substance, it’s usually a sign of decadence and decline. The current species of novel (species being defined as that which can mate and produce offspring) has only existed for some two or three hundred years. Surely for such a healthy, flexible, capacious form, it’s much too soon to worry about extinction. Yet in the sped-up evolution of our civilization, it is possible that 2 centuries are equivalent to the million years our ancestor Australopithecus Afarensis promiscuously romped through the savannah. When I gave voice to my misgivings, people looked at me like I was mad. “But we love novels, we can’t live without them. My life would be so reduced without a good book to read.” Yet they bought fewer, and the ones they bought they weren’t necessarily reading, even for book club where excuses range from crazy amount of work, to a head cold, to pleas to love them anyway. (We can’t, the disappointment is too crushing). Part of the challenge to the future of the novel, and perhaps the book-length work in general, is the shrinkage of human attention spans caused by the short byte interruptions spawned by visual media, mobile devices and laptops. With the dual sensation of time speeding up while our attention spans shorten, do we still want to spend our time dwelling on the internal experience of lives not our own? The plasticity of the human brain is both the source of the problem and it’s potential resolution. In the July/Aug 2008 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, in an article entitled, “Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the internet is doing to our brains,” (click here for link to that article) Nicholas Carr confesses,”I can feel it, too. Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.” I too feel like I’ve developed late-onset ADD and Ritalin may only make me faster, not better. But I can say the Internet is losing the supercompelling burnish of the new and fiction does not seem frivolous or thin anymore. I am reading novels again, albeit at a jittery pace, but with renewed pleasure and curiosity and a new feeling of the luxury of time. In Nov. 28, 2007 in an article entitled “Novel Thoughts” published in the Times Literary Supplement, (click here for link to that article) A.S. Byatt outlined a provisional schematic of the history of the novel – linking the way the novel has moved through a definition of the human self as centred in the soul to the heart to the body, as the novel evolved from morality tale (preoccupation with the soul), to Romance (preoccupation with feelings, quests, love), to tales of the private self represented by, among many others, the big boys Bellow, Roth and Updike and the big girls, Carol Shields, A.S. Byatt, Alice Munro, Nadine Gordimer. In the century since Darwin’s theories exploded humanity’s sense of our place in the universe, the way in which we have understood our identity has shifted from heredity to sexuality. Byatt, I think, chafes at this latest iteration of the self as body – quoting Richard Sennett’s book, The Fall of Public Man, “modern humans define themselves to themselves in terms of their private lives and define their private lives in terms of their sexuality.” Byatt calls this out as narcissism – a shrinkage of sense of self to a series of sexual transactions – and she is searching for ways out for the fictional narrative, pointing to the study of neuroscience. She concludes, “a novel is made of language, and arouses both feelings and thoughts in its readers,” and then she points, a tad abstractly perhaps, past the current obsession with desire to “the human capacity to think and to make feelings into thoughts,” as a way out of narcissism. She alludes to an incipient connection between the reading and writing of novels and the discoveries being made in the barely explored territory of neurons, axons and dendrites – the brain. What do I think? I think the novel is still the only medium that truly explores the interiority of a life lived and with that a very particular kind of meaning, it is the only medium that can tell a story rich with layers and imbued with meaning that darts back and forth, ever-deepening, ever-widening within the boundaries of itself, moving to the end while gathering up all its skirts from the beginning, so that the end is like the end of a symphony with all the music that precedes it still ringing in your ears. I don’t believe that territory is even close to fully mapped. The novel has arrived however, at one of those culling periods which are essential to the process of evolution. The business model that has sustained the publication and distribution of novels for the past few centuries is changing rapidly. As with the music industry, everything seems up for grabs right now. Music distribution companies are tanking, yet no one is saying it’s the end of music. 2009 is setting up to be the worse year for sales in the publishing business in decades. And since art is never completely separate from business, the new business model may change the novel too. How will the Kindle, with its primitive thrill of pressing a button and having something happen, change the novel? Will literary fiction be able to draw the attention of the next generation when it is bombarded by so many competing and compelling claims for their leisure time? Will the novel’s place in the arts shrink to a more limited, elite place where, as with classical music, a huge market remains but largely restricted to a set, unchanging library of classics? Will the novel evolve more like rock’n’roll and spawn a huge, popular viral explosion of indie work accessible for free? How will the fact that every book will soon be available on Google affect the business of writing, publishing and distributing? I will leave you with a quote from Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, that seems well suited to the purpose of this Carol Shields Symposium. “The unreal is more powerful than the real, because nothing is as perfect as you can imagine it. Because its only intangible ideas, concepts, beliefs, fantasies that last. Stone crumbles. Wood rots. People, well, they die. But things as fragile as a thought, a dream, a legend, they can go on and on.”