Like Mark Twain (woot for not at all obscure literary references!) rumors of the novel’s death have been exaggerated. It has endured for over two centuries now as the most popular form of English literature. It survived the Industrial Revolution, two World Wars, the Atomic Bomb, even postmodernism. But like all artistic mediums, it has been threatened time and time again. The novel was going to kill theatre and poetry (both of which are like cockroaches and likely to survive a nuclear holocaust). Then cinema was going to kill the novel. Television came next. Now, the Internet, ebooks and the decline of the printed word. The supposed decline of the printed word. Because the printed word still exists, it’s just more likely to be found on a computer screen than on paper.
The New York Times last week (still kicking and screaming their way into the digital age) published a rather confusing and not terribly informative article entitled ‘Why Write Novels at All?’ Despite the author’s apparent inability to form coherent paragraphs (I do so hope he does not intend to write a novel), the question seemed to be an interesting one. Why indeed? Why should anyone want to write a novel?
Well, for starters, it’s an idiotic question. Isn’t that sort of like asking why anyone should want to paint a picture, make a movie, play an instrument, compose a concerto? Because some human beings are fueled by art and artistic endeavors, even when those endeavors are not perhaps as elegant as the true greats. Why write a novel? Because it’s fun, you unconscionable dingbat.
But more importantly, why the novel? Why do we so venerate, worship, and respect a medium invented several centuries ago as an alternative to theatre and poetics? We like to tell each other stories, yes, but the form of the novel itself does not require us to tell stories in exactly that way. As far as I can tell, those of us who write often write novels because we have yet to discover (or be offered) an alternative.
There seems to be a quiet desperation at work among the more famous/popular/self-satisfied novelists of our day. As though the novel were on the brink of destruction and will fall apart unless held together by the few, the happy few, so privileged as to produce not just any novel, but GREAT novels (because, you know, anyone outside of the literary establishment cannot hope to contribute anything worthwhile to the cultural zeitgeist). Well, I ask you: if the novel were to die, would we really lose that much?
Human beings will not stop writing. We will not stop making up stories to tell to one another. We have been doing it since we first crawled out of the primordial ooze and we are likely to carry on doing it until we crawl back again. But the form of the novel is not so sacred as to not permit a change, a shift. Perhaps the form of the future will be multimedia, a combination of words, sounds, even images that are weaved together on our little ebook readers. Films, but not quite films. Books, but not quite books. Or perhaps our newest form of storytelling will be something we have yet to even consider, even imagine. If the novel were to vanish, as a form, tomorrow (like epic poetry or verse plays), we would not lose what came before. We would only move on.
If I sound snarky, it’s because I am angry. I’m angry at the New York Times for being so complacent, so blasé, and so ill-informed. I am angry at the literary establishment for pretending there is only one way of doing things, and that’s the way that many argue was perfected in the mid-19th Century. Have we not moved on from the Victorian era by now? Well, no, we haven’t. We still stick to the same dull form of the three volume novel, only we have the gall to pretend that certain ones are great art and that all others are so much tree pulp. We continue to do things the same way because that’s the way they’ve been done for centuries. And we balk at the concept that literature can change; indeed, must change, if it is to remain a viable art form.
So, let encomiums be written for the novel. Let us mourn the decline of a great art form. And then let us pick ourselves up, leave the old school behind, and move forward, into the great unknown. The stories will still be there.