Will Self Thinks Novels Are Dead. Do I Disagree? Sort Of.

This is going to be long, but I promise, it’s just the thoughts I had while reading an essay, not a rant against anyone in particular, and no animals have been harmed in the writing of this.

So Will Self said the novel is dead, and by the comments section alone, I think he must have realised most people emphatically disagreed.

Yes, your vocabulary and patience might be exhausted by the time you get to the end of this lengthy and mournful tome masquerading as an essay that was really a speech. (I warn you, read at your own peril if you’re distracted. I was cooking–it took me half an hour.) And I can’t really say that I’ve read anything of his before this. But he’s clearly spent a lot of time thinking about the death (as he calls it) of the novel as an artform, and he’s done his best to talk about it in an intelligent way.

I even agree with some of his lesser points. There’s no doubt there’s a push-back in American society against the ‘elitism’ of the intelligentsia. It’s a global problem, as far as I’m concerned. The internet has led to people assuming that a passionately held opinion is the same thing as a fact. This disregard for logic and unbiased investigation has led to information chaos. (Just look up all the wackadoo theories on everything from 9/11 to Donald Sterling if you don’t believe me.)

But Self has a personal ax to grind. He believes that  a whole host of factors have contributed to the death of the great literary novel a la Hemingway and Faulkner and that those who still pursue this goal probably have nothing to look forward to but a teaching career to birth–as he puts it–‘stillborn’ novels. Things that will never sell in the current climate of virginal BDSM and sparkling vampires.

My problem is not that I don’t believe the novel as he characterizes it is dead. By his definition, it probably is–and besides, other worthy individuals  have already held forth on that topic. My problem is I think this long speech/essay is completely wrong-headed because Self equates the changing delivery of the real artform–storytelling–with the death of the literary novel.

It’s no surprise to me that Self views the upheavals in publishing and the wider society with a certain amount of resigned trepidation. Most of us are doing the same right now. But the literary novel isn’t some sort of precious baby that cannot become something different and still retain value. (And in any case, the novels he refers to have always been read and appreciated by a select group–no change there.)

No, what surprises me is that he dances around the real problem I suspect he has with the ‘death’ of the novel, and the change in society’s response to the printed word. What is really being mourned for here is the loss of the literary novel’s previous (and wholly self-conferred) status as the standard bearer for all that is good and right in the world of publishing. What gets his goat is that he thinks no one is appreciating all the years of hard work and academic study an author who aspires to write the Great American Novel has put in. That this special, special baby is above and beyond the actual artform–storytelling–that readers have recently begun to devour in unheard of numbers in all formats, film and television included.

He equates this with people not wanting to read ‘difficult’ books. I think modern literary writers should reassess whether we’re lazy, or whether they are simply not meeting the needs of present-day society. Genre has never been a barrier to enjoying a book that is truly great. Genre is in fact an invention of the modern publishing industry. People aren’t opposed to the literary novel because it’s so fancy and literary, or because their political views make them predisposed to ignore the difficult or any of the other straw-men Self comes up with. They are opposed to the over-abundance of boring, utterly self-absorbed novels about disconnected white men/families in a white suburban America. A reality that does not reflect the concerns of the diverse populace caught up in the constant social, political and technological upheavals of modern life.

We get it. Some people think reading about an everyperson’s journey to self-realisation and (often times) spiritual nihilism is the bomb. To each his own. But some readers want actual story. Plot. Characters they connect to and root for. Not just pretty prose full of symbolism and angst and not much else. The truth is, readers can get all that human experience, plus more, in a lot of different genres and formats. And they aren’t interested in settling for less in a world where they can find other distractions easily.

And that is a very good thing. It means that we are changing, evolving, and the artform is evolving with us. It means that the novel as we learned it and appreciated it in the past may not be dead, but like the monks that used to paint parchments for a select few, contemporary writers will either have to get with the times and find a way to connect with their audiences (sometimes through new instruments of creativity), or find another job.

If the post-modern literary novel is dead, it’s because it has run its course. And much like the advent of the printing press, something new, something better, will replace it. The important thing is not to believe that the value of all literary pursuit is inherent in the post-modern novel. The important thing is that It IS in fact the content that matters to the ordinary person. Storytelling–one of the foundations of human expression and exploration–is finding new outlets, and one format may be less popular now than others. But that does not mean it’s gone forever and with it, all quality. And if it does mean that, well, it stands to reason we’ll find a new standard bearer for quality too.

Let us remember that ‘genre’ was here first. That Beowulf was just someone writing down a great story that we’d been telling for eons. That we had the foresight to appreciate Dickens and Shakespeare in their time, even though the intelligentsia of their day told us they were not the best at what they did. In the end, what sticks with the masses IS the best, whatever your opinion of it.

In short? No, the literary novel is not dead. But if it dies, it won’t be because it was a thing of value tossed away. It will be because it deserved to. What matters is that storytelling will never die, and that you can take to the bank.




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