Monday, 14 July 2014

The Death of the Novel?

First as reader, now as author, all my life I have  have been permanently engrossed in at least one book.  Like many people, fiction is, paradoxically, my 'reality'.
One of the appeals of fiction is that it offers us an escape from life where the pace of change seems to be speeding up all the time. Most events are consigned to the relative oblivion of history after a year, or a month, sometimes even less. As HW said, "a week is a long time in politics."
But sometimes it can be instructive to take a longer view, so let me take you back in time to 1666, the year of the Great Fire of London. One of the most remarkable records of that event comes from an eye witness account by Samuel Pepys, whose diary has survived. This is not a novel. Not only is Pepys telling us about real events, but he couldn't have been writing a novel in 1666 as the form did not yet exist. It would not emerge for nearly another century.
The first novel in English was published in the mid 1700s. It took the form of a series of letters, as writers had not yet envisaged the concept of the prose narrator as a character in its own right, or even as a disembodied omniscient authorial voice. The letters were a clever device, taking the reader inside the thoughts and feelings of different characters. This allowed for intimate first person narratives, from different view points. It was entirely new, or 'novel'.
Today we retain the name, but the form itself is no longer ground breaking, or even 'novel'.
There has been a lot of discussion recently, some of it on this blog, about dwindling book sales, and 'discoverability' for authors, and how they can attract more readers. But perhaps the real problem lies, not with the proliferation of authors, or the failing quality of writing, or that people are no longer reading, but with the form itself.
Has the novel had its day? And would that matter?
We can access stories from other sources - films, television, games, the media - but these are not the same as novels which go into more depth. Through the medium of stories, the best novels offer us insights into contemporary life and morals, and hence ourselves. Think of any great novel - Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, Moby Dick, Dickens, Hardy - not only were they instrumental in changing opinions at the time, but they provided a record of society and how people were thinking at the time they were written.
Which brings us back to Samuel Pepys, whose diaries tell us about his daily life in the 1600s - no different to a modern blog. Perhaps we have come full circle, and the reason new novelists are struggling to break into the market is that the novel form has outlived its popularity.

Postscript
No sooner had I finished writing this post than I came across an article about "embracing the artistic potential of social media". Really? Here it is:

"David Mitchell To Put Next Work On Twitter
"Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell is to publish his next work on Twitter. The British writer has penned a short story, titled The Right Sort, in 140-character instalments. It will be serialised in clusters of about 20 tweets at a time over the next seven days. In total there will be 280 Tweets.
But while embracing the artistic potential of social media, Mitchell himself is not a tweeter and had to open a Twitter account for the project."

The end of the novel as we know it? Sigh. Sometimes I would prefer not to be tuned into the current zeitgeist, but then that is the job of an author.
Or is it?


5 comments:

Bernard Lee DeLeo said...

The fiction novel and storytelling will never go away. The delivery system will change with technology.

Leigh Russell said...

Time will tell. I hope you're right, Bernard, but the novel may go the way of the newspaper, with the form evolving into something new, once again. Remember, novels have only been around for just over three hundred years. They are not a fact of life.

Leigh Russell said...

You're right that fiction and story telling will never go away. They have been around for as long as language has existed, I suspect. The novel is a very recent phenomenon, that suited a particular age. It may not suit the 21st century.

Guillaume said...

It will be a sad when/if novels disappear. It is a literary form that has endured centuries, they are the main one since the XIXth century in fact.

Leigh Russell said...

Sad indeed, Guillaume. Let's hope it never happens! Thanks for commenting. Good to hear from you again.