Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Self destructive

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Novelist Will Self makes a persuasive case that the literary novel is dead. Considering his own teenage son as a canary in the coal mine, he launches quite the comprehensive analysis of where we are now in the decline of the serious novel, a state of “post-postmodernism”? — and seems to conclude that even if the novel dies, a “rich and varied culture” will replace it for his “intelligent and thoughtful” son to enjoy.

We have this debate all the time — Is The Novel Dead. We had it back in the 1920s and ’30s, right on through the twentieth century, with writers like Tom Wolfe and Truman Capote morphing journalism and fiction. Yet, many decades on, we still have novels. Even some literary novels.

But Self has an interesting point here: “There is one question alone that you must ask yourself in order to establish whether the serious novel will still retain cultural primacy and centrality in another 20 years. This is the question: if you accept that by then the vast majority of text will be read in digital form on devices linked to the web, do you also believe that those readers will voluntarily choose to disable that connectivity? If your answer to this is no, then the death of the novel is sealed out of your own mouth.”

It’s fun to speculate. We can imagine an anti-connectivity movement that sprouts up, valuing the physical book as a kind of talisman or at least using unconnected digital content as if it were a physical book, since the connectivity has been hijacked by corporations as a data mining tool or an ad-delivery vehicle. (You can probably bank on that.) There might be a resurgence of plain paper editions without all the glossy, glitzy covers, old-school texts whose riches are promised in new writing styles we can’t quite see yet.

Or the connectivity might be adopted by prescient authors who see it as a way to write a different kind of story, one that’s somehow altered by different people reading it in different ways. The writer might become more of a conductor, guiding readers and changing the experience of the “book” on the basis of the way people have been reading it or should read it. This new form would be like 3D chess compared to checkers.

Sure, we’ve been talking about whether video games are the new novel, and the resounding consensus (I’m not going to bother backing this up) is no. But if a novel were connected to the Internet (you can already see what other people have highlighted in a text) and made alterable or more deeply penetrable — whoa, this is starting to blow my mind! — we might have something that could replace the traditional novel and not in the process fuck up five hundred years of literary history.

I don’t know if this is what Will Self meant, but it’s one possibility, and a fascinating one at that.

The real challenge, I’m afraid, will be maintaining the art and skill of close reading in the meantime. If that’s lost, then any new technology that could have given us the modern equivalent of the printing press will be used instead to entertain a population of illiterate, though intelligent and thoughtful, canaries.

8 comments on “Self destructive

  1. John W. Howell
    May 7, 2014

    As I sit and look at all my favorite books on my library shelves, I have to wonder about connectivity. My eye can scan the titles on the splines and I remember what is inside. Yes, Yesterday Road is in my Kindle, but it is just not the same. As to literary death,I believe as long as good books are written there will be readers who will appreciate them. Maybe not in mass numbers as before, but still enough to keep the genre alive.

    • Kevin Brennan
      May 7, 2014

      I’m with you, but I do think from an economic standpoint that the physical book will become more expensive as fewer people make it their first choice. Like in earlier times, the book will become a collector’s item, a cherished possession.

      But we have to keep people reading and reading skilfully, or even ebooks will go slip slidin’ away.

  2. ericjbaker
    May 7, 2014

    Tastes are cyclical. Hard copies of literary works could be all the rage in 10 years.

  3. P. C. Zick
    May 12, 2014

    I’m headed to the hill to grab a new rock and chisel so have to go!

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This entry was posted on May 7, 2014 by in Writing and tagged , , , .
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