As promised, more on whether there’s hope for the novel

Is the novel still relevant? Last week I promised to let the questions lead the way, and I’m actually a little more forward. The definition of relevance seems key: what does that term mean, anyway? And relevant to whom, and why?

Importance might be the better descriptive: a work of art can be of enormous value to an individual, but not universally important. It might open your eyes, but the rest of the world is far ahead of you, and the subject’s been tweeted over forever.

Nothing can match the magic of reading fiction: the astonishing, irreplaceable gift of the novel is the opportunity to see the world through someone else’s eyes, and often an exciting but anyway a different world, as well. But the truth is, this perspective can be adequately accomplished visually, and perfected with accompanying narration. A predetermined view is limiting but you see it, you see it, it has the upper hand.

Look, our common cultural heritage is visual and digital; that’s a done deal. We tell our story in images shared to the planet: towers falling, presidents shot, steps on the moon. I have to admit, I came to this realization late, I thought images and all electronic media transient, but quite the opposite: hardcopy is vulnerable; images are forever.

Another thing: the writing on TV is the best going these days; that’s where the exceptional story-telling is, no question. TV is an interesting field, both confined as to reach yet wonderfully varied. More, it has universal immediacy; everyone experiences it at the same time, we all talk about it, and we encourage everyone else we know to stream it. This is preserving the medium by modeling behavior for coming generations the way reading is very seldom modeled these days, if ever. Getting back to that notion of relevance or importance, TV and the Internet have effectively commandeered one particular responsibility traditionally vaunted by the novel: the exposé, whether personal or cultural, business or political. This elite responsibility once flourished in fiction but we don’t need The Jungle or A Christmas Carol now we have and 60 Minutes. Who has time for something as self-indulgent as reading now it’s not morally supported?

Oral tradition evolved into the written national epic, then into everyman’s story in local languages; the novel became specific and personal but it remained universal: War and Peace matters to everyone. Today books are built to confirm and conform, and no one dares speak to the great topics. Or have we simply given up on universals the way we’ve given up on objective truth? Are we gutless, slyly knowing, or merely conscientious? Whatever the case, we’re in a sterile, and self-referential literary office tower, where clever editors with identical educations iron flat every obtrusive speckled thing. More and more, the narrative voice sounds just like the protagonist from the last book you read.

Of course this is also about economics, the preferences of that very specific segment of the populace: People Who Read Books. Who are they, and what do they want, anyway? The entire industry exists only to serve them, after all. And if they won’t demand something better, maybe even great, it’s going to go on spiraling smaller and smaller, and I guess I’ll see you at the cineplex.

Okay, so I’ve followed some questions, and I can discern the faint outline of a path ahead. Any kind of movement matters, and this conversation will continue. Meanwhile I’m back to working on my own fiction, that nascent book about the Other, whether self-created projection, alien intruder, or Ultimate Concept.

Thanks for your interest. And please check out the Home page for info on Worthy of This Great City, if you’re at all interested in fresh fiction.


Photo credits: Revise_D, Novel (CC BY-SA 2.0) / – Print (CC BY 2.0) / Sean MacEntee, old media new media (CC BY 2.0)