Death of the Novel. Again.

Hu
Hugh
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Tue Jul 06, 2010 9:18 am Post

'Listen, some quiet night, when you've shirked your work that day. Do you hear
that distant, almost inaudible clicking sound? That's one of your
competitors, working away in the night in
Paris or London or Erie, PA.'

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KB
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Tue Jul 06, 2010 10:56 am Post

Wow, maybe I'm being harsh, but that article seems quite narrow-minded.

...no one goes to a current novel or story for the ineffable private and public clarity fiction once provided.


Er... "No one" (except for writers and agents)? This is exactly what I go to fiction for, as, I presume, do many others on this forum and elsewhere.

The whole thing is a bit of a straw-man argument. Nobody can argue that, in these days of television and the internet, the novel isn't the only place people go for "clarity", although I doubt those who might once have read novels but now watch TV and read no novels ever would have been dipping into literature for the edifying purposes the writer of that article seems to imply. This is hardly the same as being "culturally irrelevant", though. The straw man comes into it because the writer is aiming specifically at a single genre - "literary fiction" - the genre that gets scrutinised the most in the broadsheets, and ends up in these silly "20 under 40" lists, or nominated for the Booker. Regardless of what you think of them, you can hardly call, for instance, Harry Potter, The Da Vinci Code or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo "culturally irrelevant" - they prove that the novel still has the power to excite a broad range of people. And before them, I remember the crazes for Captain Corelli's Mandolin and Trainspotting, in Britain at least. But of course, if you want to limit the list only to navel-gazing novelists who can turn a nice phrase but leave you empty (as gross a generalisation as that writer's, I know!), then you won't find much in the way of novels that seem to dominate the culture; but this does involve squeezing ones eyes mostly shut so that you can ignore the literature you don't particularly approve of.

His argument that literature is on longer a vocation but a profession seems utterly perverse, too, and again seems to buy into the idea of the Big Names pushed by the agents and lists that he is criticising. It assumes that the Big Names and literary fiction are the only places worth looking for "vocational" writers. But there are plenty of great writers out there toiling away with day jobs. There was a wonderful novel out a couple of years ago called "24 for 3". Publishers turned it down at first, so the writer self-published and it picked up great reviews and was nearly nominated for the patronising Orange prize, until it turned out the writer was really a man. And currently I'm reading a science fiction book by Chris Beckett, an ex-social worker and now university lecturer who over the past few years has been turning out short stories and a couple of novels for the small presses that beautifully written and ask questions about what it means to be human. But, no matter how intelligent and thoughtful his work is, because his work is set in the future, to certain "guardians of liteerature" it's not worthy for consideration as being "vocational" - the assumption is that an sf writer must be a hack (unless it's Margaret Atwood or Cormac McCarthy, in which case everyone just avoids the term entirely). Likewise anything else that is tainted with genre or plot - John Sutherland, English literary critic, lecturer and ex-chair of the Booker, recently said that there was a feeling among the Booker panel that entering a crime novel, for instance, into the Booker, would be like entering a donkey for the Grand National.

Which isn't to say there isn't a lot of hackish drivel out there in the sf and crime genres, because there is; but there's also a lot of drivel in the literary genre, too. I just find the habit of literary snobbishness - even though I have to admit I'm a tiny bit infected it with myself ("Me? Read Dan Brown or John Grisham? You've got to be kidding, dahling!") - a bit annoying and shortsighted. It's absolutely fine to have a personal preference and not want to read anything with, say, robots or murders in it, just as I find most - but not all - historical drama a turn off (unless it was written in the time period it's about, of course); but to ignore other genres and discount them entirely as being of little value, and then to bemoan the dearth of "cultural relevance" in the one tiny bracket of literature you allow into your own definition of what is relevant just seems wantonly hyperbolic.

Right, that's my rant over. You really shouldn't post these things when I have work that I want to avoid. :)

All the best,
Keith

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Tue Jul 06, 2010 11:38 am Post

Let's see here. Novelists from the Golden Age -- those worth mentioning -- include
Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Bellow, Updike, Mailer, Roth, Cheever, Malamud

And the publications worth exploring -- vainly, it turns out -- in search of good fiction include
The New Yorker
Harper's
The Atlantic

Seems a bit, well, narrow, does it not. But wait. Here's the disclaimer. He's talking about
the Golden Age-of American fiction

Too bad no one in Ireland or Turkey or Canada or Afghanistan or Colombia or Portugal or India ever wrote a novel. A novel that counts, I mean. But there it is, the American Imperative. We may not be the only writers in the world, but we're the only ones who matter.

Sigh.

Such a burden.

Such BS.

Such narrow-bore blathering.

I've tried to avoid the Manhattan literary micturating competitions. This is probably just another petulant squirt in those wars.

ps
You can't conquer stupid — or cure it — with more stupid.

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Tue Jul 06, 2010 2:58 pm Post

Something tells me, call it a hunch, that the people who go to television and movies for the insights that novels once provided are the people who would have been illiterate in the time before mass media.

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KB
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Tue Jul 06, 2010 4:05 pm Post

I don't know if that's true, although I suppose it depends on the education system in the given country and the time period you mean. But think of how the short story market has dried up - that's usually put down to television; people are more likely to flick on the box (or browse the net) these days than read the short stories in a magazine, and so no one buys short stories any more. "Insight" and "clarity" can be found in more reaches of literature than just the American literary novel. The trouble with some Literature is just that it tries too hard to be literary, to emulate "literariness", when much of what we see now as classic literary fiction (Dickens, Shakespeare, Austen) were not written with such intentions in mind. And that's my Authorial Fallacy for the day. :)

Best,
Keith

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Atypicas
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Sun Apr 03, 2011 4:32 pm Post

Something tells me, call it a hunch, that the people who go to television and movies for the insights that novels once provided are the people who would have been illiterate in the time before mass media.


The vast majority of illiterates are so because they have not been taught literacy; it is a learned skill. A few exceptions aside, the people who watch television for the reasons you described would have been literate if they had been taught literacy; their taste for television has nothing to do with whether they would have been literate or not.

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ptram
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Sun Apr 03, 2011 6:15 pm Post

PJS wrote:Too bad no one in Ireland or Turkey or Canada or Afghanistan or Colombia or Portugal or India ever wrote a novel. A novel that counts, I mean.

Obviously, if you exclude totally unimportant writers like Swift, Stoker, Joyce, Wilde, Pamuk, Richler, Ondaatje, Atwood, Shields, García Márquez, Mutís, and Saramago.

Paolo
Last edited by ptram on Sun Apr 03, 2011 6:17 pm, edited 2 times in total.

mi
michaelbywater
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Wed Apr 06, 2011 11:11 am Post

ptram wrote:
PJS wrote:Too bad no one in Ireland or Turkey or Canada or Afghanistan or Colombia or Portugal or India ever wrote a novel. A novel that counts, I mean.

Obviously, if you exclude totally unimportant writers like Swift, Stoker, Joyce, Wilde, Pamuk, Richler, Ondaatje, Atwood, Shields, García Márquez, Mutís, and Saramago.

Paolo


And there was me thinking it might have been ironic....

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ptram
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Wed Apr 06, 2011 5:17 pm Post

Eh, I was trying to add sarcasm to irony, but with little success. Sorry.

Cheers, Paolo