Some thoughts on the Novel

February 15th, 2014 by admin Leave a reply »

A customer recently told me that he can’t stand to read novels anymore because spending so much time reading newspapers has meant he finds it difficult to read unbroken lines.

Which got me to thinking: what have us booksellers been belly-aching about Amazon for? We’ve misdirected our ire. I’ve identified the true villains, and I’ve come up with the solution. It’s simple; I’ll just set fire to the newsagents. Or if not the newsagents then perhaps Rebekah Brooks… Hugh Grant would cheer me on. We could shoot a grisly sequel to Notting Hill.

But putting threats of arson and witch-burnings aside, there certainly has been a crisis of confidence in the novel as a form in the last 10 years. Take Philip Roth. He said in 2009 that novels will become a ‘cultic’ minority enthusiasm within 25 years, and it’s ‘the print that’s the problem, it’s the book, the object itself’. But we can take with a pinch of salt. Or better sugar. After all, can anyone remember the last time Roth said something that wasn’t unpalatably bitter?

People have written a lot about declining attention spans in the digital age and how this has created an apathetic attitude towards long form fiction. But then a lot of people have also been writing very long books, and a lot of people have been reading them. We have also been handing out awards for them – the Booker Prize for Eleanor Catton’s 832-page clobbering wedge The Luminaries being one example.

So what are we to make of this then? On the one hand we are being told by the likes of Jonathan Franzen that we are all going to be transformed into drivelling dirges able only to conceptualise narratives in terms of trending hashtags, and on the other hand we are reading and slapping prizes on books that make Middlemarch seem mercifully short. It’s very confusing.

First off I think that our tendency towards these long novels goes some way to put paid to Roth’s criticism of the book as an object. The physical size of these books shows that we are not as concerned with their obtrusiveness as much as has been thought.

Secondly I think the way that our television viewing habits have changed provide an illuminating analogy when it comes to thinking about our attention spans. American drama series that focus on one continuous narrative, stretched over 5 or six series, each with at least 12 hour long episodes have become more and more popular. Not only that, but instead of being released serially, entertainment companies such as Netflix are releasing these shows to viewers all at once (the second series of House of Cards which was released yesterday being a fine example). These shows are far more like novels than films, in their structure and their scope. And our hunger for them shows that we haven’t lost interest in the big stories and big characters that only a novel can tell and bring to life.

The schizophrenic tendency that Franzen has identified certainly applies to the way that we communicate with one another, which is becoming more and more telegraphic. But it’s not the death knell for the novel. Something will get it in the end, but it’s not going to be twitter. There’s appetite for stories yet.

SF

The Bookseller of Silicon Roundabout

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