Is the novel dead (or dying)?

(This essay previously appeared in Trolley,  the NYS Writers Institute’s online magazine.)

I was a failed novelist. Good with words, perhaps, but less on human insight. Which points toward the answer to the question.

What are novels for? Telling stories. A love for stories and storytelling is deeply embedded in human nature. And why is that? Because we evolved as exceptionally social creatures. A high level of social cooperation and cohesion was humanity’s “killer app” in the battle for survival. And that requires understanding what makes other people tick. That’s why we’re so big on stories and storytelling. They give us insight into that greatest of mysteries, the inner lives of others.

Cave people sitting around their campfires surely did a lot of storytelling — and listening. Narratives featuring human (or semi-divine) protagonists loomed large in our earliest cultures: Gilgamesh, the Iliad and Odyssey, the Bhagavad Gita. It took a long time for the “novel,” per se, as we know it today, to be developed as a vehicle for storytelling. Perhaps that was largely down to technology — before movable type printing, narratives like the Iliad were mainly transmitted orally. Poetry is easier to memorize than prose, and few people had the ability to read anyway. Printing overcame those constraints. With many more books becoming available, many more people found it worthwhile to learn to read — creating the mass audience for novels.

Then it was off to the races. And the novel has never since lost its appeal. Indeed, the expansion of literacy has not come to an end. As world population grows, and the percentage who are literate continues to rise, the global market of book readers increases.

On the other hand, further technological change has gone into overdrive, again altering the world. The written word, and the printing press, might seem like archaic holdovers of an epoch if not bygone, soon doomed to be.

More specifically, our thirst for stories is increasingly slaked by non-print means: ones with pictures. Books long had illustrations. But now the pictures move. Some are even 3-D! And immersive virtual reality will soon be a very big thing. If you can have all that stimulus, why be satisfied with words on a page?

Moving pictures have, of course, been around for over a century now, and while their audiences are immense, they don’t seem to come — at least not substantially — at the expense of book reading. Though watching movies and TV and other video does have to reduce somewhat the hours available for reading, people don’t actually seem to regard the one activity as a substitute for the other. They are indeed different activities.

This is the key point. While both do involve storytelling, seeing a film or video is a different kind of experience from reading a novel. True, in some ways, a film can be a richer, more vivid experience in the moment, and can convey things a novel cannot easily emulate — “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Yet some of the differences are to the novel’s favor.

For one thing, reading a novel is (normally) a much more prolonged activity. Efficient use of time is not the point; we find it pleasurable to become immersed, for a length of time, in a novel’s story, its characters’ lives, and its other world. How often has one felt sorry having to let go of them at novel’s end?

And reading a novel is a more contemplative, reflective experience. While a film or video necessarily goes headlong from one scene to the next — allowing the viewer only seconds, at most, to linger — novel reading facilitates thinking about the content, pondering its meaning to us, savoring it.

Further, while a picture can be worth a thousand words, words nonetheless pack a lot of power. And while visual beauty is one kind of experience, there can be beauty in language too, which is again a different kind of experience. Words can embody a complexity and subtlety of ideas that visual images cannot. Especially when a novel has a lot more than a thousand words to develop them.

I’m thinking, for example, of Jonathan Franzen’s work. This essay began by talking of human insight. I recall reading Franzen’s first novel,The Twenty-Seventh City, and marveling at the depth of human understanding in it (far exceeding my own); and that Franzen achieved this while only in his twenties. More recently I read his Freedom. It showcases Franzen as an artist with words, each of them a small brick, built into a cathedral of plot, character, and ideas, a deeply satisfying immersive experience, helping a reader to better understand life.

Novels have been written for half a millennium now. Google has told us that precisely 129,864,880 books have been published. That was back in 2010; no doubt that number is rather larger today; they’re being churned out at an ever faster rate. Most of them are novels. Yet we’re also told that there are really only seven basic plots. So the question arises: can there be anything new to say? When a would-be novelist sits down to begin, doesn’t she realize it’s all been done already, in all those tens of millions of previous novels?

But of course it hasn’t been, and never will be. That is the vastness of the human imagination. Writers are forever coming up with new ways of seeing and expressing things. People are still writing novels that surprise us; and delight us.

I was not a great novelist, but as long as there are people like Franzen to write them — and the pool of potential novelists is growing, because human beings, in general, are getting better and smarter — there will always be readers for them.

Advertisements

One Response to “Is the novel dead (or dying)?”

  1. Bumba Says:

    I wrote three novels, all not moneymakers. The market is so skewed to best sellers, which is because of a drastic reduction in total readers. The numbers don’t lie. These tiny devices we have with us all the time are really altering things like reading time, attention span. Now, what was I talking about?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s