Thursday, October 31, 2013

Don't like novels? Don't write one, then.

I have been, I realize, slowly sort of groping my way toward a response to the currently fashionable idea (in some circles) that narrative long-form fiction—that is to say, the novel—no longer presents a meaningful way to present stories and ideas about life. There is today a constant babble of “reality,” which is shorthand for, primarily, internet news soundbites and bullet-pointed miniature articles, a babble that continually interrupts the narrative flow of our days. It is foolish to embrace the artifice of the unbroken long-form story, a self-sustaining and self-contained world unto itself, as a reasonable representation of “the world” in which we live, and therefore readers of today are estranged from the novel because it is not a mirror of the times. What readers today can embrace is a form of narrative where fiction is interrupted by—or interleaved with—bits of “reality.” What readers want, we are being told, is a narrative experience that is broken into—or perhaps made out of—the constant babble which surrounds us. David Shields, a failed traditional novelist himself, has written that book Reality Hunger, you know, a pastiche of quotations from better writers shaped into something that appears, prima facie, to be an argument in favor of “narrative nonfiction” or whatever you choose to call it. The novel is broken, you see, the novel is artificial and false, the realist novel is unreal and we must seek some other form. That’s the argument.

The response, of course, is that these claims about the novel are pure nonsense. “Nonsense” is easily said, and certainly sums up how I feel about all of this, and has been expanded into essay length articles by brighter folks than me, but I should probably do my own expanding here, since it’s me who has broached the subject, right? Here is the thing: this “reality hunger” argument is predicated on at least two false assumptions:

1. That the novel has at some time been an accurate depiction of “reality” and that this depiction is now no longer accurate, and
2. That there is a growing number of readers who are unable to engage meaningfully with the outdated novel form.

So let’s take these one at a time. First, the novel’s history is long and complex, and many people might be quite surprised to learn that there has been no linear evolution of the form. Everything that’s going on right now in novels has been going on for a long time. All of the experimentation of today’s most experimental post-post-postmodernist experimentalists has been done already, hundreds or even thousands of years ago. Check out Book XII of Homer’s Iliad, why don’t you, where the poet leaps forward in time for hundreds of years, to talk about the appearance of the Trojan beaches after the Greek ships have all withdrawn and the Greek fortifications have all been pulled apart by the waves and storms, while meanwhile the primary narrative has gotten nowhere near that point in time. Nowadays we’d point to cinema and claim that the author has been influenced by “Pulp Fiction.” Good one, Homer. Good one, Quenton. But I digress and miss my own point.

The novel is and has always been a work of art, of artifice, an abstraction of a set of ideas about the world. A novel is—and pretends to be—no more “real” than a symphony, a painting, or a dance. Novelists might talk about life and the world, but they are not creating an accurate map of life and the world. To ask the novel to accurately mirror our own lives is to ask the novelist to do something that isn’t his job. Apuleus’ Golden Ass is clearly only a glancing blow against reality. The same can be said of Shakespeare, of Chekhov, of Chaucer, of Dickens, of Tolstoy, of O’Connor, of Woolf, of Manning, of whomever you care to name. Tristram Shandy contains many truths about life, but it is not a strict depiction of reality. The same can be said of Finnegans Wake. The same can be said of The Old Man and the Sea, or Lolita, or A Visit From the Goon Squad. I will also point out tangentially that every good book is an amalgam of what the author believes to be factually true and what the author has invented. The ratio of fact to invention is no indicator of the success of the book. And every representation of the world is imaginary, because the only accurate representation of the universe is the universe itself; anything else is an abstraction, an illusion, a fantasy, a falsehood, if you will. Art is artifice. There has never been a “realist novel” that was not a fantasy. There has never been an epoch where a work of fiction was equivalent to the actual experience of life.

As to the second claim, that readers are no longer able to engage meaningfully with the novel, I confess that I just don’t believe it. What I do believe is that there are now more people who have tried unsuccessfully to write novels and have afterwards managed to publish essays about how the novel-as-form is meaningless. David Shields, for example, has not managed to make a career for himself as a novelist. In the wake of his failure, Shields has successfully become the figurehead of the latest “the novel is dead” movement. The claims of Shields and his supporters seem to really come down to their own failure to engage with fiction, and a generalization from that experience resulting in a call for something new to take the place of the novel. Some form that, maybe, David Shields can understand and create. The death knell of the novel is being rung by folks, I am telling you, who do not understand the novel, do not enjoy the novel, and cannot despite their best efforts write a novel. I believe this is actually a small group, who are nonetheless pretty vocal just now.

There have always been people who don’t like to read fiction. This does not point up a failure in fiction. Novels remain a hugely popular method of communication between writers of fiction and readers of fiction. The classics of the world continue to be printed and sold in large numbers, because they continue to be read in large numbers. The novel is not failing humanity, and humanity is not turning its back upon fiction. There are some writers who want to write books, but who don’t get along with the novel, or with fiction. Some people, you know, read mostly memoir, a form I don’t much appreciate. I am aware however that my lack of engagement with memoir does not indicate a failing on the part of memoirists. I just don’t dig the form, that’s all. David Shields just doesn’t dig the novel. The novel, I must assume, doesn’t much care and goes on about its business despite the hectoring from Shields and his admirers, who I maintain are small in number despite their relative noisiness.

To sum up: bollocks to you, you hungerers after “reality.” Go ahead and write your narrative nonfiction or whatever (you might notice that “gonzo journalism” has been around for almost fifty years by now, and probably people were doing it for a long time before Hunter Thompson got there), but kindly lay the fuck off the novel. The more you guys talk about the limitations of the novel, the more clear it becomes that you know very little about the novel and what it does. It’s sort of like Jonathan Franzen saying that writers of historical fiction have “no skin in the game” and cannot be taken seriously as writers; which only shows, I think, that Franzen is ignorant of the importance of both history and fiction to culture. Oh Jonny, you’re such an adorable little dope. Were you not real, it would be necessary to invent you. I apologize for being possibly unnecessarily unfair to Mr Shields (who is, after all, employed by the same university that issues my own paycheck); he is, I think, just a guy trying to figure out why his own fiction is so unsatisfying. But he needs to stop blaming the novel for his failure. He needs to show us the worth of his work, and “it’s not a traditional novel” isn’t a good enough reason to read him. He needs to try harder. He needs to stop damning the forms in which he cannot work, and find the one in which he can.


  1. Sir, I both agree and disagree!

    On one hand, I agree that many people, perhaps Shields included, hate the thing that defeats them. Yes, I've seen it, and I, too, have fallen prey to such weakness. On the other hand, equally sized, I think that part of what he says, even if ill-motivated, is...logical. People now, likely more than ever, have a hard time paying attention to anything for very long. I count myself among such fiends!

    I'm not sure if this attention span issue shaped the Web to be what it is today, or if the Web shaped people to be who they are today; nevertheless, it's reality. Does that mean people should stop writing novels? Nope! Does it mean that tweets and vines are destined to become or remain more popular than longform anything? Uh, perhaps.

    Those are my words. I rarely write. I rarely read. Have at me!

    --- Mr. Coolz

  2. I dispute the claim that people's attention spans have shortened. The media present shorter bits of infotainment, but just because a tweet is limited to 140 characters, that does not mean that we are unable to read statements longer than 140 characters now. I live in the same tweety world as you do, but I have read a number of Very Long Novels this year.

    I suspect that the vast majority of these "I can no longer read something as long as a novel" claims are made by people who never read many novels in the first place, or have vested interests in social media and web-based publishing. "A book? You can't read a whole book! Come visit my online magazine instead! It's user friendly!" What rubbish, I say. What absolute rubbish. Have your actual reading habits changed, or have you just become aware of what your reading habits are? Who are all these people buying novels for their kindles, via Amazon, if they aren't the same folks who are also on twitter and facebook and reading the huffingpuffingpostdotcom?

  3. I might also suggest that people find themselves unable to concentrate on the majority of what they read because the majority of what they read is empty online content, which is not well written or worth reading in the first place. We are inundated with junk writing and exhausted by it. But our attention spans have not been shortened, and we have not lost the ability to read a good long book. We have been, as I say, worn down by the high volume of tidbits of crap we look at all day. The whole issue has been framed in a cockeyed way. I do not believe that we have, in the last decade or so, become radically different animals than we were four thousand years ago, just because of the internet. It's like saying that, because there is so much readily available junk food on the market, we have as a species lost the ability to digest nutritious food. Rubbish.

  4. Okay, well, I obviously didn't mean that people now have biological limitations not previously encountered. Haha! Yes, yes, they can read novels. I guess what I'm saying is they've decided not to do that. "They" is not everyone, but it's a lot of people. The reason they've made such a decision is because they now have options.

    As time goes on, there are more and more competitors for the novel to deal with: radio, TV, video games, Internet, etc. And a lot of these offer a much faster, less taxing experience, even if it's also less fulfilling. So whether we like it or not, people are reading less and clicking more. That's true for me and just about everyone I know. Doesn't mean I can't read. Just means I've chosen another path: the road more traveled.

    --- Mr. Coolz

  5. I'd like to see some actual numbers about people reading fewer novels. Because while there are anecdotes like yours from people who never read many novels in the first place, there is also plenty of actual evidence that people are buying and reading a lot of books, now more than ever. So you have your claims, which if you'll excuse the comment seem to primarily exist to make nonreaders feel good about being nonreaders in this Great New Age of Not Reading Because The Internet, but then there are also all those novels being published, sold and read. Just about everybody I know reads a lot. Despite the fact that radio, TV and other distractions have existed our whole lives. So who do I believe?

  6. Was this inspired by the latest Tim Parks piece? Is that ever a muddle. "I'm being reductive." You don't say.

    As you know, I think the argument is entirely on your side, so the only puzzle, perhaps not worth solving, is to figure out what is actually bothering Shields, Parks, et. al.

    The odd thing about the attention span argument is that it implies that novels are all the same length. Read a shorter book if it bothers you so much. Or use one of those new-fangled inventions, the bookmark. Do people think they have to read a long book all at once?

    It also ignores all of the ten year olds who have read their seven volumes of Harry Potter all the way through ten times.

    Have you seen anyone try to make the same Shields-like argument against film or television? The person making the attempt would look like a fool. The arguments disintegrate. People watch a season of Breaking Bad in a weekend, yet long-form narrative fiction is dead, right.

    Or to quilting. The popularity of quilt-making has exploded in the US, yet attention spans have shortened, "faster, less taxing experiences," etc.

    Or to beer-making. Or to...

  7. Numbers are essential, yes. Until then, it's chatty chat. Not too useful. On the other hand, I did win a reading award when I was in school! I demolished everyone. So, my friend, do not think me one who was always horrible to behold.

    There's no question in my mind that more people read now than they did 100 years ago. Why? Distribution efficiency, increased literacy rates, etc. But how about more now than 10 years ago? Couldn't say. We need more of those ever-elusive numbers of yours.

    Most people you know read a lot. Most people I know don't. Obviously we have a problem here. Haha! I guess we'll have to agree to disagree, since I'm too lazy to win an argument via evidence. Also, I imagine our "research" would likely end up with each of us finding evidence that coincidently supports our own theories about reading in the Golden Age of Tweetsies.

    All that said, I have nothing against novels. If people want to read them, excellent. If people want to write them, even more excellent, because I'm a big fan of creation. But don't ever forget there is trash to be found everywhere, even in the big world of publishing. The Internet might have more trash, but there's no garbage monopoly going on, brother.

    --- Mr. Read Once

  8. Yeah, that Parks piece. I guess there was no real need for me to write this post, because the claims of the reality-hungry are clearly empty. Yet here I am anyway.

    Mostly what I wanted to say was that, in my opinion, these people are baffled by their failures to write what they consider to be "traditional novels" that are successful by whatever standard they have chosen. They blame their failure on The Novel (the literary form known as the novel, that is, rather than the particular novel they have written), and then demand The Novel's poor head. As if the problem with Major League Baseball is that it's not constructed such that a guy like me can hit a home run. Darn you, MLB! You are essentially flawed and must be replaced! Etc.

    Yes, well pointed-out about other activities that are popular but take longer than five minutes. "Bookmarks," you say? I shall Google that one.

  9. Parks is ingenious, I admit - also shameless - in the way he uses an attack on novels to promote his new novel.

  10. I'm glad you wrote this, Scott. I don't agree with you about everything, but it's nice to know where you stand. I mean you clearly feel strongly about the whole thing, so better out than in, right? Shrek would agree. Maybe I'll look up the "Parks piece." Maybe. I've got hours to go before I tweet. Hours to go before I tweet.


    I don't use Twitter. I am not entirely blemished!

    --- Advocate's Devil

  11. My position is that claims of the novel now being a dead form that no longer serves culture are misguided and untrue, and are being made primarily from people who have no great understanding of the novel. I'm not particularly interested in a comparision of rubbishy books versus rubbishy internet content; that's not my fight.

  12. Tom, most of the "nonfiction" pieces I see from writers are just commercials for their latest book. And there are a lot of novelists writing "nonfiction" pieces these days. Did I mention that I'm looking for a book deal?

  13. I understand that's not your fight. My fight, by the way, is not that people don't like making quilts anymore. Instead, I'm saying I think novels face stiffer competition than they ever have before. I believe this situation is exacerbated by the reality that people are being trained to think less and click more (with remotes, controllers, mice, whatever).

    --- Me again, Margaret

  14. "novels face stiffer competition than they ever have before" is not the same as saying that the novel has become irrelevant because it is an essentially flawed form. That's what I'm saying. There may be plenty of reasons not to read novels, but the claim that "the novel is a dead fish and I have this dead fish in my hands to prove it" is no reason to say we shouldn't write novels.

  15. Methinks we're not really arguing at all. I blame Shields for everything that transpired here.

  16. Scott,

    What a good post, and the comments too. I would think so because it matches my own thoughts! That paragraph beginning "The novel is and has always been" could have been written by me.

    As for the controversy over readers, well, when did we ever have the golden age for the novel in terms of readers and reader support? Here and there, someone worthy received adulation, but I expect we're not much worse off than in the nineteenth century, say.