The Death Of The Novel Is Dead

Will Self would have us all believe that the novel is dead.

An interesting assertion, given that in the United States alone we see around 300,000 books published by the so-called traditional system each year — and, reportedly, around 50,000 of those are novels. That fails to include the 300,000 or more books that are author-published each year, a high percentage of which are surely also novels.

Those numbers are, frankly, low estimates.

It is thereby safe to assume that at the barest ittiest-bittiest tiniest-winiest minimum, over 100,000 novels enter our Literary Atmosphere every year. One. Hundred. Thousand.

(We do not see 100,000 films, television shows, or video games released every year, do we?)

Some of the biggest bestsellers of all time have been in the last 20 years.

The digital revolution has only multiplied the ways that people can read books.

But, of course, the novel is dead.

Total corpse. Nail the coffin shut, everyone. The stink must be contained.

Blah blah blah, buggy whips, typewriters, computers that fill entire rooms.

As if the novel is a piece of technology rather than a literary form.

The modern novel has been around for roughly 200 years, but novel-length fiction (ostensibly: a novel) has been around for thousands of years. And it won’t go away. Maybe ever. Because the novel is more than just a container. It’s a programming language. A narrative code to transmit stories, and within those stories lie various truths, ideas, lies about humanity. (And vampires. Lots of vampires. And I see nothing wrong with that because vampires are cool, shut up.)

The novel is not dead.

The novel is eternal.

Its parameters will change. Its market will shift.

Everyone will declare it dead again and again. It’s an old schtick, actually, easily a century-old already, and all the more tiresome for it. Tiresome like when Grandpa angrily squeezes his colostomy bag and cranks on about how JEOPARDY JUST ISN’T THE SAME ANYMORE or WHY AREN’T MOVIES NICE ANYMORE MOVIES USED TO BE NICE.

It’s like everyone forgets all over again.

Of course, what Will Self is really saying, literally and literarily, is that the literary novel, the SERIOUS NOVEL WRITTEN WITH GRAVE SERIOUSNESS THAT MAKES US ALL SERIOUS IN OUR SERIOUS CONTEMPLATION OF ITS SERIOUS BUSINESS is dead, and even that remains a dubious assertion, but just the same, all that means is a particular style of novel isn’t selling as well as you’d like. Just because someone will not publish or buy a half-ass literary novel does not mean that the entire novel form has eaten the twin barrels of an uncultured shotgun.

Of course, Will Self isn’t even saying that. Because he’s still writing and still publishing and he’s able to do that because the novel isn’t growing flowers out of its dead body.

The novel isn’t dead.

The novel will change.

The novel will grow

Our notions about the novel will change and grow.

Other forms will gain prominence and then shrink back.

And the novel keeps on keeping on.

Going forward, anyone who wants to pronounce it dead — find a new schtick, yeah? Let us instead pronounce that pronouncing novels dead is dead. Or, at least, really very unoriginal.

*poop noise*

54 comments

  • The only way I can picture Self is with a monocle while tut-tutting about the decline of “real” literature. Ironically enough, his predecessors in that ivory tower he loves so much said the same thing about many of his influences.

  • He wants us to stop writing books so his novels will get more exposure. And it’s awfully generalizing to say genre fiction can’t be a “difficult novel” with no literary merit. Goddamit. Them literary snobs.

    • May 4, 2014 at 8:52 AM // Reply

      Yes apparently, he hasn’t read anything by China Mieville, who basically writes Literary Sci-Fi

        • Or Samuel R. Delany. John Crowley. Jonathan Lem. Mervyn Peake. Jane Rogers. Margaret Atwood. Thomas Pynchon. Doris Lessing. Italo Calvino. Joanna Russ. Jorge Luis Borges. Some of Kim Stanley Robinson’s stuff. Karen Joy Fowler. The list goes on and on.

          Color me bored with this argument…

          • May 4, 2014 at 10:42 PM //

            Neither has he read Zamyatin’s We, even though he was commissioned to write an introduction for it. Instead, he turned in a 5k word essay about how We must have been important to have influenced George Orwell, but he still couldn’t be arsed to do his bloody homework and read the thing before commenting on it for a professional publication.

            By the way, Natasha Randall’s fantastic English translation of We has been reprinted, but this time they got Bruce Sterling to write the introduction instead, who stayed rather more on topic about the author who actually wrote the book rather than relegating him to a footnote to the faaaaar more important (English) writers who were influenced by him.

  • I refuse to trust the opinion of anyone who refers to themselves as a “miner” and their teenage son as a “canary.” That doesn’t even make sense as a metaphor, so I’m inclined to doubt that his books are of the “difficult reading” or “literary” variety that he’s supposedly referring to.

    • I took it as Self comparing literary writing with mining, while using his son to detect the fire-damp of changed trends; I agree it is a tad forced though.

    • I call bull on that whole story. In my experience as a former teen, the mother of a former teen boy, and in scheduling panels for a large convention, a lot of which feature groups of teens & young adults, I cannot picture any of them thinking “everything’s been done” and “of course, the first version is always the best”.
      Generally, each generation pretty much feels they invented everything, and if you suggest otherwise, you will get eye-rolls for miles. They’ll tell you what THEY’RE doing is *nothing* like that lame crap you did before. And if they do bother to do a remake/cover, it’s because they found something that is ok, but too old-fashioned, and just needed some tweaking to be awesome.
      But since back in the day the miners would notice the presence of gas because their canaries were suddenly dead, I find the metaphor seriously creepy.

  • May 4, 2014 at 9:18 AM // Reply

    I don’t know. Maybe he’s right. I got about a quarter of the way through his article and was so exhausted I gave up.

    *Gesamtkunstwerk noise*

  • This post was good to read. I mean, I know the novel isn’t dead and I know people have declared it dead a million times before. But still, there’s so much pessimism about the publishing industry (“It’s impossible to get published,” “Nobody will read you even if you do get published,” “Don’t do this, you must do that, and never ever do this other thing,” yadda yadda), it messes with my head every so often.

  • Maybe novels are indeed alive, but like a human they shed dead skin cells into the mattresses of their book shelves? That is why I have to keep dusting them. The ebooks shed electrons and those are so much easier to clean.

  • Thinking people, even young people, still read novels because they are often unchallenged or unfulfilled by other media. Go hang out with bright 20-somethings. They may use Evernote to write things down, watch Game of Thrones on their laptop and find dates on Tinder–but they’re also still reading novels. Why? Because novels are f’g awesome.

  • I guess I missed the bit in what was one of the best articles I have read in many a year where Will Self said the literary novel is dead (as you rightly say, he certainly didn’t say the novel is dead – he actually said that longform fiction is thriving). What he actually said is that the literary novel’s days as our central cultural reference point are gone – and he’s right. He also made a lot of excellent points about the relation between modernism and postmodernism that were equally spot on. Yes, there is an endless stream of verbiage about the death of the novel; yes, it’s misguided at best; but any attempt to suggest that Self’s article is part of that feels like appropriation rather than careful reading.

    • If he grew up in a world where young people thought that the literary novel was the height of pop culture, then he grew up in a freakin ivory tower – or has been locked away in one for so long that he thought he did.
      In my high school, and the high schools of everyone I messaged today to ask, the NYT bestseller list was basically a bunch of boring crap that kids were going to have to study some day. We were already suffering through Melville & Steinbeck and the last generation’s boring crap. Fortunately Shakespeare was a separate class, because I’d always liked him (the Complete Works were on my parent’s bookshelf, so I’d already read them), and having a whole class to himself, we got to delve into his life and how it affected what he wrote.
      I’d wonder “why didn’t we get to study something FUN, like Dickens?” Oh yeah … it was popular, serialized fiction. So it’s not “important”.

    • In which case I would offer Mr Self a suggestion: if you don’t want people to think you’re saying ‘the novel is dead’ – maybe don’t title your article “The novel is dead (and this time it’s for real)”?

    • Three cheers to that! Gilgamesh may not still be written on tablets like in the olden-timey days, but people still read it.

  • I was unable to read the entire article. It seemed to refer exclusively to white men and my eyes glazed over. The golden age when white men wrote and controlled what was written. When books were serious. I kept waiting to see the phrase “before PC police” stepped in. I grew up in the 1970s & 1980s that he refers to. I’m sorry but this golden age of literary fiction he talks about I never saw it at the private/public/private schools I attended. I grew up as part of the privileged/cultured group and even went to a high school that focused on the arts (writing, drama, photography, etc.) as much as academics. Yes a few students and teachers were into literary fiction but not most.

    Has there been any young generation that wanted to read “difficult fiction” as youngsters? Kids read what they enjoy. The problem might well be that they have more options today so literary novels no longer do it for them… Or maybe literary novels only ever did it for a small set of privileged kids, or forced by school systems… And non-privileged kids aren’t generally going to pick literary work typically written by the privileged class as it’s not relevant to them. Schools are hopefully getting smarter about what they give kids to read making it enjoyable instead of dreaded nightmare so kids might grow up liking books instead of hating them. Privileged kids have tons of options so yep they might choose fun & interesting over “difficult reading”. We all get enough difficult reading from textbooks & technical manuals & non-fiction many of us don’t need it in our fiction also.

    I wish people my generation would stop rewriting the past. Earlier today I read comments on a blog about how teens in my generation didn’t hyper-sexualize the way they dressed – Madonna anyone? Have our minds really gone senile between age 40-50?

    • I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t stomach reading the whole thing! I got really annoyed with him calling his kids and their generation his ‘little canaries’ as well (translation: ‘because in the end they’ll all just suffocate and die from reading Twilight and The Hunger Games – and then they’ll wish they’d read more of my stuff…’?)

      I also grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, and the only time I can ever remember reading “difficult fiction” was when we were made to at school as part of our English lessons or exams. I’ve often wondered if it was done purely to strengthen our resolve for reading in preparation for being adults (“if you can get through this, kiddo, you’ll be able to read anything life throws at you.”) Can’t help wondering if there’s a bit of rose-tinted hindsight going on here; I reckon most people don’t actually start voluntarily reading ‘difficult fiction’ until they reach that stage of adulthood where a) they’re made to feel that doing so makes you look incredibly intelligent and cultured, and b) that matters very much to them, for career/social/dating purposes. Then, when they get to – ooh, about Mr. Self’s age, their brain just rather tactfully retro-fits the age they actually did that, to tie in with their own wistful imaginings about how life was so much better back then…

    • Tasha, my experience mirrors yours. I couldn’t get through the article either. I’d love to introduce Self and his son to some books and music that might give them a new perspective.

      I’m in my 30s but I hear the same things coming out of the mouths of my peers. “Look at how these kids dress. We didn’t dress like that when we were their age! We weren’t glued to electronics!” I remember summer marathons of Sonic the Hedgehog. We’d play all day to beat it without cheats. Entire days spent on mIRC. Good times. If it stunted my learning or gave me brain damage, well, I’m blissfully unaware.

      And at school when those tubs would show up containing our next novel to study, it was like Christmas morning. I was convinced the teacher would let them sit there unopened just to torture me. Then the unveiling and oh, yawn, another boring book, a sure method of torture. And I’d struggle through my assigned reading so I could toss the thing aside and go back to my Madeline L’Engle or Christopher Pike or L.J. Smith.

      • And you know, now I remember, on rare occasions those tubs would contain books I ended up loving. We once read island of the Blue Dolphins, and I also remember Lord of the Flies. Would those be considered higher brow than what I was reading in my spare time? Who knows. This is all so subjective.

        • I think Lord of the Flies was one of the few books we may have discussed outside of class… But more in a “why are any books banned when stuff like this is required” rather than a “lofty intellectual discussion” kind off way. LOL I believe Lord of the Flies is concerned a great literary work but I might be confusing it with Of Mice and Men…

          I once got excused in private school from reading a “great author of literary fiction” when I resented to the frequent use of the word c*nt in the first chapter. I had to write a paper on why I found it offensive, sit in on class discussions, read a different book, and write a paper on that book. I’m not sure if the teacher chose a different book in the future… I went to a cool school where they did take students & gender/race/LGBT issues seriously even back in the early/mid-1980s. It may help explain why I was so unprepared for the tech world in the 1990s.

  • Thanks, Chuck. The novel is NOT DEAD! As long as someone has an opinion and wants to tell a story that includes that opinion, and there is ONE person who will listen……we have a novel. ” It ain’t dead, arms and legs just ain’t a movin’ much fer anyone ta notice, ” as Big Melvin would offer in his West Virginnie-style lingo. ( as might be said in my soon- to- be finished novel, When The White Raven Flies )
    http://www.RossPullen.com

  • At least Self had the decency to put together some kind of cogent argument to back up his theory, as opposed to shouting with his caps lock on–and he didn’t really say the novel is dead, did he? More to do with how technology has changed/is changing reading habits. I know which I found more interesting, articulate, and nourishing.

  • May 4, 2014 at 9:54 PM // Reply

    I really love to hear this because I am a writer-in-training and my biggest fear is wanted to publish books in the future and no one even reading anymore. I just imagine a distopian society full of robots and children playing video games until their eyes pop out of their sockets. But now I’m pretty much assured, and optimistic. Thank you.

  • Here’s my take on Will Self’s article:
    TL;DR
    Maybe that proves him right in a way, but the impression I got from what I did read was that he’s more interested in sounding like a Smart Person than developing a clear argument. Fail.

  • Hear!hear! way to school a “Dead man”!! (digging the carcasses of his books out of the grave people threw it in…Weeping) while moaning about novels being dead.

  • I too have a hard time chewing on this idea that the novel is dead. Stephen King chimed on this in an interview and said that “the book is the delivery system.” Whether it’s e-book or audiobook or processed tree carcass, novels and more importantly storytelling in general will endure even though there’s a change in clothing.

    As far as the literary novel is concerned, I can’t help but shake my head because it’s such a country club label. I once heard someone say he only read classics like The Great Gatsby. I wanted to remind him that when Gatsby was first published, reviewers weren’t sure it would stay on the shelf a year later.

  • Does Will Self’s point of view fall into that infamous category of “You know you’re old when…” tropes? Y’know, along with things like the policemen looking younger? Perhaps this is a special writer’s version of that.

    And considering he’s comparing his son to a canary (who used to check for poisonous gases in the mines by – um, dropping dead) I’m wondering if his son read that article and though “Oh… cheers Dad..!”

  • This is how I feel about bookstores. The market will change, the market will adjust, and some people will moan and wail over the changes while other people figure out how to thrive through them. The rest of us will just keep buying books wherever it’s easy and pleasant to buy them. End of story.

  • Really, it seems more that Will’s Self (vs Will Himself?) is bemoaning the idea that self-published books are predominantly genre fiction, but gives no evidence to support that claim. He also seems to think that genre fiction writers somehow “crowd out” literary fiction writers. He fails to realize that in a virtual world, there is no such thing as being “crowded out.” The closest analogy to being crowded out would be being miscatergorized, or perhaps if a category for your work did not exist in the first place. Both things being immediately fixable. Does genre fiction sell better? Of course it does. Always has.

  • Okay, I’m game. The novel is not dead, but the value of the novel is.

    Granted, this will change with Web3.0, but for now everyone and their mother can write a novel and compete for the small scraps of attention. Meanwhile, much like the stock market, the core readers (at least 90%) adhere to only 10% of the total novelists out there, with 1% of those controlling at least 80% of the potential readers.

    The power of a novel, in and of itself, has been devalued because the value of the word and the lack of printing has devalued it. The boom in low quality writing has undermined it even further to a point where someone says they have an ebook and eyes glaze over.

    The value is still in the traditional publishing method because people value material things, much in the way the music industry doesn’t get it because people don’t place a true value on bytes. It isn’t something tangible, so they can’t say it is worth anything.

    Hence why piracy keeps growing in digital formats. It is the mindset of the current generation.

    Again, this will change in Web3.0 where you will have to own a license to operate the internet, your car will be driven for you via Google, you’ll pay extra to read blogs like this one, and you can have your access restricted if you violate any terms of conditions (even the ones you don’t know about).

    It also means you will have more gatekeepers who will filter out the novelists/writers since there is a push to make “writers” acquire a license to write

    (reference to Google white papers and house/senate bills regarding “news” and “media” versus casual bloggers).

    Changes, they are a comin’.

    • I’m pretty sure they said many of those same things about “devaluation of the written word” with the advent of the printing press & when books became cheap enough “everyday” people could afford them & not just the privileged & those permitted in lofty “lending libraries”, and again when the mass market paperback was created. It wasn’t true any of those times nor is it true today IMHO.

      As to us having more lower quality books thanks to self-publishing; I’d say we also have more higher quality books & yay books don’t go out-of-print & many out-of-print books are back in print. I’ve been complaining about the quality of books available to me for some 30 years now. Few characters that looked like me or somebody I’d want to relate to. Now I finally have some choices.

      I agree changes are coming. I’m not sure you are right about what those changes will be. Changes are always coming. Nothing in life stays the same. For now we can count on people being born and dying as one of the few non-changing things in life – that might change down the road.

      • There is one more thing that is always a constant if you study your history: People in charge will do whatever it takes to stay in charge no matter what it takes.

        These things I suggested are, indeed, things people will do to keep people in line and keep the important people in power.

        Just because the press was invented didn’t mean the words weren’t twisted to mean something they didn’t. The invention of the press didn’t stop yellow journalism, did it?

        While it is good to be positive, it pays to be aware of what humanity is: A failure at learning from previous mistakes.

        • I’m feeling pretty positive that’s true. For a change we are starting to hear more women, POCs, LGBT voices. Yeah white guys are making money off of our voices but our voices are being heard and showing up in books than ever before.

          Yeah there was yellow journalism. Before journalism there was rumor and/or what the aristocracy allowed to be know.

          Before printing presses and cheaper the illiteracy rates among non-privileged was much lower.

          So yep the privileged always try to stay in power. One reason why racism and sexism are alive and well today. I guess if the American populace keeps voting as they have we might see the Internet become more costly but I suspect the pushback might be too great. Too many people see it as a basic right. It’s one of the reason so many people feel no guilt about pirating music, books, photos – they believe they have a right to “free”. It might be the straw that breaks the camels back and what a sad issue for the American people to finally pay attention.

  • Have you heard of S, created by Geek Extraordinaire JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst? It’s an awesome concept, a story within a story, a 3D experience (if you haven’t heard of it you should really check it out. I defy any book lover not to cream themselves at the sight of it).

    When I see stuff like that, it crystallises for me the fact that books and novels will never die, no matter what technology does. No matter digital or whatever new form of technology we’ll come up with in the future, books will adapt and grow. S might a little preview of the kind of books we’ll be seeing more of in the future as an answer to technology.

  • I’m pretty sure I’d rather poke myself in the eye than read any of this windbag’s novels. To be vulgar, he sounds like someone who sniffs his own farts and rhapsodizes about the unique stench. A great writer doesn’t need to tie prose into complicated knots and drop in references that will send most readers to a dictionary or Wikipedia. People will be reading George Orwell long after Will Self is forgotten, and Orwell wrote clearly and concisely.

    Written stories have been around since Babylon, and people still read Homer and The Epic of Gilgamesh. The novel isn’t going anywhere. If anything, fiction is far more accessible to people today than it was before the Internet. The Internet ensures that books of the past aren’t lost and that anyone with free time and an Internet connection can write their own books.

    I read constantly (60+ books a year) and I write too. But I obviously don’t count because I write fantasy, and a large amount of what I read is popular or genre fiction.

  • I think that Self was actually trying to make an interesting point, but making it in a very roundabout way, framed in sensationalistic terms as the Guardian is wont to put them in. The lede is not the point.

    What Will Self seems to be saying is that up until recently, the cultural narrative held the literary novel, particularly the difficult literary opus, as a kind of be-all-end-all standard for cultural achievement, thus allowing it a safe place in the publishing world regardless of popularity. However, as the atmosphere surrounding how we evaluate entertainment changes, with an increasing emphasis on immediacy, harder, weirder novels have lost their place in the pantheon and will subsequently become harder to put out in general. This is not about the opening of new windows, but about the closing of an old and important one.

    In other words, difficult fiction in general, regardless of genre, is becoming harder to publish because big media thinks that people have the attention spans of gnats and that is distressing. And you know what? He has a point. Take a way the niche of the wacky but respectable “literary” writer and what will happen to the rest of us freaks who want to write novels in blank verse or soliloquies from the perspectives of household objects – be they set on this world or in another?

    The problem with Self’s article is that it frames “genre fiction” as outside rather than inside this narrative,apparently for the benefit of the few snobs in this ostensibly liberal paper’s readership who do not recognise the literary value of the fantastic and would fail to comprehend that difficult “genre” writers and those who walked the line before them would be as threatened as any experimental-leaning realist. Self would know from personal experience: The man is, at heart, a sort of social surrealist.

    There are other problems, such as the issue of whether immediacy is or is not “killing” difficult media, and whether or not publishers *think* that it is, some of which tie back into the old Hemingway/James dichotomy – or as I see it, the Carter/Carver dichotomy; I prefer Angie – but that’s a whole different kettle of narwhals.

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