May 5, 2014

Will Self: The novel is definitely dead this time



Will Self. (via Wikimedia)

Writing for The Guardian, Will Self asserts the imminent marginalization of the novel in a piece called “The novel is dead (this time it’s for real).”

“Here we go again,” I thought, as I envisaged neatly dressed yet barely employed novelists standing beside subway turnstiles handing out glossy pamphlets that read, “The End Is Near, Are You Ready?” But like any part-time literary eschatologist, intrigued but not quite convinced of the doomsday prophesy, I read on.

The article opens with Self consoling his son, an aspiring rockstar, who laments that, “everything in popular music had been done before, and usually those who’d done it first had done it best. Besides, the instant availability of almost everything that had ever been done stifled his creativity, and made him feel it was all hopeless.” But as Self comforts his son with an account of how performers of live music in the early 20th century needlessly feared that the advent of the 78 record would put them out of work, he’s stricken with his own bout of literary death-anxiety: “How do you think it feels to have dedicated your entire adult life to an art form only to see the bloody thing dying before your eyes?”

What Self seems to be mourning is not so much the extinction of the novel as its devaluation, from “the prince of art forms, the cultural capstone and the apogee of creative endeavour” to a more marginal status, something akin to place classical music inhabits in our culture. And this shift away from cultural prominence, Self argues, can be attributed directly to the connectivity of our digital age, the seemingly endless conduits of distraction afforded us by the web. “There is one question alone that you must ask yourself in order to establish whether the serious novel will still retain cultural primacy and centrality in another 20 years,” proclaims Self; “if you accept that by then the vast majority of text will be read in digital form on devices linked to the web, do you also believe that those readers will voluntarily choose to disable that connectivity? If your answer to this is no, then the death of the novel is sealed out of your own mouth.”

While the truth of Self’s proposition is hard to refute—writing this, I’ve checked my Facebook, Gmail and Instagram more times than I’d care to say—I don’t think what’s really at stake is the existence of the “serious” novel (there will always be people crazy enough to write them) but the existence of solitude, or portions of our day spent in profound concentration. It seems to me that human agency is often absent in discussions of how internet access is killing close reading and serious writing. As Self relates:

I switched to writing the first drafts of my fictions on a manual typewriter about a decade ago because of the inception of broadband internet. Even before this, the impulse to check email, buy something you didn’t need, or goggle at images of the unattainable was there—but at least there was the annoying tocsin of dial-up connection to awake you to your time-wasting. With broadband it became seamless: one second you were struggling over a sentence, the next you were buying oven gloves.

I find it strange that Self makes it sound as though he went from wrestling with a rather feisty sentence to placing an order for (probably overpriced) oven mitts without making the choice to do so, as if his life flash cut from the notebook to Amazon’s homepage. When we talk about the future of ‘serious’ reading and writing, the question that needs to be asked is how do we live with the incessant distractions, since the web isn’t leaving us any time soon.