The “death” of the “serious novel”, and other assorted quotation marks

Will Self recently wrote that the “serious novel” as a popular art form is dead (The Guardian, 2 May 2014). “The serious novel will continue to be written and read, but it will be an art form on a par with easel painting or classical music: confined to a defined social and demographic group, requiring a degree of subsidy, a subject for historical scholarship rather than public discourse.” With reference to research into the contemporary publishing world, evaluate to what extent you think that Self is right, what the problems with his view might be, and what the implications may be for you as writer.

 “It’s not about content,” Self told Newsnight presenter Laura Kuenssberg, when he appeared on BBC2’s flagship news programme to discuss his dire prognosis for the future of the novel. “It’s about human psychology.”[1] To illustrate his point, he cites James Joyce’s Ulysses as being “freighted with things that even a well-educated, intelligent general reader simply will not understand on the first, second, third or even fourth pass through the novel.” What he is suggesting is that today’s readers are no longer equipped with the mental faculties necessary for close reading – not because we have got somehow stupider, but because the world around us has changed so drastically as to fundamentally alter our psychology, as the primacy of the page has been usurped by a wealth of diverse media, generally less demanding of commitment than a bulky tome. We are witnessing, writes Self in his Guardian piece, the death of the Gutenberg Mind[2].

He refers to the theories of Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan, whose studies into communication theory produced the axiom “the medium is the message”[3] – an idea, somewhat reminiscent of Marx’s material conception of history but unlikely overtly inspired by Marxist thought, which claims that the way people live and think is dictated by the technologies available to them. Hence, those living in the centuries following Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1450 were brought up to have a Gutenberg Mind acclimatised to the printed word, which has now been superseded by the mind-set of what McLuhan dubbed the “electric age”[4]. Self describes the “deep” reading process of a Gutenberger thusly; “when she experiences difficulties with a text – the meaning is obscure, the syntax confused and the allusions unknown to her – she either struggles until she comprehends, or, if she is utterly stumped, she consults another book.”[5] There is no doubt that digital media has knocked the novel’s status down a few pegs from “the prince of artforms, the cultural capstone and the apogee of creative endeavour”[6], but Self goes so far as to say that “the advent of digital media is not simply destructive of the codex, but of the Gutenberg mind itself.” In McLuhan’s electric age, some specialist minds might be able to handle the dense complexities of Ulysses, but few will actively find pleasure in deciphering them.

Self bemoans the decentralisation of “the high arts” in our culture, saying that “those who reject (them) feel not merely entitled to their opinion, but wholly justified in it.” According to his thesis, “the hallmark of our contemporary culture is an active resistance to difficulty in all its aesthetic manifestations, accompanied by a sense of grievance that conflates it with political elitism” producing a kind of inferiority complex wherein people view highbrow literature as the domain of just as much of an exclusionist elite as genuine vested interests like solipsistic bankers and their friends in politics; why else would it be written in terms that supposedly exclude the, so to speak, “common man”? Indeed, Self has said the lexis he draws from is not to the taste of many of his readers; “”I have to look (some of the words) up in a dictionary”, they complain – as if this were some kind of torture.”[7] It would be hard to argue that Self’s writing is not somewhat “difficult” – his latest novel, Shark, is one long perspective-shifting paragraph that eschews such apparent spoon-feeding of the audience as quotation marks – but it is equally hard to come away from reading his work without a noticeably expanded vocabulary (indeed, in the article this piece concerns Self uses words like “Panglossian” and “melioristic”…in the same sentence.) He undoubtedly keeps his readers on their toes, but could never be accused of insulting their intelligence; few contemporary writers are as trusting of people to read their work for the sake of sheer intellectual stimulation.

If we are to take it, then, that an example of a “serious novelist” is Will Self, then so too must his influences be; Joyce[8], JG Ballard[9], William S. Burroughs[10] – people who generally had little time for writing within the parameters of conventional narrative form or producing, in the parlance of the popular Amazon-owned “social cataloguing” website, a good read.[11] Self’s definition of “serious” literature as a novel that challenges the reader and requires a degree of study is laudable from a sort of freewheeling artistic perspective, but appears to overlook that people expect certain things from narrative media because of the very conditioning of the mind that he and McLuhan have both written about, and that he feels is driving people away from the novel. Surely a special respect must be reserved for writers who can convey ideas of consequence in accessible or even enjoyable terms.

He has a point that in the past, whilst “this is not to say that everyone walked the streets with their head buried in Ulysses or To the Lighthouse[12] many would have read challenging books as cultural touchstones. Now literature that demands any sort of close analysis has definitively morphed into a “specialist pursuit” – if somebody who has not studied literature wishes to immerse themselves in a well-told story for a long period of time, a boxed set of Breaking Bad requires less checking of CliffsNotes than Finnegans Wake (of course, if this hypothetical viewer wishes to read an in-depth critique of Breaking Bad, websites like the AV Club[13] afford television programmes a level of critical scrutiny once the preserve of the novel). But whilst the Joyces of the future (and Joyce seems to be cited invariably by Self and McLuhan[14] alike as the epitome of the serious novelist) might struggle to get their voices heard, the appeal of certain types of literature shows no sign of flagging. By Self’s amusing estimation, “the kidult boywizardsroman and the soft sadomasochistic porn fantasy are clearly in rude good health”[15] and the novel driven by “suspense, sex or violence”[16] will certainly survive, but perhaps the personality-driven era of author as auteur might be coming to an end, marginalising authors who, like Self, “write for those who are interested in reading what I write.”[17]

Somebody who might have disagreed with Self on his definition of “serious literature” was George Orwell who, in his essay Politics and the English Language, warned writers against sullying the meaning of their prose with obfuscatory verbal gymnastics. “The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not,” he said, lambasting writers who eschewed a clear turn of phrase in favour of an unrestrained verbosity. “As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think in terms of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated birdhouse.”[18]

Orwell rightly targeted many tiresome literary tics, but his argument is no less ripe for picking apart than Self’s. Some of his quibbles with individual words, such as the way writers “pretentiously” used “phenomenon” or “primary” sound simply pedantic, his attempts at setting rules (which he basically admits would be impossible to follow) Puritanical, and his parochial disgruntlement at the Latinisation of the amalgamation of Celtic, Germanic, Norman and, yes, Latin tongues we speak has been riposted indirectly but succinctly by Self himself on the BBC’s A Point of View; “I’d point out that my texts were as full of resolutely Anglo-Saxon slang as they were the flowery and the Latinate. I’d observe that English, being a mishmash of several different languages, had a large and exciting vocabulary, and that it seemed a shame not to use it.”[19] The biggest issue with the thrust of Orwell’s essay, however, is his assumption that there is such thing as a common English dialect shared en masse by its speakers, when the language is in fact amorphous, highly adaptable and varies depending on region or circumstance. McLuhan wrote of the way a homogenous “high tone” in literature distorts the language; that “permeation of the colloquial language with literate uniform qualities has flattened out educated speech till (sic) it is a very reasonable facsimile of the uniform and continuous visual effects of typography.”[20]

george-orwell-bbc
“I have never been able to dislike Hitler” – George Orwell

Christening him Britain’s “Supreme Mediocrity” (although praising sections[21] of his bibliography) Self highlights the flaws in Orwell’s perspective in a 2014 essay[22], saying that “since 1946, when Orwell’s essay was published, English has continued to grow and mutate, a great voracious beast of a tongue, snaffling up vocabulary, locutions and syntactical forms from the other languages it feeds on. There are more ways of saying more things in English than ever, and it follows perfectly logically that more people are shaping this versatile instrument for their purposes.” He concludes that Politics and the English Language is ultimately “small ‘c’ conservative” and that Orwell and his acolytes would “rather peer at meaning by the guttering candlelight of a Standard English frozen in time, than have it brightly illumined by the high-wattage of the living, changing language.”

For all their ubiquity as public figures, Self has something in common with his posthumous nemesis Orwell in that their novels – their ultimate passion as writers – during their lifetimes have not been read quite as widely as their journalism. When one observes the kind of book that actually does sell, Waterstones’ Top 10 Bestseller list[23] runs the gamut from the 9th in the children’s series Diary of a Wimpy Kid to Russell Brand’s political diatribe Revolution, with nothing in the way of “serious” literature in sight; instead, there are memoirs to spare, entries in lucrative series (such as the latest in George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones saga) and populist potboilers like Gillian Flynn’s recently dramatised Gone Girl and the latest from Stephen King. If this is the literary scene we have before us, what’s to say there’s nothing serious or artistic about writing particularly well within a genre? JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series was a gigantic allegory against fascism and racism, albeit told in the form of a magical adolescent adventure. Hilary Mantel’s historical fiction recently moved controversially[24] into recent history with the publication of her short story The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher; a daring move for a mainstream author whose work continually resonates with Thatcher-loving Middle England[25]. One must also recognise the conspicuous volume of most books by Rowling or Mantel; call it a lack of self-discipline or editors unwilling to say no to their biggest cash-cows, but as their epic novels unfold the authors prove themselves willing to dwell on the most tangential flight of fancy to practically Selfian levels. And, of course, going back to Brand’s new book, it may not be a novel, but “serious” people of a certain political persuasion should feel relieved that a book about economic inequality and ingrained elites has achieved popular success; even though a pop cultural personality like Brand may not convey the message to the satisfaction of the intelligentsia.

Perhaps the death of the novel might result in the rise of such ostensibly factual or opinion-based writing, and along with that the explicit “message”. Brand’s book will diagnose society’s ills in no uncertain terms, but in a Will Self novel “there are ideas, but no ‘message’ if you mean something that could be written on a fortune telling card.”[26] With the decline of long-form writing heralded by the constant, attention-sapping stream of surely enlightening articles that flood our social media feeds, perhaps the general reading public has lost patience with writers who are inclined to beat around the bush – for all the epic lengths of Rowling or Mantel, there is a certain clarity about their prose. Then again, as Self says, this isn’t really about content, about “difficult vs. easy narrative fiction”. It’s about, he says, “the impact of digital media and the web.”[27] Recall the Gutenberg Mind, the way “the reader discovers the meaning of the text, taking negation as his starting point; he discovers a new reality through a fiction which, at least in part, is different from the world he himself is used to; and he discovers the deficiencies inherent in prevalent norms and in his own restricted behaviour.”[28] With our brains no longer hard-wired to interact with the arguably archaic medium, the page could seem increasingly unappealing; a cold, unengaging, static, monochromatic block of words that no longer provoke in their readers the creative power of the imagination.

Besides, people have been predicting the Death of the Novel since time immemorial or, at least, with a growing frequency throughout the last century. The cries were particularly audible as the British Empire collapsed in the wake of two World Wars, and with it the hegemony of the colonialist mentality, but these complaints overlooked such developments as the boom in magical realist literature in South and Central America, which later led Salman Rushdie to comment that “only a Western European intellectual would compose a lament for an entire artform on the basis that the literatures of, say, England, France, Germany, Spain and Italy were no longer the most interesting on earth.”[29] The novel has lived such a long and storied existence, and has been supplanted by so many new forms of media, that it’s wholly natural that its place in the cultural pantheon might be somewhat doomed; as McLuhan said, “a new medium is never an addition to an old one, nor does it leave the old one in peace.”[30] Indeed, with our conception of the novel so well-defined by the 19th century, writers throughout the subsequent hundred years tried their utmost to rebel against its conventions and traditional structures, which accounts for the development of the modernist movement; producing works such as Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, referenced repeatedly by Self as the seeming apotheosis of the novel as serious artform. Finnegans Wake is written of as everything that the culture of the printed word was leading up to and, whilst Self declares that “many fine novels have been written” in the three-quarters of a century since its publication, he would contend that these were “zombie novels, instances of an undead artform that yet wouldn’t lie down.”[31] Here he appears to lament a decline in opportunities for innovation, as contemporary writers who endeavour to push the limits of prose as the great modernists did have little chance of attaining any meaningful cultural relevance.

una-scena-di-inland-empire-45944
Not even anywhere near the trippiest bit in David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006)

Today, people are swamped by such a deluge of simply enjoyable media that it’s increasingly hard to fit into one’s schedule something that provokes a lengthy battle between page and brain. Other artforms do not leave this incredible new proliferation of media unscathed, either. Whilst I think, for example, there’s something to be said for David Lynch’s three-hour surrealist headache Inland Empire (2006), I can’t imagine many would join me in my appreciation of a film so impenetrably “difficult” it practically screams out for analysis; the images can only be so interesting before the length takes its toll and the mind wanders. In an interview, Self conceded that there was an element of old fogeydom to his worries; that “new literary forms will indeed emerge, ones suited for bi-directional media. They will be interesting, and I’ll be interested to see them, but as someone educated and trained to write paper books they won’t be for me.”[32] But even his original statement is not too hyperbolic, in which he admits that books will still be written and read for years to come. This is no sudden execution – some swift guillotine chop to the neck of the literary culture – but a gradual, Dodo-like extinction that began long ago, much earlier in McLuhan’s electric age, when the literary evolved past its former cultural epicentrality.

To be a novelist is effectively no longer a profession; even Self, one of the most prominent novelists in Britain, must subsidise his precipitously dropping royalties as a journalist of Orwellian prolificacy[33] [34], and in his position as Professor of Contemporary Thought at Brunel University. As a writer, it is disheartening to see somebody who has accomplished as much with the printed word as Self call time on the medium, but I am fundamentally a realist; television series are becoming the masses’ preferred type of long-form narrative, and to me it seems unconscionably betrothed to an outdated way of thinking to say that The Wire and The Thick Of It don’t represent the pinnacle of modern artistry because they were transmitted on the Idiot Box rather than the page. To convince oneself that the publishing industry is operating within a remotely similar paradigm to twenty, even ten years ago requires, frankly, a level of delusion of which I am not capable and, although I intend to keep churning out prose for an audience of approximately myself, I find Self’s argument a bleak but essentially strong one. When the success of novels is determined by the cold, hard, market data of the monetised internet, because Amazon’s UK book sales are “worth roughly the same as the value of sales through all terrestrial bookshops put together[35],” –with their EBook sales encompassing 90% of that market – the ways that a flailing, increasing monopolised industry is killing the novel as an artform are in full evidence, but its primacy has already been sacrificed in favour of fundamental readjustments in society; ones which make it highly unlikely to reclaim its position at the forefront of human creation. And, from my cautious point of view, unless you want to be bitterly disappointed, better to be a pessimist than a Panglossian meliorist.

 

Bibliography

Articles and Essays

Clee, N. (2014). How I learned to stop worrying and love Amazon. [online] Newstatesman.com. Available at: http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2013/12/how-i-learned-stop-worrying-and-love-amazon [Accessed 26 Nov. 2014].

Flood, A. (2014). JK Rowling’s alter ego makes longlist for €100,000 Impac award. The Guardian. [online] Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/nov/25/jk-rowling-robert-galbraith-makes-longlist-for-100000-impac-award-harry-potter#start-of-comments [Accessed 26 Nov. 2014].

Keep, C., McLaughlin, T. and Parmar, R. (2000). Marshall McLuhan and The Gutenberg Galaxy. [online] Www2.iath.virginia.edu. Available at: http://www2.iath.virginia.edu/elab/hfl0232.html [Accessed 26 Nov. 2014].

Kirsch, A. (2014). Technology Is Taking Over English Departments. [online] New Republic. Available at: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/117428/limits-digital-humanities-adam-kirsch [Accessed 26 Nov. 2014].

Letts, Q. (2014). Superb! A groaning banquet of political shenanigans: Quentin Letts reviews the stage adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s award-winning novel. The Daily Mail. [online] Available at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2536169/Superb-A-groaning-banquet-political-shenanigans-Quentin-Letts-reviews-stage-adaptation-Hilary-Mantels-award-winning-novel.html [Accessed 27 Nov. 2014].

Murray, J. (2014). Books | An interview with Will Self | The Gryphon. [online] Thegryphon.co.uk. Available at: http://www.thegryphon.co.uk/2014/10/books-an-interview-with-will-self/ [Accessed 26 Nov. 2014].

Norton, J. and Robinson, J. (2014). My fantasies about killing Margaret Thatcher inspired my new short story about her assassination, says best-selling author Hilary Mantel. The Daily Mail. [online] Available at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2763111/How-I-fantasised-killing-Margaret-Thatcher-best-selling-author-Hilary-Mantel.html [Accessed 27 Nov. 2014].

Orwell, G. (1946). Politics and the English Language. Horizon, 13(76), pp.252-265.

Packer, G. (2014). Cheap Words – The New Yorker. [online] The New Yorker. Available at: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/02/17/cheap-words?currentPage=all [Accessed 26 Nov. 2014].

Self, W. (2012). In defence of obscure words. [online] BBC News. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17777556 [Accessed 27 Nov. 2014].

Self, W. (2012). Modernism and me. The Guardian. [online] Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/aug/03/will-self-modernism-and-me [Accessed 26 Nov. 2014].

Self, W. (2013). Will Self on JG Ballard’s ‘The Drowned World’. The Daily Telegraph. [online] Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10273413/Will-Self-on-JG-Ballards-The-Drowned-World.html [Accessed 27 Nov. 2014].

Self, W. (2014). The fate of our literary culture is sealed. The Guardian. [online] Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/oct/03/fate-literary-culture-sealed-internet-will-self [Accessed 26 Nov. 2014].

Self, W. (2014). The novel is dead (this time it’s for real). The Guardian. [online] Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/may/02/will-self-novel-dead-literary-fiction [Accessed 26 Nov. 2014].

Self, W. (2014). Why Orwell was a literary mediocrity. [online] BBC News. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-28971276 [Accessed 26 Nov. 2014].

Self, W. (2014). William Burroughs – the original Junkie. The Guardian. [online] Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/feb/01/william-burroughs-junky-will-self [Accessed 27 Nov. 2014].

Strate, L. (2011). Marshall McLuhan’s message was imbued with conservatism. The Guardian. [online] Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/jul/26/marshall-mcluhan-conservatism-medium-is-message [Accessed 26 Nov. 2014].

Books

Iser, W. (1974). The Implied Reader. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Joyce, J. (1930). Ulysses. Zurich: Rhein-Verlag.

Joyce, J. (1939). Finnegans Wake. New York: The Viking Press.

MacKay, M. (2011). The Cambridge Introduction to the Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mantel, H. (2014). The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. London: Fourth Estate.

McLuhan, M. (1962). The Gutenberg Galaxy. [Toronto]: University of Toronto Press.

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Orwell, G. (1961). Down and out in Paris and London. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Roberts, A. (1993). The Novel. London: Bloomsbury.

Self, W. (1995). The Quantity Theory of Insanity. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.

Self, W. (2011). Walking to Hollywood. New York: Grove Press.

Self, W. (2014). Shark. London [u.a.]: Viking.

Websites

Avclub.com, (n.d.). The A.V. Club. [online] Available at: http://www.avclub.com/ [Accessed 27 Nov. 2014].

Goodreads, (n.d.). Goodreads. [online] Available at: http://www.goodreads.com/ [Accessed 27 Nov. 2014].

Self, W. (2014). New Statesman | Will Self. [online] Newstatesman.com. Available at: http://www.newstatesman.com/writers/will_self [Accessed 28 Nov. 2014].

Self, W. (2014). Will Self | Global | The Guardian. [online] the Guardian. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/profile/will-self [Accessed 27 Nov. 2014].

Waterstones.com, (2014). Bestsellers | Our Bestselling and Most Popular Books | Waterstones.com. [online] Available at: http://www.waterstones.com/waterstonesweb/bestSellersCategory.do?searchType=7 [Accessed 26 Nov. 2014].

Videos and Films

Inland Empire. (2006). [film] USA: David Lynch.

Self, W. (2014). Will Self on book reading in 21st Century (02May14). [online] YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3w478daLAZM [Accessed 27 Nov. 2014].

[1] (Self, 2014a)

[2] (Self, 2014b)

[3] (Keep, McLaughlin and Parmar, 2000)

[4] (McLuhan, 1964, pp. 173)

[5] (Self, 2014b)

[6] (Self, 2014b)

[7] (Self, 2012a)

[8] (Self, 2012b)

[9] (Self, 2013)

[10] (Self, 2014d)

[11] https://www.goodreads.com/

[12] (Self, 2014b)

[13] http://www.avclub.com/

[14] (McLuhan, 1964, pp.172)

[15] (Self, 2014b)

[16] (Self, 2014a)

[17] (Murray, 2014)

[18] (Orwell, 1946)

[19] (Self, 2012)

[20] (McLuhan, 1964)

[21] (Orwell, G. 1961. Down and Out in Paris and London. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.)

[22] (Self, 2014c)

[23] (Waterstones.com, 2014)

[24] (Norton and Robinson, 2014)

[25] (Letts, 2014)

[26] (Murray, 2014)

[27] (Self, 2014a)

[28] (Isher, 1974)

[29] (MacKay, 2011)

[30] (McLuhan, 1964, pp. 174)

[31] (Self, 2014b)

[32] (Murray, 2014)

[33] http://www.newstatesman.com/writers/will_self

[34] http://www.theguardian.com/profile/will-self

[35] (Clee, 2014)

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