WHY THE NOVEL ISN’T DEAD – A RESPONSE TO WILL SELF

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‘The novel is dead!’ cries Will Self. Well, that’s what the headline says, but I’m sure it was changed by a sub-editor from ‘Egad, tomes of non-legitimate truth are imperilled in this epoch of binary horror!’

If you don’t know Will Self, he’s the not very smiley author who, contrary to the advice of George Orwell, will use many long words when a simple one will do. And he’s used quite a few of these long words in his article about the death of the novel. And, beneath all the purposefully difficult words, he actually has a few good points. The problem is, his article is sitting under the wrong headline. He’s not saying that books are dead, it’s the novel as a format, is dead.

A big difference that. And shame on the sub-editor for using such Daily Mail-esque baiting headline.

This whole ‘the novel is dead’ business is rolled out every now and again by the same people who tell you the we’re due our hottest/wettest/coldest winter/summer blah blah blah. You’ve seen these modern day nostradamus’s trot this gumf out everytime there’s a slow news week or some column inches to fill. ‘Hey everyone! It’s the apocalypse. Again!’

Yawn.

The truth is that a) there are far more important things to worry about in the world and b) that anybody who says novels/books/libraries are dying out doesn’t understand the world they live in anymore.

Books/stories will always be there but the way they are brought to us may change. Music didn’t die when cassettes went out, did it? Sure, the music industry has changed but people want more music now than ever. The demand for the product hasn’t gone, and that’s a key point against Self’s article is that nothing can die when demand is sky high.

But as Self points out, he’s not saying stories are dying but the format of the novel is dying.

So, what is a novel?

It may surprise you to learn that novels aren’t as old as you think. Stories are as old as we are, but the ‘novel’ format as we know it, only dates back to the early 1700s (in English at least). Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels are often held up as very early examples of the ‘novel’ form. And this format has done us well for a few hundred years, but now with the invention of wifi, the internet and a million other digital distractions the novel is under threat, and likely to be superseded by something more in-tune with our twenty-first century touch-screen savvy tastes.

And is that such a bad thing, really? As mentioned before on this blog, we live in an exciting age where learning is easier and more readably accessible than ever. Kindle’s allow us to look up words we are unfamiliar with instantly (there’s an inbuilt dictionary function), twenty-first century literature can run deeper and wider than ever before because it will be harder to lose a reader as they’ll be so many links for them to click on in a novel to keep them afloat. Sure, if they keep clicking out they’ll lose the plot and likely not finish the book, but how else do people improve? How else do you learn?

Will Self also seems upset about the publishing model and the threat of self-publishing, lamenting the fact the publishers and other gatekeepers of literature, the old guard, are being overrun by hungry, enthusiastic self-publishers.

Again, is that a bad thing?

Sure, self-publishing has its problems. Quality control being the biggest one. But it won’t kill mainstream publishing, if anything it will strengthen it, as more and more good books get discovered that slipped the net. And self-publishing will open doors to new and exciting genres and styles that would normally scare publishers who have to worry about commercial success and cold hard cash.

So, to Will Self an others, I say this. Can’t you see you’re in a golden age? This is literature’s punk moment. The stuffiness and rigidity of all that has gone before can be overcome by the enthusiasm and bright ideas of hungry eager self-publishers. Some will publish crap, some will publish work sadly overlooked, but stories will keep coming, in novel form, or electronic means hitherto unknown. So, boo to you, naysayers, see publishing for what is right now, a richer and more vibrant creative space than at any other time in publishing history.

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