In the September 24, 2015 issue of the New York Review of Books, Jed Perl writes about the current state of an art form that has been declared dead or dying many times. That would be painting.
He quotes painter David Salle: "The web's frenetic sprawl is opposite to the type of focus required to make a painting." The seemingly overwhelming influences of contemporary technology, branding and advertising, streaming devices, electronic games, the cloud and so on represent a collective threat to the time-honored traditions and deep emotional expression of oil painting.
Perl agrees that the threat exists, yet his opening line is, "Like the reports of the end of history that we have been hearing, the many reports of the death of painting have no basis in reality." He then follows with a convincing and very refreshing description of the fine high health of painting in these times, despite how it may appear at first glance. "For this very reason painting becomes a steadying force--a source for stability in an art world were everything can seem to be up for grabs."
Like the worry that painting is in assisted living, a similar knell has been ringing in recognition of the loss of the novel.
The six major publishing conglomerates in the world seem so inflamed by sales goals that fiction is accepted by them, more or less entirely, only when it fits certain cubbyholes in which, it turns out, seriously poor writing is thriving. The holes are labeled with unfortunate names: chick-lit, dystopian, paranormal, Christian, the end-time, the rapture and so on. So we're treated every day with the violent demise of the entire world. Terrifying extraterrestrial robots destroy us all. We crawl through the smoking aftermath of the nuclear holocaust. Ghosts from beyond steal our souls. Blood-sucking undeads eat them, along with our entrails. Frothy young girls behave with frightful meanness to each other at school.
My unscientific survey of this phenomenon has revealed to me that none of the characters in these books seems to have ever read a book. Particularly, of course, the robots. This appears to be so as well in the case of the writers of such stories. There is little serious soul-searching in any of this almost universally bad writing. (An argument can be put forth that successful soul-searching in a novel is made possible only with good writing.) Conversation is monosyllabic. Plots depend on explosions rather than the heart's understanding. The reader wades through floods of carnal waste. We celebrate the use of automatic repeating rifles and other weaponry that spread that waste far afield. We are regaled with imbecilic dialogue.
Worst of all, in the case of so much chick-lit, we observe a wholesale attempt to erase the notion that girls are capable of thought, adventuresome experiment, inquisitive inventiveness, speech that has intellectual depth, and true love. The fact is that girls aren't worth much in any of these cubbyholes...except if they're well armed.
So...is the novel...? Could it possibly be that novels...?
I've worried excessively over their current health because I write them. The ones that mean the most to me, and which I attempt to emulate in my own writing, are those that feature families or other cohesive social groups (in my case, failed artists, Borneo natives, the Irish and New Yorkers, to name a few) in complicated social situations that bring out creative inventiveness or gloriously dashed hopes on the part of the main characters. Sometimes the inventiveness results in a happy ending (as in Pride and Prejudice) while in others, the dashed hopes bring about total disaster (The House of Mirth).
The beauty of such novels emerges when the author writes so well that we find the characters' ultimate fates entirely believable and, above all, completely engaging of our sympathy. When Elizabeth Bennett marries Fitzwilliam Darcy, I celebrate. When Lily Bart takes that vial of poison, I weep. I thoroughly believe what has happened, and in what both authors have done.
I don't find this kind of engagement in novels that feature the undead.
But I believe there is no sense in bemoaning the death of the novel. Even though the publishing giants have so restricted the kinds of novels that they'll produce, they still succeed now and then in doing something terrific. Anthony Doerr's All The Light We Cannot See, for instance.
When I was getting my education in English literature and reading Austen, Dickens and all the others, I knew nothing about the actual history of the publishing business, and thought that all the authors in those times must have been attempting to operate at the level of these greats. Surely there was bad writing, but it couldn't have been very plentiful. Now, though, after having made an effort to study that history, I realize that scribblers, blockheads and jobbernowls were plentiful in the past, just as they are now, thanks to the efforts of the major publishers. Plenty of awful writing existed in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. So the efforts of greats like Austen emerged from a vast sea of silly verbiage being strewn across the page by others, just as does that of the fine writers--and there are more of them than you may think--who are at work now.
Also, as an interesting alternative, we can consider what a well-known New York literary agent whom I know said to me recently: "The great literature of the 21st century will have come from outside the major publishing scene, and there will be a lot of it."
Terence Clarke's latest novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro was published this year.