Great television is taking over the space occupied by many novels, and taking with them many excellent writers. And by and large, it’s delivering the same rewards to its audience. But what about novels that exploit the opportunities that are available only to the form of the novel, such as novels that explore interiority, or rely on the novel’s versatile treatment of time and causation? Who will speak for such novels?
If I seem reluctant to sound the alarm for the demise of the literary novel, even as a novelist myself, it is because modern fiction, particularly English-language fiction, has moved in the direction of the televisual, anyway. Much so-called literary fiction is evidently written with an eye to an option for film or TV adaptation. The response to the challenges from television and other media has been to become more like the offerings of those media. In some ways, this is understandable behavior on the part of each novelist. For all but a tiny few, it’s nearly impossible to make anything even approaching a living from writing literary fiction. But the effect of this in aggregate is to leave much of modern fiction looking like an inferior version of TV. If novelists are relinquishing the very things that are exclusively the province of the novel, then they are complicit in the demise of the novel. If they don’t want to save the novel, why should anyone else?
It's hard to make a living writing fiction, since the market for it dwindles ever more. There's more to read, more to watch, more to play, more to do than just read books, but reading books provide something you can't get from watching TV or playing video games or what have you. Not that they're superior experiences — that's up to the individual experience and the individual experiencer — but that they are singular experiences.
It doesn't surprise me, then, that making a work inherently that much more adaptable is a good way to turn what otherwise would be a marginal hobby into a way of life. This led me to think maybe the problem isn't in the work habits, but in the expectations; maybe the better thing to do is to treat literary fiction like a hobby and not a vocation, because we know the demand for it is correspondingly narrow, and we shouldn't be in the business of making social guarantees for people who want to do something that isn't all that monetizable.
Here's the problem I have with that argument: it argues for putting the creation of literary fiction all the more into the hands of people who have nothing but time for it. And the people who have nothing but time for it tend to come from a specific well-heeled slice of society, one that isn't known for bringing more than a certain number of points of view to the table.
So another of the side effects of marginalizing fiction is how it ends up coming from not just that many less people, but that many less kinds of people. It means that many less voices; it means that many less points of view; it means that many less kinds of fiction, period. It means things have to be attuned all the more to sell, not express or examine. What we gain in diversity of experiences overall, we lose again in terms of the diversity of those specific experiences.
I don't have an answer to this part of the quandary. What I do know is that I can't in good faith tell people the best way to take their art seriously is to not try to make a living from it. I decided long ago that I was gonna keep my day job, but I know full well having a good day job that doesn't eat too badly into my spare time is a privilege many do not have. My reasons won't map to the world at large, and I absolutely can't advocate for them as a program.
I keep coming back to the idea that what's needed now is not necessarily more books, but better readers, better advocates for the good things that are already out there, better ways to find the things that matter and learn from them. If it falls to readers to save the novel, so be it. Readers who can in turn preserve the best aspects of what a novel can be about, and transmit that to the next generation of writers, who need as many good examples to draw on as they can get.
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Other Lives Of The Mind