In the last post, “The Angels Within,” I discussed the relationship of fiction (and literature) with the human condition. Kermode and Vargas Llosa argued that fiction filled a gap between who we are and who we want to be. Considering that economics is the study of human behavior and our choices in a world filled with scarcity, it ought to shed some light on our humanity to figure out how fiction serves these needs and if it continues to do so today.
Many authors believe it does not.
According to the Wikipedia article on the “Death of the Novel,” certainly the definitive source on the subject, authors have hypothesized the impending death of the novel for years. Critics as renowned as Barthes and authors as notorious as Vidal have weighed in on the subject. Actually, the article has some interesting notes that I wish to tie together. The article mentions various persons’ theories for the death of the novel, including “the rise of nihilism in European culture,” there being no significant people to write about, and “the mortality of the post-war generation of American novelists.”
All of these explanations are right. They each shed different light on the fundamental cause of the death of the novel, which, while perhaps exaggerated in scope, has indeed come to pass.
First, the nihilists. The rise of nihilism in European culture has not been limited to Europe; it has extended through to the entire West, and have no doubt, it will metastasize to the rest of the world as “progress” continues apace. The nihilism of European culture is not really consistent philosophical nihilism as such, rather it is an overweening meandering over the discursive landscape full of meaningless regurgitations, aphorisms, and moanings of half-formed ideas as though they are deep insights. Poppycock. It is no coincidence that this pervades the left-loving intelligentsia at the same time that the cost to the formation and transmission of information shoots through the floor. The staggering promulgation of media smashed the entrenched fragmented ethical hierarchies, thereby sweeping away the anchors of meaning and culture. The vapid utterings of so-called European nihilists remains.
Second, are there really no more important people to write about? Granted, it would be hard to come up with another Douglas MacArthur, of whom biographer Geoffrey Perret once wrote that he lived the most interesting American life. But the popularity of biography has not waned. Could this point be related to the nihilist point…? Perhaps there are merely no significant people to write about in the wake of determinism and the inevitability of history a la Marx. Since the argument is ludicrous on its face, we can dispense with it, but let us remember it for the sake of discussion later on.
Third, the mortality of post-war American novelists. I think that it might be a bit presumptuous to assume that the novel is dying because post-war American novelists are dying. New markets for literature are opening up all around the world as the cost to creating and publishing literature continues to decline. Some of my most interesting times in Indonesia were spent translating novels (although some of my worst times in Indonesia were doing the same… thinking of the translations of various Japanese novels far better read in their native language or English…). Putting that aside, the author’s mocking point was that “when a solipsist dies, after all, everything goes with him,” meaning that when the post-war generation died, the novels the like of which they penned die with them. The author may have unwittingly been right, but for the wrong reasons.
Entrepreneurs loaded the gun. Politicians like Reagan and Thatcher negligently waved the gun around shooting wildly. And so: Capitalism killed the novel. Some might not long mourn its departure, believing that nothing intrinsic about the novel was particularly valuable. This would be a mistake. Just as haiku, typically 17 syllables, matches the average length of a human utterance of 16-18 syllables, implying that the form of haiku conformed to an organic essence of humanity, so too did the novel conform to an essence of humanity. Just what that essence is must be the subject of another post.
Simply, there are two related problems for novels. One, other media (journalism, non-fiction, television, etc.) now tell the tales once told by novels more succinctly, which appeals to the West, a world in which the opportunity cost of time has quickly risen just as surely as information costs have precipitously dropped. The value of a tale as long and convoluted as War and Peace no longer seems as great as the value of reading three books on completely different subjects or more relevant NYT bestsellers or learning three foreign languages (which is probably what I could have done in the time it took me to deal with Tolstoy). And are we really that interested in realist fiction? No. What does it do for me that these new media don’t do better? Nothing. Two, the subject matter of novels that may best belong to novels — long tales of love, heroism, adventure, tragedy, romance, and even science fiction — can only be done so many times in so many ways before the demand in the market decreases. Now, of course the novel is not going anywhere and it is not really dead. This is what I meant by the exaggeration of the claim in terms of scope. However, as a percentage of the total fiction being created, the percentage must have waned over the past few years. There is nothing to suggest it will stop. Why would I read about a fake general whose life includes epic campaigns for freedom on three different continents over fifty years whose extraordinary rise was just as brilliant as his meteoric fall when I could just read about Douglas MacArthur? Take this example from Old Soldiers Never Die:
The general was the quintessential twentieth-century incarnation of the tragic hero as immortalized by great playwrights down the ages. MacArthur’s complex nature and dramatic life made him the living breathing brother of Coriolanus, Hamlet or Macbeth. Like the tragic heroes of the theater, he would finally be brought down not by his enemies but by an immutable fault line that ran through the bedrock of his character. When the SCAP got airborne from this remote coral island, MacArthur was set on a direct course to the ultimate destination of all tragic heroes: the spectacular, irreversible fall.
Ho! I’ll take another non-fiction biography, please. There are other benefits to reading these books over fictionalized versions. I learn history that I can talk about with other people that goes beyond dreamy (or dreary) discussions on character, the inevitable lessons that such fiction might have to offer. Now I can discuss real consequences as well as the imagined. That’s not a trivial benefit that factors into people’s economic cost-benefit analysis when deciding between fiction and “non-fiction.” So this is not at all to say that there has been a death of fiction, for as Milosz says, even completely factual biography is all fiction. But it is to say that the relative benefits of novels, whose ideas have been cast and recast in many ways, now pales compared to the relative benefits of non-fiction (a type of fiction in our terms) because its stories are always unique as well as useful in ways novels never could be.
This suggests many things. I think amongst them is that as novelists attempt to distinguish themselves from other novelists and their conventions for profit (profit need not be financial, it could be artistic satisfaction), they will adopt increasingly unconventional styles and themes. Unconventional styles could include narrative structure, the prose, or even settings. I am reminded again of Indonesia. While there, I had one particularly rewarding experience was translating Saman by Ayu Utami, an experience I don’t think I am likely to soon forget. It provided me with many colorful phrases that I would cannibalize for my own use of Bahasa. The words that conclude the book are frankly unfit to print, in any language (which makes me wonder about the seemingly demure young man and woman who recommended it to me), but it reminds me a lot of Night by Bilge Karasu, a Turkish writer. Both novels have met with wild acclaim and both jar the reader (see the NYT review’s take on this) with substantial leaps across time and frame of reference. At the end of both novels I was exhausted, but in an oddly satisfied way. Both novels continued to haunt me for years, and, in fact, haunt me to this day. We should expect more of it.
We may also expect the continued swelling of importance for journalism, be it by blog, radio wave, or television. Tom Wolfe, a tremendous novelist, lazily warns of the very real demise of the novel in a five part series on Peter Robinson’s Uncommon Knowledge series hosted on National Review. Wolfe described the problem as follows:
Right here, as we speak, the novel is dying a horrible death. It really is. It’s had it. And soon it’ll be in the same position as epic poetry was in the early 19th century. That had always been the great genre. But non-fiction will continue. And the memoir and autobiography will never die, never has died. And they’re interesting because they’re like Wikipedia, some of it may be true.
Robinson asks an excellent question related to my aims in this post, “When did it happen that in this country that the formative novelist, the great novelist is Mark Twain, when did it happen that American letters became possessed of precious, little stories instead of big, boisterous stories that fit the temper of the country itself?”
It happened soon after the Second World War. There was a key essay by Lionel Trilling, who was a [Professor at Columbia] who also had a huge following among, let us call, the “charming aristrocracy” and he said the day of the realistic novel is over. Its been done, its been done to death, and besides, we live in a fractured society now and you cannot do a slice of life and pretend that this slice of life is giving you all the life int he country. The future of the novel is in the novel of ideas.
Wolfe goes on to give some early novels of the late Norman Mailer as examples of this, including Barbary Coast. Robinson points out that Updike and Mailer criticize Wolfe’s work as journalism, not literature. Wolfe responds:
Something like journalism, which is written precisely so that the great masses can understand, would be looked down upon by the charming aristocracy. In fact, in American literature, an essentially journalistic approach has been behind– [PR interjection] TWAIN for goodness sake, Hemingway– every success. Hemingway went about writing novels that way, but even more to the point, Sinclair Lewis, our first Nobel prize winner in Literature, to do a novel about his hometown in Minnesota. He didn’t just draw on his memories, he went back! Taking notes on every area of life. John Steinbeck, in case of Grapes of the Wrath, went to the San Francisco News and volunteered to go out and write a series on migrant workers who were pouring in from the Dust Bowl in the mid-to-late 1930s. He didn’t know anything about them.
Were you to believe Wolfe and some of the claims made in this post, you might fear for the survival of the novel. But this is where the essence of humanity comes back in. No doubt the novel will survive so long as it continues to fill some sort of niche in human needs, but they may not be the consistently traditional forms we are used to (and largely bored by these days), nor will they probably resemble the tales told so often before. And for many story-telling purposes, they will be replaced by other fictions, be they blog posts, biographies, or scientific treatises.
As for the perpetuity of angels, they may truly be nearer death than the novel. The challenges presented by so many combating forces for the increasingly partitioned territory of identity (states, tribes, religions, tv shows, sports, games all now make claims!) tugs people in many directions at once, and they absorb more information from more sources than ever before. News, jargon, and blog posts such as this one replace the fictions of complementarity once known as angels. Their survival depends on the ability of angels to represent something that can never be described by consistent arguments and discrete lexicons. They depend on the inexplicable and our willingness to admit the existence of the inexplicable in the full mysteries of the universe.