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The perennial debate on the technological threat to the institution of the novel rages on flatmancrooked.com (and elsewhere)-see Shya Scanlon’s excellent Faster Times piece here, and Mike Shatzkin’s note on ebooks-but there’s not much on this on TNB, as far as I can see…

So, in the interests of stimulating debate, I include an email exchange between TNB contributors Kip Tobin, Megan Power, and myself which took place off the blog last month.

This was sparked off, in part by an article on Philip Roth’s latest novel in The Guardian newspaper from the UK.

21 Oct 2009 11:06
Philip Roth in The Daily Beast:

“[The novel] couldn’t compete with the television screen, and it can’t compete with the computer screen.” …

‘The novel will become “a minority cult” within 25 years’ … “I [am] being optimistic about 25 years really. I think it’s going to be cultic. I think always people will be reading them but it will be a small group of people. Maybe more people than now read Latin poetry, but somewhere in that range.”

“[It's] the print that’s the problem, it’s the book, the object itself.” … “To read a novel requires a certain amount of concentration, focus, devotion to the reading. If you read a novel in more than two weeks you don’t read the novel really. So I think that kind of concentration and focus and attentiveness is hard to come by – it’s hard to find huge numbers of people, large numbers of people, significant numbers of people, who have those qualities.”

4 Nov 2009 13:15
Kip Tobin:

“‘Been saying it for years…”

Nov 4, 2009 at 1:37
Andy Johnson:

“And you’re still wrong…”

Nov 4, 2009 at 4:09
Andy Johnson:

“Bemoaning the death of the novel (as people have been doing periodically for at least the last 200 years) is like suggesting the death of storytelling, or the death of imagination. Ever since people first were people they’ve related narratives to each other in the most portable, accessible form available – through language.

One of the main reasons why language is so stimulating is because it is not passive. Whether written, or spoken, language requires a certain amount of cognitive investment in the receiver, unlike film, and other forms of ‘screened’ narrative, which don’t have the same psychological scope – principally due to the fact that they feed information to all the human faculties, apart from the imagination.

Suggesting the human race no longer has the capacity (and psychological need) for imagination is like suggesting that everyone is going to start switching to love dolls over breathing sexual partners. It smacks of an old man with a jaded mind.

Just because culture is dominated by feckless, retrograde boneheads does not mean that everything is doomed. The idea that everything that’s new and fast is great, and will prevail, is a commercialist flat-earth theory propagated by people whose fragile careers are based on an outmoded idea of the personality cult – as in the author as some kind of God.

[A quote from Lewis Hyde's amazing, scholarly book on creativity, 'The Gift' puts this better than I could at the time:

"The Romans called a person's tutelar spirit his genius. ... The opposite is properly called narcissism. The narcissist believes his gifts come from himself. He works to display himself, not to suffer change. An age in which no one sacrifices to his genius is an age of narcissism. The 'cult of genius' which we have seen in this century has nothing to do with the ancient cult. The public adoration of genius turns men and women into celebrities ...

We should not speak of another's genius; this is a private affair. The celebrity trades on his gifts, he does not sacrifice to them. And without that sacrifice, without the return gift, the spirit cannot be set free. In an age of narcissism the centers of culture are populated with larvae and lemures, the spooks of unfulfilled genii".]

“My question to you is this: if the novel won’t manage to survive its first 400 years, how has poetry managed to stick around so successfully since a couple of millenia before christ, without anything like the same scale of industry supporting it?”

06 November 2009 10:33
Megan Power:

“I agree with almost everything you said, except the part about poetry. It’s not possible to make a living from writing poetry. So can we still say it is “successful”? How do we measure that? The sonnet’s around in the same way stained glass windows are still around: Niche purpose.

As you probably know, a new book is published-in the UK-every two minutes. 7% of of these sell more than 1,000 copies. So this tells me that publishing houses are not doing their jobs to a certain degree. 93% of novels don’t get read. There is either incredible shite on the shelves, too much waste in the industry, a glut of marketing or something. That’s awful. What other field has such terrible sales and still functions?

Roth at 76 is still a clever bastard, drumming up press for his billionth novel with dire predictions like the novel will be a minority cult. It will be my first cult…”

7 November 2009 14:29
Kip Tobin:

“I do not take Roth’s opinion as my own, though I think he makes some good points worth considering.

I also think you should read this article from The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?”

It encapsulates many of my thoughts quite well as to why and how the internet is killing off diligent readers, esp. those who are deep readers. I used to be one, but not so much now.”

[This tremendous article suggests that the internet is having a profound affect on the way people process and 'work' information and knowledge - in a way comparable to the effect of the clock, the typewriter, and automated factory machinery on the mind, but it ignores an important constant; a ubiquitous background presence: the humble novel as cultural artefact with undiminished significance.]

07 November 2009 14:10

Megan Power:

Every Tuesday this boy walks by my window on his way to class, reading a book. For obvious reasons I love him but just from afar.

Wouldn’t it be nice if reading was this popular? If people didn’t just crack a book on long flights or train rides? If it was something they had to do. While walking. All the time.

 

I would be more than happy to be put right if these issues are already being debated somewhere else in the TNB universe, but we would appreciate any thoughts on any of these issues (if anyone has any after Googling themselves into oblivion…)

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Andrew Johnson Andy is a freelance magazine writer and editor from the North of England. He has rapidly divested himself of his life and reassembled it so many times in so many different countries over the last several years that he feels like his hair is on fire. He is at work on a novel ostensibly about the British Empire.

27 Responses to “Rumours of the Death of the Novel Have Been Greatly Exaggerated”

  1. A new book every two minutes? Get out of town! Huh. Didn’t know that.

    Thanks for the informative reading.

  2. jmblaine says:

    At one time only the music business
    rivaled the book business
    for putting out incredible amounts
    of, as you say – shite –
    Seems I recall a label guy telling me
    that 5% of the industry supported the other 95.
    For a great read on the whole affair
    try Adventures of MixerMan.

    As for the novel, I’ve never quite been able to get into anything but nonfiction.
    I like poetry though.

    I just read Ka-ching and thought it was divine.

  3. Tony Esposito says:

    Kip, you bring up Google and what it is doing to diligent readership. Another interesting question would be, what is Google doing to the novel itself and how are novels being written differently because of it? I suspect that many novelists frequently access the Google lifeline to infinite knowledge. Not that there’s anything wrong with it. But having Google at the novelist’s fingertips is bound to change the novel in significant ways.

    • Greg Olear says:

      In my experience, it means less time spent on bullshit and more on writing. Fact checking, in the days before Wikipedia and Google, was far more labor intensive. It’s a godsend, for practicality.

      • Andy Johnson says:

        Absolutely, but then again–as the Atlantic article points out–what does being able to Google everything do to your sense of mental stimulation? If not everything is available at the speed of thought, then the brain chomps at the bit, snapping at thin air if left idling for more than a few seconds.

        The rhythm of research is as much of a problem as the actual information, as far as I’m concerned. Googling promises perpetual Bebop that sadly, rarely materialises in an atmosphere of all-too-frequent noodling.

    • Andy Johnson says:

      Google is like a classical education, only faster and infinitely less profound.

  4. Megan says:

    Andy this was very Coetzeesque in that you made an article out of email exchanges which somehow almost supports deconstructionist claims : P

    I guess not too many other people are interested in wading into this argument what with Christmas shopping & all.

    I am writing this from the British Library and you were right — it’s brazilliant.

    Should I ask the book reading walker guy out? he’s super nerdy cute. Could I just yell out my window or would it be more appropriate to run downstairs?

    • Greg Olear says:

      I don’t think it’s Christmas shopping. Most of the TNBers are novelists. If we thought the novel was moribund, we’d do something else. Something, you know, lucrative. It’s an article of faith for us, and there’s no debating faith.

      You’re talking about the library at the British Museum, right? Brazilliant indeed. I got chills standing over Milton’s notebooks.

      Also: only ask out the book walker if he’s reading something that doesn’t involve vampires, wizards, or Opus Dei.

    • Andy Johnson says:

      I think you should throw the book at him.

  5. D.R. Haney says:

    It the risk of a possible stoning, here are a few thoughts:

    1. The novel could be said to be older than 400 years. Some date it all the way back to Petronius, who’s thought to have written The Satyricon during Nero’s reign; others cite Lady Murasaki, who wrote The Tale of the Genji around 1000 A.D., as the first novelist.

    2. The death of the novel and its diminished stature in mainstream culture are two separate matters. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration at all to say that the novel has suffered a decline in mainstream interest since the appearance of television, just as it’s continued to suffer in the computer age. This is from a 2007 Associated Press story on the decline of readership: “In 2004, a National Endowment for the Arts report titled ‘Reading at Risk’ found only 57 percent of American adults had read a book in 2002, a four percentage point drop in a decade.” The NEA study also said that the steepest drop was in younger readers, just as readers overall were less inclined to read works of literature — i.e., apart from romance novels, fiction.

    3. I think when AJ says “One of the main reasons why language is so stimulating is because it is not passive,” he means that words in print have to be decoded, so to speak, and recreated in the reader’s mind. However, I’m baffled as to the meaning of the following: “Whether written, or spoken, language requires a certain amount of cognitive investment in the receiver, unlike film, and other forms of ‘screened’ narrative, which don’t have the same psychological scope – principally due to the fact that they feed information to all the human faculties, apart from the imagination.” All human faculties? Does that mean the senses? But three out of five — touch, smell, and taste — aren’t fed by screened narrative — not literally. Rather, as with description in print, they can be stimulated; and craving a bowl of soup, say, because such a bowl has just been presented in a film does strike me as the product of imagination. We can agree that storytelling and imagination are human constants, but that, to me, doesn’t advance the case for the future of the novel. Many people, in fact, do regard screened narrative as competing with print, and, given a choice, opt for the former for the very reason that it’s less taxing, in terms of both time and effort. Their need (and, yes, it is a need) to be told a story has been fulfilled. Next story, please.

    4. The painting survived the photograph, and the theater survived movies, though, in the latter case, the non-musical play has very little appeal compared to the 1950s and before. (For that matter, the musical is itself now in eclipse, or so I’m made to understand.) So, too, the poem has survived, as AJ says, but the audience for it has dwindled. This, again, is the substance of Roth’s argument, which isn’t about death but reduction. Another point I find confusing: “The idea that everything that’s new and fast is great, and will prevail, is a commercialist flat-earth theory propagated by people whose fragile careers are based on an outmoded idea of the personality cult – as in the author as some kind of God.” The “people” here, who seem to think themselves God, are not, I would propose, the same ones propagating “the idea that everything that’s new and fast is great, and will prevail.” In fact, Roth and others like him with “fragile careers” (if I’m understanding correctly) are lamenting a culture that worships the new and fast, cheering it on to deserved victory in a Darwinian war with the old and slow. Interestingly, in AJ’s argument, there’s a seeming allusion to Roth’s age: “[...] an old man with a jaded mind.” And speaking of jaded, I wonder why Roth and his kind are presented as entirely self-serving — that is, they’re narcissistically more vested in their status as gods (I take the liberty of introducing a lower-case “g”) than they are in the future of an art form that presumably once inspired them, otherwise why devote a lifetime to its practice? Surely there are easier, and far more profitable, ways of becoming gods. I refer you to L. Ron Hubbard.

    5. Having once had an exchange with AJ on a related subject, I should have anticipated his inclusion of god/celebrity here. I haven’t read the Lewis Hyde book, but “without that sacrifice, without the return gift, the spirit cannot be set free” seems to me more a religious pronouncement à la Kahil Gibran than hard-headed scholasticism, which frowns upon abstractions of “the spirit” sort. Meantime, I can’t point to many contemporary authors who qualify as bona fide celebrities, apart from Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer and J. K. Rowling, and I see that as unfortunate in the sense that the novel could use more and better celebrities to create a sense of excitement around it. Woolf and Hemingway and Colette and Fitzgerald: all appeared in the glossies of their day, and literary fiction in particular is in need of latter-day, similar avatars. So what if this amounts to “personality cult”? Since I’m, as AJ knows, a “rock star,” it won’t surprise him that I’m here reminded of rock & roll, which, like the novel, is arguably in a state of decline, and that’s partly because, as with the novel, the good stuff has, for some time, mostly been produced by wallflowers who shrink from unseemly ambition and who wouldn’t fare well with media attention even if it were being courted, lacking as they do the telegenic gene. No wonder that kiddies flock to the glib karaokers of American Idol and the like. And no wonder that the serious novel, which is forced to compete for attention with other media in an age that favors image over word, is increasingly an afterthought. The novel seeks its Jack White, and if he (or she) is hailed as a god, I’ll bear in mind the greater good: the promotion of the novel overall.

    6. Megan, I hope that you “accidentally” bump into the guy with the book one day, if only to learn what he’s reading. Also, I doubt that Roth was making his prediction simply to get press. Many novelists, and especially those of his generation, are asked about the future of the book, since we’re continually told that little or no future exists. Only a few weeks ago, I saw an interview with John Irving in which he said that, yes, the book will survive, but that if he were starting out as a novelist now, at twenty-seven instead of sixty-seven, he would “blow [his] brains out.” Kind of a mixed message, yes?

    7. Tony Esposito’s question is, in fact, an interesting one. Speaking personally, I did find myself consulting Google here and there when working on the novel I published earlier this year, but mostly to corroborate dates — the attempted assassination of Reagan and that sort of thing. Hell, I used Google a few minutes ago, seeking out that story on the NEA study. I read the story when it first appeared, but I’m too stoopid to retain stats.

    • Andy Johnson says:

      Keen, as always, man…

      I think I am very much about the worth of the work in the grand scheme of things, rather than the ‘value’ of it per se. More and more, I lean towards Don van Vliet’s pronouncement,

      “I think music should be free, because from where I got it, I didn’t have to pay for it.”

      Anyone who trades on their ‘gift’ for personal profit over the work itself (for its own sake) falls into the ‘celebrity’ category as far as I’m concerned, including Mr. Philip Roth. The idea that we should worship at the altar of his so-called ‘genius’ is totally counter to the original meaning of that word, and therefore perverse, and distorted – hence the quote from ‘The Gift’.

  6. I read an interesting article recently; you might have seen it, TNB linked to it on Twitter. It asked the question “What kind of novel does internet use prepare us for?” and its conclusion, which I found slightly disturbing, was Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

    Not that I have anything against Oscar. The thing that bothered me was this: I think we can agree that e-books will, eventually, largely replace physical ink-on-paper books. But I’ve always thought this would take a long time because how we read books and how we listen to music are quite different things. Books are read one at a time, with the chapters in order; the e-book equivalent of an iPod Shuffle would present random chapters of random books. It’s hard to imagine most people compiling the equivalent of a playlist; a selection of their favourite chapters from different books, themed for their morning bus journey or a rainy day pick-me-up. (Actually, now I type it, the idea seems gently appealing.)

    But, as the article points out, Oscar is a playlist novel, in that it uses several distinct voices with only loose connections between them, with a unifying theme: The Dominican Republic, and the experiences of the generations before, during and after emigration to the USA. Although, as they are all written by the same artist, maybe it’s not a playlist but a concept album.

    Where am I going with this? (That’s not a rhetorical question. Seriously folks, where am I going with this?) Ah yes, the death of the novel. The article, and Oscar itself, suggest that while the novel is in no danger of dying, it may have to adapt to its environment. Diaz’s novel is fragmented – there’ll be another voice along in a minute, telling another story. It’s also full of references, slang, and specifically Dominican Spanish terms that are probably unfamiliar to many readers. It’s easy to imagine all these words in blue, underlined, hyperlinked to Wikipedia or a Google search.

    (Although Diaz goes the other way, eschewing a glossary and only occasionally inserting a footnote.)

    OK, look, I’m typing in circles. While I don’t think the internet and our shortened attention spans will kill the (long-form, single-voice) novel (in whatever format), the creature may have to adapt – evolve – a little to keep its head above water.

    Here’s the article: http://nymag.com/arts/all/aughts/62514/

    • Andy Johnson says:

      No matter how we consume music, it is still produced in the same way, and still has the same worth, and the same power to move, whether nobody listens to it, or everybody does. The worth is in the thing in-itself no matter how it is received.

  7. Ben Loory says:

    if there’s one thing that storytelling teaches us, it’s that there is no death, only synthesis and transmutation. nothing stands still; new forms are forever evolving; to hope for permanence is not only futile but counterproductive (not to mention cowardly). miles davis didn’t complain about the death of bop– HE FUCKING KILLED IT. and then he killed what he’d killed it with, and then he killed that, and that, and then someone else killed that, and miles davis stood by and smiled (actually he probably frowned, but hey, when you’re miles davis you can do that). that’s what art’s about, the journey forward. if you’re stuck in the box of received form, who gives a shit what you do there? it’s like worrying about whether or not square dancing will survive. people who like to go round in circles will continue to go around in circles, and meanwhile michael jackson will do the moonwalk and then someone will learn to fly.

    as for philip roth, i can’t stand the guy but i hardly think he’s “drumming up press… with dire predictions.” i can’t think of a guy with a more secure audience and less of an interest in celebrity or hucksterism.

  8. Kip Tobin says:

    Great post, double-o johnson, engaging us to add to the argument.

    I really don’t have too much intelligent to add to this discussion, as you bastards are all much more eloquent and critical than I feel right now.

    I agree with Duke’s well-considered response, particularly #2 regarding the crux of this argument, and that we have been arguing this from two different perspectives, not really understanding the other.

    I mean to say that I strongly doubt that writers will stop writing novels and that a certain segment of the population, however small that may get, will not stop reading novels. I also doubt that the importance of the novel will ever truly diminish – which is what I think AJ’s saying. I was only saying (from the beginning) that people are reading less of it and, therefore, it is, in a sense, dying. There will always be a contingent of bibliophiles (comprised of mostly academics, hardcore readers and writers, I presume) as long as we are on this or any other planet. But the numbers are dropping, and the stat that 57% adults didn’t even read a book in 2002 is alarming. What is that stat today? I would guess higher. (And I don’t really think we should count as novels pop fiction like The Vampire Diaries or Dan Brown and James Patterson, etc. or thinly-veiled memoirs). The aformentioned core group will keep the novel – the literary novel – going without stopping. Whether or not it becomes something that few people do and becomes cultic, is another story. I personally see that as an inevitable result of having more screens, more channels, more news, more moving images. TV and the computer screen are kind of like the Entertainment in Infinite Jest, it is sucking pretty much everything out of us.

    I think that reading does require a lot more work on the behalf of the reader rather than merely watching something and eating popcorn. And the payoff is bigger, too. In my experience, readers tend to be more critical thinkers, to be able to describe the world in a much more accurate manner thanks to their larger vocabulary, are endowed with a more active mind in general and have vicariously lived many other lives through their readings.

    But, at least where I’m at here in Mid-America, it is going, going and nearly gone. God I have to get out of here…

  9. Marni Grossman says:

    I don’t carry purses. Because I can’t fit a book in a purse. It’s tote bags for me because I must- MUST- have a book, a novel, with me at all times. I find it hard to believe that I’m unique in this regard. Consider: Oprah put “Anna Karenina” in her book club and, voila!- it’s a bestseller.

    People like novels. People LOVE novels. It’s just a matter of the right marketing. I’m with Megan.

  10. J.E. Fishman says:

    At the risk of appearing to see the world through rose-colored glasses, here are a few random observations on this very interesting debate.

    Philip Roth was talking about literary fiction — i.e. art. In some interview I read of his recently (perhaps the same one), I recall him making a distinction between “entertainers” like James Patterson et al. and novelists with a higher purpose. If we are talking about art, then it’s worth noting that in the history of the world consumers of art have always been a minority, especially fiction, which requires both time and literacy. What made the Nineteenth Century, in some respects, the golden age of the novel? For the first time a significant minority of people had both literacy and free time. (And, o.k., no TV or Internet.)

    Now, I was recently on an airplane flying from Philadelphia to Atlanta. There I am with a few magazines, two newspapers and my kindle. To my left was a thirty-something man who spent the entire two-hour flight flipping through the pages of a single catalog. To my right was a twenty-something woman whose entire interaction with words was — presumably — listening to the lyrics being piped into her headphones from an iPod, no reading material in sight. These are the 43% who don’t read, and it is depressing to contemplate them as your audience. But their forebears, if you will, were NEVER an audience for art. Certainly their INTELLECTUAL forebears were illiterate two hundred years ago. Did that stop Jane Austen from writing novels? If 57% of American adults have read a book in the past year, that’s about 150 million people — a bigger potential audience than Philip Roth had when he wrote PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT in 1969 (when the ENTIRE U.S. population was 200 million).

    It is very sad that all these 150 million are not reading the books of our friends and colleagues. Maybe that’s because we, as writers, aren’t doing enough to engage them. Maybe it’s because the market is so fragmented. Maybe it’s because we’re really smart and they’re really dumb. Maybe it’s because the novel is dying, but I don’t think so. But if the novel IS dying, maybe that’s because so many “literary” novelists have forgotten about their first obligation, to keep people reading with plot techniques. Ironically, Roth, who is raising this issue, never forgot how to tell a story.

    I seem to recall, years ago, reading some letters from Joseph Conrad to his agent, pleading for money, telling his agent that the next book would be more commercial, that he was working really hard to rope the reader in, etc. In other words, in his way, Conrad was trying to write commercial — and yet he couldn’t help writing great literature. (And English not even his first language — shaming us all!) So, in this context, I don’t understand the criticism of Junot Diaz’s last book. The use of multiple narrators (or voices) is not original, if by “original” we mean, “never done before.” The Spanglish, I thought, was brilliantly executed. But, most of all, the thing has both a plot and a point, manages to keep us reading while immersing us in a world that is not completely familiar. Isn’t that what great fiction has always done?

    One more point. Duke, there are more than a few bona fide celebrity writers beyond Rowling, Brown, and Meyer. To wit: Grisham, King, Anne Rice, James Patterson, John Irving, Kurt Vonnegut (o.k., he’s dead) and many others. All “great” writers? No. Nor are most movie celebrities “great” actors.

    Am I whistling past the graveyard? I don’t know. It’s a brave new world out there and I’m glad I’m no longer an editor at a major house, but I’ll venture to say that the novel may be a little green in the gills, but it ain’t dead.

    • D.R. Haney says:

      Thanks for the reminder re: celebrity, Joel, and for your good sense overall.

      But in spirit of this debate (?), I wonder if there’s any such thing as a great actor these days, at least compared to those purported to be great in the days before film and video: Edmund Kean, Sarah Siddons, Ludwig Devrient, Edwin Forrest, Rachel, etc. (Rachel, who was celebrated by her first name only in early nineteenth-century Paris, said these words about acting on her deathbed, which have stuck with me ever since I first read them: “In studying for the stage, take my word for it, declamation and gesture are of little avail. You have to think and weep.” With adjustment for period and art form, I think this may continue to have bearing.)

      • J.E. Fishman says:

        Great quote. And — though I’m no actor — I’d imagine it is just as relevant today as it was when spoken. Think and weep. It brings to mind a quote from, I think, Mario Vargas Llosa: “Life is a tragedy to a man who feels and a comedy to a man who thinks.” Of course, that has nothing to do with Rachel’s point, but these message boards seem like a good place for half-baked random thoughts!

        As for greatness, Duke, who can say? We do the best we can and time sorts us out.

        • D.R. Haney says:

          Or God, as a variation used to have it — or has it, for some.

          That quote always appealed to me because it places an idiosyncratic, contemplative approach over robotic convention. In Rachel’s day there were stances that indicated love (hands clasped over heart), joy (arms outspread with face turned heavenward), grief (fists covering eyes or a singe fist on forehead), and so on. She anticipated the highly personal style of Method acting, a term that wouldn’t be coined until almost a century after her heyday, and which now, in a new era of caricature, largely unrecognized as such, has passed out of vogue.

          But this is no doubt half-baked as well, and the only place better for trying out thoughts is conversation. Here’s hoping that one day the chance presents itself.

        • J.E. Fishman says:

          Indeed, we need to get Listi to bring the east- and west-coast contingents together by organizing a TNB convention. If he does it, you can put me down for the bourbon.

        • tip robin says:

          JE-

          Complete non sequitur here, but I once heard that quote you cited on the Writer’s Almanac and have never forgotten it, but I could not recall who it was attributed to. And when you wrote Varga Llosa, I thought, right, that makes sense. But upon a two-minute search (in Spanish), I’m finding sites that attribute it to Horace Walpole IV, anonymous, Jean de la Bruyer. So much for the net’s reliability…

          Regardless of which is true, I prefer Llosa.

          KT

        • J.E. Fishman says:

          Yeah, I tried to Google it real quick, but it’s surprisingly hard to nail down the attribution. I’m pretty sure I first heard it in college in the early Eighties (nearing three decades ago — gulp!), but I can’t swear it was Llosa. Also surprising, it’s not in the Yale Book of Quotations, which is a shame because (a) it’s a great quote; and (b) Fred Shapiro prides himself on nailing down proper attribution.

  11. Paul Clayton says:

    Andrew, Kip and Megan, thanks of such a thought provoking post. I would like to see more of this sort of thing on TNB. As someone who dreamed about writing the Great American Novel, for years, I love this stuff. I read great novels (yes, I think some are great and others are merely good). And I screwed around, taking my time, writing my own, through college, then on again off again, for ten years or so. The novel went through the ‘process’ and came out shorter, not quite what I had originally envisioned (but I still have that original tucked away) and was published. It was good, not great, based on sales figures. Which brings me to my first point, someone mentioned that only 7% of books in the UK sell more than 1,000 copies. I seem to remember reading that literary novels, and I think that distinction is important, in the U.S. average around 2,000 in sales. That would put my ‘good, not great’ novel right on target. Now out of print, this consoles me a bit. But this sort of sales record ensures that I will continue working and commuting until I’m sixty five and can afford to retire, while Clive Cussler and Dan Brown and all those other good writers ‘bang ‘em out’! Jealous? You betcha.

    As to the dwindling numbers of readers, well, some of you may have seen my posts to TNB. I think the Internet has taken a toll, undoubtedly. People ‘read’ on the internet, but not in the same way they read a novel. When I was going to college in the seventies, one of my prized possessions was a big leather lazy Boy chair in which I read my wonderful assigned Lit Course novels. I had a stereo (no TV) and might play a little light classical in the background, but nothing rousing and certainly nothing with lyrics.

    Nowadays we have our kids doing their homework on the computer. Come on! This so they can google something or other. What a joke! Reading. Reading a novel vs. reading blurbs on the Internet. Why should someone spend almost an hour preparing a nice meal when they can warm a 63,000 calorie cinnabon in the microwave and shove that in while surfing the web?

    Someone mentioned how poetry has stuck around since Christ. Well it seems to have faded faster than his followers have. Isn’t poetry the most incestuous institution around? More so than the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives? Don’t poetry presses survive only because poets buy their books? When was the last time you rushed out to buy a new book of poetry? The only poet I know of is Maya Angelo. Okay, now I’m gonna get it from the poets. Actually, there is one poet whose stuff I really enjoyed, and that would be Bukowsky. But his stuff was really prose ‘typeset’ as if it were poems. And he wasn’t writing about a flower viewed from a picnic blanket in the park, but rather barfing from the bench across the pond after a night of drinking gin. Yeah, I like Bukowsky.

    I think something very much like what happened to the country after the advent of cable TV and the proliferation of channels it brought, is happening to books and writing . I remember going to the school yard as a boy to wait for the doors to open. The talk was all about the latest episode of Davy Crockett because everyone in the schoolyard had seen it, except for maybe Billy Bladjowski, whose dad locked him in the closet each night. That was then. Now we have ten billion channels and there’s nothing worth watching

    Is the same thing happening in publishing? Maybe. Maybe the cream will rise to the top. It always does. Problem is, there’s so much stuff in the pond it may take fifty years for someone to come up.

    As far as the ebook killing the novel. I don’t think that will happen. I ask my son, who is cog about every electronic gizzy there is, if he’s interested in getting a Kindle. “A what?” he says. He’s not a reader. But my daughter, who is always pestering me to buy her books (and I always do), is mildly interested. Kindle readers are real book people, not tech people. You hold the thing in your hand and curl up on the couch, or yeah, walk down the street, and read. Usually novels. There’s no flash bang, thank you, dang on the thing, just text on a paper-like screen. I think the ereaders will save novels and trees too.

    Getting back to books. I have a backlog of books to read so I don’t go looking for books in bookstores (but my daughter loves to go so I do). But I was in B&N just before Christmas waiting for someone and thought I might buy something for myself. I couldn’t find anything. Maybe that was only because I only had a half an hour.

    Novelist as celebrity. As others here have mentioned, novelists tend to be geeky, to use a new word. I agree. Just as MTV killed good Pop music (could Roy Orbison with his Coke bottle lenses have been a MTV star?) perhaps the internet will kill the novel and the novelist. If a novelists doesn’t have a pretty face to flash on the computer screen above his or her brilliant prose, will they make it? And even if they are handsome/pretty, how can they compete with Paris Hilton or Brad and Jen?

    Along with the Internet as killer of the novel, I think I may want to throw in the Popular Culture. Actually, I intend to attack the Popular Culture in a future post so I’ll just get off the set now. Thanks for this great subject to think about and pontificate on.

    Happy New Year.

  12. [...] Is the novel dead? [...]

  13. [...] Flashbacks *Andrew Johnson on the supposed death of the novel.  *Claire Bidwell Smith breaks leather. *Victoria Patterson on selling out. *Tony Dushane’s [...]

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