The (Literary) Novel Is Dead! Wait, Was It Ever Alive?

Yesterday I received a tweet from a news organization based across the Atlantic Ocean from BFE, alerting me to a story about how the income of British “working writers” is decreasing. The story was linked to an address given by the writer Will Self in Oxford in May on the subject of the death of the novel.

My first reaction was “my god, isn’t it amazing that I – sitting on my front porch in BFE – am au currant on literary matters in the land where my native tongue was born!” Seriously, I love the Interwebs.

But I digress, because the first sentence of Self’s lament caught my attention. “Literary fiction used to be central to the culture.”

Will Self

Will Self

If, by any chance you are reading this, you are probably the kind of culture watcher who will experience a shock of recognition at the intersection of these two subjects: declining subsidies to (non-commercial) authors amidst the certain demise of the serious literature. Which, as we all know, is a predictor of the end of civilization.

As a former Gotham City book editor and agent, magazine editor, public relations savant, and current lover of reading, I have to call bullshit.

Bullshit #1: the distinction between “working writers” and “writers.”

I have made my living – decent or not – as a writer for several decades. I write speeches, press releases, op-ed pieces, policy analysis, business proposals, memoranda….you get it. I get paid to write (though not this blog).

The idea that a writer of book-length fiction, poetry, or short stories should be able to support him or herself in a suitable manner simply through production is, well, a luxury. Unless they are to the manner born, MacArthur Grant recipients, or lottery winners, most writers have to get day jobs in order to support themselves and their families This state of affairs is not a disgrace.

I am sorry that it is so hard to be a writer. I am not sorry it is hard to be a writer. If it were easy, everyone would be a writer, non? It is the same economics that has governed the lives of writers since at least Samuel Johnson.

Bullshit #2: the very idea that literary fiction has ever held a special or privileged place in modern Anglo-American society.

Playing word association in my head, I come up with: Isadora Duncan, the Armory Show of 1913, Martin Scorsese, Arturo Toscanini, Babe Ruth, Sir Edmund Hillary, Benny Hill…seriously, the list goes on and on. All these names represent greatness in their respective fields. They all have a claim on our culture. More importantly, they represent distractions.

You see, if we think about our lives, we can divide the hours into two categories: 1) the things we must do; and 2) the things we choose to do. The former is represented– among other things – by work, sleep, eating, discharge of waste, and getting dressed. We do these things to survive.

The latter is represented by what we do to distract ourselves from the pressures of the former, what some might call leisure. Among the things we do in our leisure time is read, watch movies, attend fine arts performances, go to the game, or engage in a hobby.

Reality Check #1: Reading of literary fiction is one activity that competes with other activities for our leisure time.

This conclusion is not meant to denigrate writers of serious writers. We are lucky and blessed to have them among us. They help enrich our lives and give us a language to express ourselves. I look forward to downloading your next novel onto my Kindle so I don’t have to schlep all the books I am reading around with me.

Reality Check #2: As long as people choose to read in their leisure time, our economies will demand and produce writers of various genres, including literary fiction. If people feel the need to read, people will feel the need to write.

This is good news for all writers.

However, the very notion that a certain genre of fiction has ever been central to any culture is absurd.

About Stephen Dedalus, Jr.

I am trying to awaken from the history of my ancestor's nightmare to comment on my Holy Trinity of Interests: art, literature, and music. Oh, and thoughts on dysfunctional families, which is to say families.
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