Edinburgh International Book Festival
Tuesday, 21 August 3pm
The Future of the Novel
The Keynote speech by China on ‘The Future of the Novel’ is listed below, and the video of his keynote is viewable above:
I have just … paid a depressing visit to an electronic computer which can write sonnets if fed with the right material,” said Lawrence Durrell, at the session 50 years ago of which this is an echo. ” … I have a feeling that by Christmas it will have written its first novel, and possibly by next Christmas novel sets will be on sale at Woolworths and you will all be able to buy them, and write your own.”
Notionally, the horror here is something to do with the denigration of human creativity. But Durrell is aghast in particular that these novel sets will be on sale at Woolworths – the tragedy, perhaps, might have been a little lessened if they’d been exclusive to Waitrose.
It’s not clear how scared he really was. Futures of anything tend to combine possibilities, desiderata, and dreaded outcomes, sometimes in one sentence. There’s a feedback loop between soothsaying and the sooth said, analysis is bet and aspiration and warning. I want to plural, to discuss not the novel but novels, not the future, but futures. I’m an anguished optimist. None of the predictions here are impossible: some I even think are likely; most I broadly hope for; and one is a demand.
* * *
A first hope: the English-language publishing sphere starts tentatively to revel in that half-recognised distinctness of non-English-language novels, and with their vanguard of Scandinavian thrillers, small presses, centres and prizes for translation, continue to gnaw at the 3% problem, all striving against the still deeply inadequate but am-I-mad-to-think-improving-just-a-little profile of fiction translated into English.
And translation is now crowdsourced, out of love. Obscure works of Russian avant-garde and new translations of Bruno Schulz are available to anyone with access to a computer. One future is of glacially slowly decreasing, but decreasing, parochialism.
And those publishers of translated fiction are also conduits for suspicious-making foreign Modernism.
* * *
What is literature, and what do we want from it? The former is a key question, which I’m going to duck. What do we want from it? Many things. One is an expression of something otherwise inexpressible. An ineffability, by which you don’t at all have to be a person of faith to have your breath taken away. Jewish mysticism warns of the qliphoth – husks, entropic shells of psychic muck and detritus that encrust and obscure that numinous. As you can tell, I’m turning my attention to English fiction.
Paulo Coelho’s ill-judged Joyce-bashing has made him a butt of scorn this week, but he’s a safe target because, with books that multitask a little too openly as self-help manuals, he’s not so clubbable. Unlike, say, Ian McEwan, who not-that-differently declared against “the dead hand of modernism”, for all the world as if the dominant literary mode in post-war England was Steinian experimentation or some Albion Oulipo, against which young Turks hold out with limpidly observed interiority, decodable metaphors, strained middle-class relationships and eternal truths of the human condition(TM).
All the usual caveats: yes, there are admirable novels written according to such norms, and conversely there’ve always been writers playing with form, etcetera. But two things remain key.
i) The culturally dominant strain of English novel has for years been what Zadie Smith called “lyrical realism”: the remorseless prioritisation, with apologies for repeating my favourite heuristic, of recognition over estrangement.
ii) Today it is not quite qliphothic business as usual.
After last year’s Booker Middlebrowmaggedon, this year’s judges are far too polite to draw attention to their task, which is to salvage something. But they’ve not done badly. Longlists are performances, and while it’s appropriate to cavil about our excluded favourites, the list sends various messages rather well. Including that the Booker is rapproching with that so-called dead hand.
There’ve been other wind-blown straws. The muted, palpable recent shame when Christine Brooke-Rose died, that this astonishing innovator was so overlooked in the country of her birth. Renewed interest in Ann Quin. Excitement at the online archive Ubuweb. With the internet has come proof that there are audiences way beyond the obvious.
* * *
I really, really don’t want to talk about genre, because I always really want to, and nerd-whines are boring. But a detente between litfic and its others is real. It’s a cliché to point out that generic tropes are infecting the mainstream, with a piling-up of various apocalypses by those guilty of literature. But on the other side, say, an extensive interview with Yinka Tutuola, son of the legendary Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola, about his father’s work, is online not at any traditional outlet of the literati but at Weird Fiction Review, a fabulous site that emerges, with brilliance and polymath gusto, out of genre traditions.
It was a generic, science-fictional horror that oppressed Durrell, those fiction engines. He’s not the only writer to have suffered this nightmare: the Automatic Novel Writing Machine crops up repeatedly in fiction as a sign of awful futurity. Given the fire, flood, uneasy dead and enormity on which one can draw, it’s an underwhelmingly terrifying dystopia, a future in the despotic thrall of the autonovelator, but apres nous le deluge – writers would far rather suffer planetary catastrophe than deskilling, or a scab algorithm.
* * *
The machine is unbuilt. The past future of the novel did not lie in being digitally produced. As traumatically, it’s being digitally distributed.
We are, at last, leaving phase one of the ebook discussion, during which people could ritually invoke the ‘smell of paper’ as a call to cultural barricades. Some anxieties are tenacious: how will people know what a splendid person I am without a pelt of the right visible books on my walls, without the pretty qlippoth husks? A hopeful future: that our grandchildren will consider our hankering for erudition-décor a little needy.
Early predictions for what digitality would do to the novel look pretty creaky, as the futures of the past always do. The hypertext novel? A few interesting experiments. The enhanced ebook, with soundtrack and animation? A banal abomination.
In fact what’s becoming obvious – an intriguing counterpoint to the growth in experiment – is the tenacity of relatively traditional narrative-arc-shaped fiction. But you don’t radically restructure how the novel’s distributed and not have an impact on its form. Not only do we approach an era when absolutely no one who really doesn’t want to pay for a book will have to, but one in which the digital availability of the text alters the relationship between reader, writer, and book. The text won’t be closed.
* * *
It never was, of course – think of the scrivener’s edit, the monk’s mashup – but it’s going to be even less so. Anyone who wants to shove their hands into a book and grub about in its innards, add to and subtract from it, and pass it on, will, in this age of distributed text, be able to do so without much difficulty, and some are already starting.
One response might be a rearguard clamping down, as in the punitive model of so-called antipiracy action. About which here I’ll only say – as someone very keen to continue to make a living from writing – that it’s disingenuous, hypocritical, ineffectual, misunderstands the polyvalent causes and effects of online sharing, is moribund, and complicit with toxicity.
The Creators’ Rights Alliance, with which my own trade union is associated, put out a manifesto that ends with a chilling injunction:
[A] fundamental part of this provision should involve education about intellectual property. … All schoolchildren should be encouraged in the habit of using the © symbol with their work, whether it be an essay or a musical composition.
The concept behind copyright is so simple that a child can understand it:
“I made it: it’s mine.”‘
A collection of artists and activists advocating the neoliberalisation of children’s minds. That is scandalous and stupid. The text is open. This should – could – be our chance to remember that it was never just us who made it, and it was never just ours.
* * *
The problem with emphasising the authorial voice, and the novel’s survival, even in its new forms, even with a permeable membrane between text and reader, is that it’s hard to do so without sounding as if one’s indulging a kind of ahistorical Olympian simpering at the specialness of writers. That the novel is tenacious as a cockroach is morally neutral. We can hope for a good novel – created by whatever means – decry bad ones, and observe with a shrug that in total they endure.
To love literature doesn’t mean we have to aggrandise it or those who create it. That aggrandisement is undermined by the permeable text. Be ready for guerrilla editors. Just as precocious 14-year-olds brilliantly – or craply – remix albums and put them up online, people are starting to provide their own cuts of novels. In the future, asked if you’ve read the latest Ali Smith or Ghada Karmi, the response might be not yes or no, but “which mix”, and why?
We’ll be writing as part of a collective. As we always were. And so might anyone else be.
“[Y]ou will all be able to buy them,” Durrell says of those novel-writing kits, addressing not the other writers, who didn’t need them, but the public, “and write your own.”
That’s a telling elision – he starts by kvetching about writing by machine, by no one, and segues instantly to doing so about writing by the public, by everyone. That’s apocalypse. That, apparently, is a nightmare future.
The worst anxiety is not that the interfering public will ruin your work if they muck about with it, or that they’ll write a terrible novel, but that they’ll improve it, or write a great one. And once in a rare while, some of them will. How wonderful that will be.
You don’t have to think that writing is lever-pulling, that anyone could have written Jane Eyre or Notebook of a Return to my Native Land to think that the model of writers as the Elect is at best wrong, at worst, a bit slanderous to everyone else. We piss and moan about the terrible quality of self-published books, as if slews of god-awful crap weren’t professionally expensively published every year.
* * *
Of course there are contexts in which particular books become politically important, and writers who exhibit astonishing bravery in the face of oppression. For the most part we’re not talking about that. What if most fiction – which, yes, we all do and should love – is at best moderately important? What if it’s so vague and culturally dribblesome and so mediated by everything else, once the culture industry extrudes it through a writer-shaped nozzle, that our stentorious declarations about subversive literature are, mostly, kind of adorable?
Stand down. The blurring of boundaries between writers, books, and readers, self-publishing, the fanfication of fiction, doesn’t mean some people won’t be better than others at the whole writing thing, or unable to pay their rent that way – it should, though, undermine that patina of specialness. Most of us aren’t that special, and the underlining of that is a good thing, the start of a great future. In which we can maybe focus more on the books. Which might even rarely be special.
One of the problems, we often hear, about online piracy, ebooks and their ephemeral-seeming invisible files, is that they ‘devalue writing’, that our work is increasingly undervalued. Well, yes. Just like the work of nurses, teachers, public transport staff, cleaners, social workers, which has been undervalued a vast amount more for a whole lot longer. We live in a world that grossly and violently undervalues the great majority of people in it.
It’s that hegemony of the market again. We’ve railed against it – as we should – for the last several days. There’s a contingent relationship between book sales and literary merit, so we should totally break the pretence at a connection, because of our amplifying connection to everyone else, and orient future-ward with a demand.
What if novelists and poets were to get a salary, the wage of a skilled worker?
* * *
This would only be an exaggeration of the national stipends already offered by some countries for some writers. For the great majority of people who write, it would mean an improvement in their situation, an ability to write full-time. For a few it would mean an income cut, but you know what? It was a good run. And surely it’s easily worth it to undermine the marketisation of literature for some kind of collectivity.
But who decides who qualifies as a writer? Does it take one sonnet? Of what quality? Ten novels? 50,000 readers? Ten, but the right readers? God knows we shouldn’t trust the state to make that kind of decision. So we should democratise that boisterous debate, as widely and vigorously as possible. It needn’t be the mere caprice of taste. Which changes. And people are perfectly capable of judging as relevant and important literature for which they don’t personally care. Mistakes will be made, sure, but will they really be worse than the philistine thuggery of the market?
We couldn’t bypass the state with this plan, though. So for the sake of literature, apart from any- and everything else, we’ll have to take control of it, invert its priorities, democratise its structures, replace it with a system worth having.
So an unresentful sense of writers as people among people, and a fidelity to literature, require political and economic transformation. For futures for novels – and everything else. In the context of which futures, who knows what politics, what styles and which contents, what relationships to what reconceived communities, which struggles to express what inexpressibles, what stories and anti-stories we will all strive and honourably fail to write, and maybe even one day succeed?
Copyright: China Miéville 2012
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