4-coletThe Future of the Novel

Keynote address given by Teju Cole

First presented at The Melbourne Writers Festival 2013


Teju Cole keynote text: “The Novel After the Novelist”

“A great writer is one who elongates the perspective of human sensibility,” Brodsky wrote. This is one understanding of what novels do: they take us to the limits of experience and of ourselves. For Brodsky, exemplars of such writing were Platonov and (he cites her memoirs) Nadezhda Madelstam. In the twentieth century, we can think of any number of writers who might fit Brodsky’s criterion. Among those whose work is more troubled and strained, there are Camus, Woolf, Beckett, and Blanchot, just to name a few. But there are many others who also show us that human sensibility is more than we might have guessed. Our world is bigger because of Achebe, García-Márquez, Laxness, and Yourcenar. The diversity of these names indicates the obvious: excellence in the novel is not one-dimensional. It is a capacious form, one which allows for many kinds of victory.

But another kind of novel exists, one which Brodsky perhaps would not have recognized as elongating the perspective of human sensibility. When we talk about “the novel,” are we referring to the examples cited above—literary novels of high achievement, diverse as they are—or are we talking about novels that are written as a product for the publishing market? It is true that the line between a purely commercial novel and an accomplished work of art is not completely clear. Some bestsellers are very well-written, and some magnificiently strange books sell well; but we cannot claim that they are indistinguishable. So, when we talk about the future of the novel, it is worth acknowledging that there are distinct ambitions, independent of style, in the works classified by the very term “novel.” I would like to follow Brodsky and be concerned only with those works that elongate the perspective of human sensibility. I acknowledge the existence of the other kind, the kind that an author can write many of in one year, the kind that the reader hardly remembers reading, the kind that fits neatly into a genre and whose main purpose is to help the reader pass some hours on a plane: the survival or evolution of this more ubiquitous type of novel is not of particular interest to me.

Instead, I want to think about the health of that artificial line that goes from Rabelais to Flaubert to Joyce to Jelinek. What will become of this tradition of the novel which, as Randall Jarrell wrote, is “a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it”? If there is more and more pressure from the other kind of novel, the neat and untroubled novel that has nothing wrong with it, how shall we sustain the novel that has something wrong with it?

But we are thinking about a tradition whose founders, Rabelais and Cervantes, did not consider themselves “novelists.” What they did was write long (very long) prose full of productive defects. This, I think, might be where the novel will begin to return. There might be a homing instinct inside the novel that is carrying it back home to its wild origins.

The novel’s great flourishing, market-wise, was in the nineteenth-century, when Pride and Prejudice and Effi Briest and the French roman d’analyse entered fully into the life of the middle classes. It was a flourishing and it was also, of course, a poisoning, because one strand of the novel intensified what was human—ragged and flickering—about the form, but another strand became the crammed attic of all that was sentimental and settled. The early twentieth-century kicked against this. We entered the era of the future of the novel: one answer to the question “What is the future of the novel?” even now is still “Ulysses.” Another is “Mrs. Dalloway.” Yet another is “The Man Without Qualities.” It was in this era that the novel began to escape the novel again, with all kinds of inclusions that had not been seen since the early days, since Rabelais, Fielding, and the other rough-mannered originators. The twentieth-century modernist novel made itself a home for a long narrative about characters and their interactions, but it also allowed for their thoughts, their philosophical digressions, and their walks. The novel contained memoir, philosophy, law, letters, history, theology, yesterday’s news, and, with full gusto and disorienting commitment in Finnegans Wake, even dreams and incomprehensibility.

It was electrifying, but we had gone too close to the edge. We had to retreat. And so—and of course I’m simplifying terribly—the Anglo-American novel in particular became quite a conservative thing (the French continued to fight the good fight). For every Faulkner in the US, there was a highly-praised Pearl Buck and a deified Steinbeck. What could not be understood and enjoyed by everyone was considered with suspicion. We, particularly in America, entered the age of prizes and consensus. Experimentation remained alive, particularly as the novel found its way to cultures that had hitherto not written many novels, but the biggest names in Anglo-American publishing tended to be safe, the sort of names that did well on school curricula or found themselves quite happy in book clubs. The Pulitzer Prize for literature was unerringly middlebrow. This was the age of Austen and Dickens all over again, but with little of the sparkling quality of those popular but brainy novelists.

All the while, though, futurists of different stripes carried on their work, for the most part with less glare on their enterprise. Barth and Coover, Ondaatje and Naipaul, Frame and Murnane, Bender and Shields: many kept on sewing the suit of experimentalism in the shadows, influenced by their contemporaries in poetry. The Latin American boom and the Indian and African literatures it infected carried this work forward. Tristram Shandy migrated to Cartagena and to Bombay.

This was the work of the full-dressed post-Ulysses school (though no one is post-Ulysses; we are all somehow still catching up to it). It is against this backdrop that we might try to understand what the Internet in general, and Twitter in particular, mean for experimental prose. For isn’t this, in all its narration and ungoverned excess, where we might now be going? Isn’t Twitter the most vivid illustration since Ulysses of what full inclusion might mean? There are two-hundred million people on Twitter. They are all writing, and all are writing under a formal constraint.

This leads one, almost, into a mystical formulation: on Twitter there is no “novelist” but there is a novel: Twitter is the continuity of the published thoughts of all the people present on Twitter. It had a beginning, but it has no end. And each second, thousands of pages are added, millions of contributions per day. And each person who reads it, as Heraclitus might have promised, reads something different from everyone else. This is an inclusiveness, from an unexpected direction, that might begin to affect even the practice of the conventional published novel. It’s hard to imagine that it wouldn’t: most young novelists are themselves active on Twitter now. The atomized mode of information dispersal is more and more natural, and less and less “experimental” or elite.

Consider this statement: “Consciousness does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as ‘chain’ or ‘train’ do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; it flows. A ‘river’ or a ‘stream’ are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life.” This was written by William James’ in 1890, in The Principles of Psychology. It was later taken as an apt coinage for the efforts of Joyce, Woolf, and Mansfield. The description fits, even more exactly, the experience of reading Twitter.

Though there are interesting individual experiments on Twitter, I am drawn to the original meaning of “individual”: that which is undivided. It is the undivided, undifferentiated cascade of thoughts streaming past the timeline that makes me suspect that Twitter is, indeed, elongating the perspective of human sensibility. I want to suggest, then, that Twitter is one of the futures of the novel. In a time of commercial publishing and excellent television, the novelist is smaller than ever before. But the novel itself, it seems, is suffering the opposite fate: it is getting bigger and bigger, and gradually swallowing the whole world.

 © Teju Cole, 2013