The Future of the Novel

Keynote address given by Tibor Fischer

First presented at the Krasnoyarsk Book Culture Fair, Russia

Tibor Fischer Keynote text: “The Future of the Novel”

I’ve always wanted to be a prophet, and a shaman so I’m delighted to be invited here, to the home of shamanism to make some predictions.

I can see clearly, with the help of only a few mushrooms, that the future of the novel is safe. The novel, of course, will never have again the primacy it enjoyed in the past, when it was the premier artistic vehicle in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

But that the novel has lost ground, and I’m afraid will lose some more ground in the next decade is the truth.

I’m too young to remember the original Edinburgh Writers’ Conference, but I can just recall the late sixties when there was much talk of the death of the book and the death of the novel. This talk went on through the seventies, through the eighties, nineties, noughties and here we are.

The book, the paper book, will not die, and the novel won’t die either. The paper book may well become a rarity, but like vinyl, it will survive, because if for no other reason, there’s no point in reading Proust or Joyce if you can’t leave a copy lying around ostentatiously so that your friends know you’re reading them.

At the moment, most British highstreets have a bookshop. In ten years they won’t. The e-book.

I knew the e-book was coming, but I have been surprised by how soon it came and how quickly it has achieved popularity. It makes great sense for all sorts of reasons, particularly for reference works. I envy students today for that. The worst part of going to university for me was carrying large boxes of books – that your library can now fit in your laptop is a wonderful thing.

In ten years time there will be fewer publishers based in plush offices in the centre London. Ironically, the big publishers are keenest on the e-books. They don’t seem to have learned the lesson from the music industry. If it’s digital, you can kiss it goodbye.

The great enemy of all creative industries is the internet, because it’s free. It’s ironic that as the access to a global market has become easier, it’s become harder to make money.

There’s another problem with the e-book aside from its piratability. It’s close to being immortal.

One reason new books are bought is because old ones get pulped. They are destroyed in fires and floods. They get eaten by dogs, or gnawed at by mould. And if a paperback is really popular it can rarely go through a dozen pairs of hands before it disintegrates. E-books don’t get eaten by dogs, they don’t get dog-earred.

If I published a new novel today, it will be competing against let’s say two million digital titles. In ten years, that will probably be twenty million. And even today, Amazon offers some best-selling books for twenty pence and many more for under a pound.

The novel, as Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin pointed out, is an omnivore. Omnivores are good at survival. They can weather disaster.  The novel won’t die because its about a very basic impulse, story-telling, and it resides in the first and most essential form of communication, language. It will always have the ability to reinvent itself, to resurrect itself. I tried to think of a clever image, but I couldn’t, so I’ll stick with the Phoenix.

If you need proof we now have a generation of novelists who have grown up with all the electronic temptations of video and the computer, and they still want to write novels, and their novels are still being read.

So the future is fine for the novel, but it’s not so rosy for the novelist.

The chief enemy of the novelist is the Internet, not just because it’s free but because it’s very entertaining. I teach nineteen year-olds and, in general, they don’t read – although it has to be said English Literature students for some reason seem to be the most reluctant readers. We’re losing the mass readership, we’re losing the money and there’s no way back

Writing novels was never an easy path to wealth, but you always had a chance of a jackpot, and you also had a chance of a living wage. And while there’s still a chance of a jackpot, the odds are much longer. Most established novelists are now in the same position as the poets in that they can no longer expect to make a living from their writing, or at least from their novels. Like musicians, to make money now, they have to rely more on the live act, like this.

Copyright: Tibor Fischer, 2012