The Future of the Novel: Some Tendencies to Watch

This is just a brief and incomplete note to follow up two discussions on the future of the novel that took place here in Berlin, as part of the Edinburgh World Writers Conference. I attended the first, and took part, more or less, in the second.

I feel compelled to write something, even in haste. I acknowledge, from the outset, that as a person who has written a novel and plans to write another, I’ve become one of the least qualified people to discuss the future of the novel. But I still feel compelled to express a general dissatisfaction with the way these conversations always seem to go, not because I want to dismiss the conversation or the people who want to have the conversation, but because I think tendencies develop that make it difficult to have fair, open, and illuminating discussions.

These tendencies usually reflect – if the people having these conversations are novelists – a desire to reverse the losses in status and prestige that novels once brought upon themselves and literature in general, and, importantly, upon the authors of novels. Rather than propose or contemplate various future directions for the novel – or if new directions are proposed, they are usually absurd, or they are simply very old new directions – novelists just make their own demise more undignified.

There’s a tendency to think of the novel’s growing social irrelevance like an illness being suffered by a sick patient, rather than the fatigue of a very, very old person. Solutions, therefore, are prescribed like medicine, or surgery is performed, and we’re puzzled by the fact that interventions just make the patient worse. These solutions often take the form of sentences with the word should in them. Sometimes even a must.

There’s the tendency to think of the novel’s future – or its health – as its ability to appeal broadly, to sell well, and get into the hands of people who will see what – under the demands of television, social media, the working life, bad books, and laziness – they’ve been missing. The problem is that this tendency leads us not only into the business-end definition of books but also to lethal considerations of what readers need and want, and how to appease or seduce them.

There’s a tendency to belittle the essay and experiments in nonfiction, and this tendency reinforces the outdated and dangerous prejudice that novels are big literature and everything else is small literature, that novelists are talking about profound things and everyone else is talking about trivial things. We defend this position with banalities and cliché.

There’s a tendency to turn a conversation about how we should respect the limitlessness of literature into a conversation about how we should impose limits on literature.

There’s a tendency to claim, without too much evidence, that the novel cultivates strong moral and ethical citizens, whereas new technology does the opposite. The suggestion is that humanity needs the novel, and technology is a threat to humanity.

On the other hand, there’s also a tendency to become smitten with the possibilities that new technologies bring to the novel. I think this is like being smitten by the sight of alien warships collecting over all the large cities in the world and starting a countdown. (Welcome! Save us! BOOM.)

There’s a tendency to let the conversation be led by people trying to sell you pet theories. This leads a lot of very accomplished novelists to complain that what is wrong with literature is that the majority of people do not accept that his or her pet theory is self-evidently correct. The concern here is that these accomplished novelists, many of whom are critics, then apply this pet theory to everything they encounter. New novels, then, tend to be good or bad based on how they fit inside the pet theory. This tendency prizes intellectualism and devalues both curiosity and humility. It makes us blind to the new, and it leads us to celebrate the predictable.

There’s a tendency to support pet theories with language that is empty, that is based on a knowledge of, but no sympathy for, theory.

There is a tendency to miss the obvious, and to say outlandish things that only sound profound until someone says, ‘Yes, but that already exists.’ There’s a great deal of overlap between this tendency and the tendency to think that the novel’s future is about collectivism. Or about innovations in narration.

There’s a tendency to complain about the injustice of prizes. There’s a tendency to complain about the dire state of criticism and book reviews. There’s a tendency to complain about the publishing industry. If you ask a room full of novelists about the future of the novel, you will hear a lot of complaining. And the people – I was sitting right beside one – who offer intriguing and worthy insights on the subject, rather than merely complain, are perceived as cracked. Or they are merely met with glances that say, Why don’t you write an essay about it?

Greg Baxter