MilchinThe Future of the Novel

Keynote address given by Konstantin Milchin

First presented at the Krasnoyarsk Book Culture Fair, Russia

Konstantin Milchin Keynote text: “The Future of the Novel”

Although the death of the novel has been discussed for the past 100 years, it has still somehow managed not to die. Both the 1920s and 1960s witnessed various experiments on the novel  - but still it exists, and not much about it has changed. One of the major experiments took place in France where a daring attempt to create a new type of novel was made. However, after the total flurry and failure to invent anything particularly new, French literature returned to embrace the traditional novel with Michael Houellebecq as one of its brightest representatives. Curiously the most important and well-known texts written in the last 10-15 years, from Jonathan Franzen to J K Rowling and Stieg Larsson, are all ‘traditional’ novels.

However, the novel is facing a very serious challenge at the moment which is to do with the expansion of the e-books market. The Internet is often labelled as a major enemy of the novel, but it’s not true. In fact, the Internet is a friend of the novel. The real enemies are new kinds of intellectual or pseudo intellectual entertainment such as documentaries or high-quality series. Having gained wide popularity only in the recent years these new types of entertainment pull the attention of potential consumers away from the novel. 150 years ago the novel had few rivals: in big cities there were the theatres, the ballet, the opera, and museums; in small towns there was hardly any competition for people’s free time at all. Since the end of the XIX century the new types of intellectual entertainment started pressing hard on the novel. Musicals, radio, movies – they haven’t managed to kill the novel, but they have been rather successful in getting the consumers’ attention.

The Internet on the other hand is something of a salvation for the novel; though it can change it dramatically. Yes, there is a lot of copyright violation online, but on the other hand the Internet lends opportunities to underground presses. Authors such as Amanda Hocking are successful self-publishers and sellers through E-books are changing the way authors and readers connect. There are websites where readers transfer money to the author only after reading his book online for free. In fact this new era is all about removing the mediators between writers and readers. We are moving towards a world without literary agents, publishers, printers, and booksellers. Probably at first the novels in this new world will be far from perfect. But I am quite sure its masterpieces will show up with time. The most likely candidates will be short novels, or novels split into shorter stories, as the Internet gravitates towards conciseness.

Another option for a novel lies in its ‘multimedia-ization’. In the literatures of smaller counties a writer has long ceased to be just a writer, he is also a musician, an artist, a director, and a showman. A new kind of novel might even be built upon the wreck of the old world which will be a mixture of text, video, and music. The traditional novel will however remain;,but as an elite-exclusive entertainment. Like good whiskey.

Copyright: Konstantin Milchin, 2012