Tim Parks © Basso Cannarsa

Tim Parks © Basso Cannarsa

The future direction of the novel will be largely dependent on two aspects of fiction-writing that are presently extremely unstable. The most important is the relationship between the writer and the community he writes toward. Until some twenty or thirty years ago, most novel writers would have thought of their work as existing within the context of a national literature. Although while writing a novel they may not have thought of addressing it to anyone in particular, nevertheless they would have supposed that its first readers would be their co-nationals, reading it in the language it was written in, buying it from the kinds of bookshops the author also frequented, living in the same social and political context. This necessarily influenced both the style and content of the work. Much shared knowledge could be assumed; certain allusions would have a powerful affect. Only at a later date and on condition that their work was well received in their own country would it be translated and perhaps celebrated in other parts of the world.

That is no longer the case. More and more a writer will be aware of other communities of readers. In my case for example it is not unusual for a novel of mine to appear in Dutch a month or two before it appears in English, and to achieve its best sales and most penetrating reviews in Germany. Writers working in languages that are not widely spoken and hence addressing an initial reading public that is quite small (and perhaps getting smaller as people read more and more translations from English), may well feel that if they are to survive economically they had better accommodate the idea of an international audience in their original project.

In general then, people are reading more novels which do not speak of their home communities, while their home writers worry that a novel too deeply engaged in the local culture may not easily travel. To complicate matters an international and liberal readership has formed which tends to appreciate novels that attack the authorities in their home cultures, inviting the reader as it were to side with the individual against some foreign oppression. Many international literary prizes have tended to follow this formula, giving generous awards to writers exposing authoritarian realities in their own countries, but perhaps more for the benefit of the international community than the country itself. Thus a sort of triangle develops: an author grows up and matures in a particular cultural milieu then appeals beyond it to a global world. In any event, this decoupling of the writer from the world he lives and moves in, something that brings freedom but may diminish the possibility of a certain kind of engagement and responsibility, is bound to have an effect on the way authors write. No doubt people will react to the changing situation in all kinds of different ways.

Related to this question of interchange between writer and readership is the rapidly changing dynamic of how an author earns a living from what he writes. The advent of ebooks, the possibility of publishing in all kinds of ways on the net, the crisis of book publishing and book retailing, have all made the old formula of relying on an advance against royalties from a publisher and then simply getting on with one’s life without thinking any more about how a book is sold and how one earns from it, is beginning to look extremely fragile. Again, writers will routinely tell us that their work is not influenced by questions of income, but this is naive. Certain projects require such large investments of time and research and effort that it is hard to imagine people routinely undertaking them without being fairly sure of some income. It’s impossible to say how this will play out over the coming years. It’s clear that the world has a huge appetite for certain kind of written narrative, so it’s reasonable to suppose that ways will be found to remunerate those who provide the goods. But whether less popular writers can feel confident about making a living from their labours is altogether less clear. 

Copyright: Tim Parks

Tim Parks will be discussing ‘The Future of the Novel’ with Sophie Cooke and Georg Klein at the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference in Berlin on 15 and 16 September.