Essays by novelists lamenting the de-throning of the novel as the preeminent narrative art form of our culture have become a familiar genre. Jonathan Franzen is a particularly distinguished practitioner of the form. Recently Will Self published such an essay in the Guardian. Self (what a marvelous name for a novelist!) argues that the novel has been dethroned by the emergence of less challenging media of narration. The decline began, he thinks, a long time ago with the emergence of film, radio, TV and such things. The novel itself began when certain conditions in the technology of print media were developed, it then lasted beyond its time—all the way up till the late 20th century it retained great cultural power—but now it is almost finished becoming a niche-art without influence on the wider culture.
Self is surely right that the decline of the novel has much to do with the emergence of new media of narration (just as the emergence of the novel did) but I think that he neglects underestimates other factors—including (ironically given his name) the rise and fall of the understanding (or imagination) of the self typical of the age of the novel’s preeminence.
Will Self cites the developing of printing techniques that allowed for easy, swift, silent reading as conditions for the rise of the novel. These allowed for a form with a great many strengths:
The capability […] to both mimic the free flow of human thought and investigate the physical expressions and interactions of thinking subjects; the way they may be shaped into a believable simulacrum of either the commonsensical world, or any number of invented ones; and the capability of the extended prose form itself, which, unlike any other art form, is able to enact self-analysis, to describe other aesthetic modes and even mimic them.
the capacity to imagine entire worlds from parsing a few lines of text; the ability to achieve deep and meditative levels of absorption in others’ psyches.
Self’s argument here partially overlaps with that of Ian Watt in his classic study The Rise of the Novel. Watt too sees the development a medium that allowed for swift, silent reading as a condition for a form that was able to “mimic the free flow of human thought” and thus allow one to “achieve deep and meditative absorption in others’ psyches.” As Watt put it:
The mechanically produced and therefore identical letters set with absolute uniformity on the page are, of course, much more impersonal than any manuscript, but at the same time they can be read much more automatically: ceasing to be conscious of the printed page before our eyes we surrender ourselves entirely to the world of illusion which the printed novel describes. (p.198)
Watt analyzes how Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson developed a particular style (“formal realism”), with minute description of (often banal) circumstances, places, times etc. that weaves that “world of illusion.”
But Watt also notes other factors in the rise of the novel; especially the economic and social changes that brought about the modern, capitalist world, and modern philosophical ideas.
Steven Moore, in the first volume of his new history of the novel, rejects the whole idea of the novel developed by Watt and presupposed by Self, Franzen et al. Moore argues that there have always been novels, not just since the 18th century, and that the best novels have a different purpose:
[We] don’t read such novels ‘to sustain a sense of connectedness, to resist existential loneliness’ [quoting Jonathan Franzen]. We read them for the same reason we might go to the opera or the ballet: to be dazzled by a performance. (p. 9)
Moore’s championship of “performance” over “absorption in others’ psyches” (to use Self’s expression) is I think symptomatic of the very decline of the novel that Self et al. lament. In a (soon to be published) paper I argued that the novel does indeed begin in the 18th century, and that is was developed as a form particular suited to the modern tendency to make a very sharp distinction between inner, psychic reality and outer corporeal reality; between the res cogitans and the res extensa; between interiority and exteriority; between the subject and the object. Moore’s championed “performance,” on the other hand, is more typical of a certain pre-modern view of the relation between soul and body, of the exterior and the interior. A view that sees the external as immediately expressing the internal; that sees the soul as not foreign to the body, but as forming with it a microcosm that mirrors the macrocosm (a macrocosm that is itself no Cartesian res-extensa, but rather an ordered whole, full of intrinsic teleology and form). Think of Dante’s Commedia in which the visible is the immediate expression of a deeper order. Performance in this view of things is the best way of expressing the truth, because the truth itself is primarily public.
But in modernity performance is problematic, because the relation between the inner and the outer is problematic. “Our minds shine not through the body,” writes Laurence Sterne in Tristram Shandy, “but are wrapt up here in a dark covering of uncrystalized flesh and blood.” Truth for modernity is not public, but private, a matter (above all) of the interior monologue within the hidden depths of the res cogitans. The novel thus tries to avoid the impression of performance, of artificiality. Even if it is in fact a work of very careful art, it tries to give the impression of merely peering into another mind.
In a world in which capitalism destroyed much of the “organic” social connection of pre-modern society, and tended toward a collection of individuals related only contractually, and in which the division of labor increased leisure at the same time as it stultified and monotonized work, in such a world the novel became a realistic way of describing the situation of the individual, but also a way of curing the individual’s isolation and boredom through “access to other minds.”
So whence the decline? Self notes that already in the modernism of Joyce, Becket et al. the form of the novel began to unravel, and he ascribes this to the “taedium vitae” of the form caused by the rise of media like radio and cinema. But isn’t it also true that modernism was questioning the idea of a coherently narratable inner life? In the postmodernism of the 1970s there is certainly such a questioning going on. John Barth, William Gaddis et al. question both the idea of narratable human life and the very idea of communication through signs. Human subjects are portrayed as mere epiphenomena of material and economic reality, or linguistic constructs that mask the irrational imposition of power. But since the centrality of the human subject was the raison d’être the novelistic form, postmodern novels are deeply ironic—they are novels about the impossibility of novels. But such a view of the self is a rather difficult one to sustain, and it seems perhaps for this reason to have been a transitional one.
So where are we today? TV, video games, youtube etc. are “easier” ways of distracting from boredom than the novel, and “social media” (perhaps) fulfill something of its “peering into another mind” function, but has any other serious form of narrative art taken over from the novel medium of reflection on our understanding of the self? Will Self doesn’t seem to be entirely sure: “the hallmark of our contemporary culture is an active resistance to difficulty in all its aesthetic manifestations, accompanied by a sense of grievance that conflates it with political elitism.” So, maybe our culture doesn’t have any influential form of serious art. But then he also thinks that his rock music playing son is “breathing deep of a rich and varied culture” although he doesn’t read “serious novels.” So where is this rich culture? Not the movies apparently, Self thinks that they are a sort of vulgar shadow of the novel and are declining with it. According to Slavoj Žižek: “It is as if the Hegelian Weltgeist had recently moved from the cinema to the TV series, although it is still in search of its form.” (Wait, what? The TV series as serious art?! Are you serious?)
One could argue though, there there are some contemporary or near contemporary novelists who still play something of the cultural role that Self thinks novelists have lost. Take, for example, David Foster Wallace. In a piece on Wallace Benjamin Kunkel describes a discussion with a friend typical of a generation that Self thinks no-longer looks to novels:
Back in 2002 I had a running debate with a friend of mine on the subject of “dignity.” She claimed that this was something I was excessively concerned about. She didn’t think it was possible for people like us to be really dignified in the old (and possibly imaginary) way of prior generations and characters in classic novels. We were endlessly self-reflexive individuals who had been marked by dabbling in drugs and semiotics; the media world we inhabited made life feel squalid, disposable, and fearful; we could hear, when we opened our mouths, the culture industry’s language and not always our own. We were trapped inside ourselves—and in there wasn’t even a “self.” More like an empty lot crisscrossed by gusts of addictive compulsion, and littered with cultural debris. The situation made you feel ashamed. It bankrupted concepts like “dignity.”
But then he notes that they both agreed that Wallace’s novels were the place to look for answers:
The point is simply that our running debate was conducted by continuous reference to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. We took it for granted that the book possessed an incontrovertible anthropological authority about the country and time we lived in and, more than that, the people we were. This was in spite of Wallace’s funny and grotesque decision to open up the future calendar to corporate sponsorship (The Year of Glad, and so on), and to set the action of his novel in the Organization of North American Nations. The exaggerations in Infinite Jest felt particularly true. And the novel’s authority was like its status as a masterpiece: it went without saying. If dignity were possible or impossible, if we were trapped or free, or redeemable or not, this could best be proved by citing Wallace.
For a post-novelistic age, that’s a lot to expect from a novel.