Monday, May 05, 2014

Do we need to worry or not?

There's been much reaction on the web to Will Self's Guardian article concerning the death of the serious novel in our digital age, most of it negative, with many commenters objecting that on the contrary, the internet has promoted the serious novel. However, I'm surprised that people can have managed to take such a clear message from the article (ie that the serious novel really is dead, once and for all): I've always been an admirer of Self's views and his clarity of mind, but I've read this article twice now, and I still can't find a clear thread, or be absolutely sure of Self's ultimate view of the situation. It should be noted that it is in fact an edited version of the Richard Hillary lecture he'll deliver tomorrow, so his argument will have been truncated, but it does seem to me that, rather than a successful analysis of the current situation (which in a time of such rapid technological change is probably impossible), it's more an expression of our uncertainty and anxiety about it.

Self does assert categorically that 'the literary novel as an art work and a narrative art form central to our culture is indeed dying before our eyes.'  He goes on to 'refine his terms', as he puts it: he doesn't mean 'the kidult boywizardsroman' and the 'soft sadomasochistic porn fantasy' which he notes are in 'rude good health'; he is talking about
The capability words have when arranged sequentially 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.
I don't argue with most of this as a definition of literary fiction, but I'm not sure what he means by a novel's ability to 'enact self-analysis'. Perhaps he is talking merely about the intellectual content and verbal and structural patterning of any serious work of prose fiction, but I suspect he is really thinking of a very specific kind of novel, postmodern and self-referential, indeed the kind of novel he writes himself, especially as he then goes on to introduce the notion of 'difficulty' as an aspect of the serious novel. What about those novels that fulfil all the other criteria in the passage above with no difficulty or challenge for the reader? Are they not 'literary'? So it's never clear precisely in this discussion whether we're talking about a particular type of serious novel or something wider. 'The advent of digital media is not simply destructive of the codex, but of the Gutenberg mind itself', he says, but this is a point which (if true) must surely apply to books of any form in any medium.

He takes for granted that in the age of soundbites and instant access to information, people are more impatient with certain kinds of difficulty, plumping for entertainment rather than serious engagement with the complex or the unfamiliar, a view that seems borne out by the fact that the larger publishers are increasingly unprepared to publish such fiction. But as Self himself indicates, the current state of book publishing is an economic effect of the new technology as well as late-20th-century capitalism and such developments as the abolition of the Net Book Agreement. It's not necessarily indicative of a sea-change in the attitude of the public towards reading (though we shouldn't discount its possible effects on that). Self harps back to a golden age (ie when he was a young man in the early 80s) when 'the literary novel was perceived to be the prince of art forms, the cultural capstone and the apogee of creative endeavour'. He immediately qualifies this, however: 'This is not to say that everyone walked the streets with their head buried in Ulysses or To the Lighthouse, nor do I mean to suggest that in our culture perennial John Bull-headed philistinism wasn't alive and snorting' (by god, he has a good turn of phrase!), before going on to claim contradictorily:
However, what didn't obtain is the current dispensation, wherein those who reject the high arts feel not merely entitled to their opinion, but wholly justified in it. 

I'm not so sure about that: I spent my teenage years in a small northern town, and for a lot of that time I sensed that quite a number of people around me righteously thought me an uppity snob (as well as air-headed) for my difficult-novel reading, and that I needed to be taken down a peg or two. He sees what he calls the 'serious' novel becoming 'an art form on a par with easel painting or classical music: confined to a defined social and demographic group', but having taught in secondary schools and married into a typical northern working-class family, I'm not sure that challenging fiction has ever really been much else. As Self himself points out, general literacy in the West is a historically recent phenomenon, and after referring to his youth as a golden age in reading, he reveals that his agent, placing his first novel, told him to accept its publication as a paperback original, as it was 'nigh-on impossible for new writers to get published - let alone paid'; in other words, those economic sea-changes were already taking effect in publishing, altering the revered physical character of new books and causing what Self calls 'the concertinaing of the textual distribution into a short, wide pipe'.

Self sees 'serious' novels as needing in the future to be subsided, but the truth is, I think, that the more challenging fiction always has been. Once upon a time publishers with money were prepared to subsidise it for a minority audience, but in this age of rampant commercialism they're no longer prepared to. In response, we see the rise of small publishers prepared to pick up the slack, but there remains the serious problem of adequate remuneration for writers, necessary if we're to keep a serious literary culture going. Self is almost bitter about the current solution found by most writers, teaching on the burgeoning Creative Writing courses, 'care homes' to accommodate 'writers who can no longer make a living from their work' and where PhD students with unpublishable novels aspire to be paid in turn for the 'midwifery of still-born novels.' And yes, as Self says, and as I've often commented here, the whole buzzy culture of the internet is destructive of the kind of privacy and solitude that is essential for both the reading and writing of serious novels.

So yes, there's a big problem, but we can't assume that technology won't overcome it. Self would probably call me a naive 'populist Gutenberger' for saying so, and yet he declares that as a practical novelist he doesn't feel depressed about it all, and, unaccountably in view of his gloomy prediction, concludes with a statement that he feels 'safe ... to go on mining'.
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