Writers can be a hugely insightful bunch. A good novelist can tell you what’s going on inside the head of another human being at fifty yards. But when it comes to seeing the blindspots in our own self-awareness, novelists suck.
Today, The Bookseller published a little summary of a radio interview with Robert Harris, who rightly identifies an existential threat to the future of the novel – the now ubiquitous television boxset. As I write this, literary twitter is in full meltdown. ABSURD! Shout thousands of novelists, all highly invested in the novel’s survival.
“Literary fiction has forgotten what story is in its quest to make it all the way up its own backside.”
The problem is, simple observation proves that Harris is right. Television boxsets dominate our culture, while novels only get a mention when they’re…adapted into television box sets. Print fiction sales are nosediving, and ebook sales are largely propped up by millions of self-published authors buying their own books to try and “break through”.
Writing novels is incredibly popular. Reading them, sadly, is going the way of the LP record. A thing loved by afficianados, and ignored by everybody else.
THIS HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH DIMINISHING ATTENTION SPANS.
I cringe when I hear authors making the “people are just too stupid to appreciate my genius” argument. Quite the opposite, the internet is creating a readership who are highly attuned to the VALUE of information. We sort through thousands of information sources a day to find those of value to us. Novels are simply much less likely to make the cut.
So why is the novel dead in the water?
The novel has fallen behind as a storytelling medium. Not so long ago, novels were the most reliable fix of story you could find. Now they have heavy competition from box sets, video games, comics, movies and more. And here’s the really crucial issue…that contest has RAISED OUR EXPECTATIONS of what storytelling can and should.
Think about the huge rise in the quality of television drama in this “golden age”. It’s not an accident. Screenwriters and showrunners have innovated their art to new levels. Breaking Bad or The Wire aren’t just good tv. They’re drama of a quality and sophistication the world has never seen before. I do not exagerate.
The expectations of audiences have skyrocketed. While the novel has stood still. Or, arguably, declined. Literary fiction has forgotten what story is in its quest to make it all the way up its own backside. Genre fiction is now so badly written, much of it must be classified as illiterate.
The novel is dead. But that’s a great thing for ambitious novelists. Because it’s your job to bring it back to life. Stop blaming the reader, and start finding ways to once again tell powerful stories in prose fiction, stories so great that they can not be ignored.
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