I’ve gone from writing a regular column on scifi books for The Guardian, to a year without reading novels. What happened?
I keep having the same conversation about novels. I tell people that I don’t think anybody is reading novels any more. Usually, the response is outraged. I have a lot of writer friends. Clearly, none of us like the idea that the readers are drying up. Then I dig a bit and it becomes clear – they haven’t actually read a novel themselves in years.
My primary evidence for the death of the reader is the death of my own reading. It’s been a year since I’ve read a novel. “Well you must just be one of those dumbasses who doesn’t read!” I hear some folks thinking. That would be less worrying, wouldn’t it? But the truth is that, until quite recently, I was a professional reader.
While I was writing my regular column on sci-fi books for The Guardian I was getting through five or six full books a month, and looking at maybe two dozen in part. Plus reading for reviews with SFX magazine and elsewhere. I would trawl through the new releases looking for anything promising. And while doing that, something happened.
I was finding less and less I wanted to read.
How the novel lost its magic.
I remember as a kid spending afternoons at the local library, selecting books as though I was selecting magical portals to step through. Then I would rush home and lose myself in the magic for hours, days at a time.
Of course we all grow up. We can’t spend our whole live teleporting to other realms. But, at every new stage of my life, new kinds of book would open up new kinds of magic for me. I found The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami when I was twenty-eight. A whole decade of new reading experiences began there, authors like Michael Chabon and Alice Munro came along and reading stayed electric.
But now in my early forties, I haven’t found equivalent new voices. The last novel that really caught me was Noah Hawley’s Before The Fall. Beautiful storytelling from the show-runner of Fargo, a real talent. Maybe I haven’t looked hard enough. Maybe it’s out there waiting to be found. The new seam of novelistic beauty just waiting for me, the reader, to mine it.
But I don’t think it’s me. I think, dear novel, that it’s you.
There’s no doubt the novel is facing some stiff competition for our attention. Hands up who doesn’t spend 100% more time on social media than they did 20 years ago when it didn’t exist? The smartphone is engineered to swallow as much of your eyeball time as it can. Which, often, is all of it.
But I don’t believe the novel is as vulnerable to digital distractions as some might say. We’re all HUNGRY for deeper experiences that stop as from paddling in the shallows of social media. When high quality tv drama of film releases come along, we’re there for them. But not, it seems, for novels.
No, I think a more serious ailment is afflicting the novel. And I fear it’s a self inflicted malady, that it’s going to take quite some time and care to care get over. But that healing process can’t even begin until the novel admits it has a problem. Maybe at a kind of metaphysical AA meeting for dying art forms.
“Hi. I’m The Novel. And I’ve been arrogantly over sure of myself as the natural home of high quality storytelling.”
The novel was always where people who valued real high quality storytelling went to find it. Films and tv had their moments, but they were largely packed with junk. But over the last couple of decades the tables have turned. Prestige tv shows are where we go now for the best storytelling. Novels seems more and more junky. Call it the Dan Brown or Fifty Shades effect. However it happened, I just don’t expect to find good storytelling in novels anymore.
Ebooks aren’t helping (but they could)
As a writer, I find NaNoWriMo inspiring. Yes new writers, you go for it!
As a reader, I find the idea of having to read anything written as part of NaNoWriMo truly horrifying. My time is precious, and your 50,000 word novel written in a month ain’t getting a second of it.
Increasingly, this is my feeling about the entire field of digital publishing. It’s hard to find anything polite to say about the Amazon Kindle self-publishing scene, the writerly equivalent of America’s Got Talent, except without the talent.
If anything killed the magic of the novel, it’s seeing the novel utterly degraded and disrespected by the fevered egos who crank out junk and self publish it on the Kindle. I really wish this didn’t effect how I see the novel, but inevitably, it does.
And mainstream publishing isn’t all that much better. They don’t seem to invest anywhere near enough into developing talented new writers. New writers are published too early, then disappear before they have a chance to develop, which rarely happens before half a dozen lesser novels have been published.
All of which is really a great shame. Because ebooks and digital publishing could so easily unleash a renaissance in novel writing, as a space for experimentation and the development of new talent. But instead we just get endless cash in genre novels, all with their cadre of fake reviews.
Can the novel redeem itself?
2019 has been my worst year as a reader. But I’m hopeful, and excited, that 2020 will be better.
Everything has a cycle. The novel has produced incredible richness of storytelling and works of art over the centuries. I’m sure it will again. Right now we’re at the bottom of the cycle for the novel. It’s swamped by really awful work, packed full of imitative genre fiction. But it’s when an art form is at its worst that you might start to see green shoots of renewal popping up.
If the novel’s going to win me back as a reader, it will have to tear down and rebuild how it does the art of storytelling. As the tv show went through a complete revolution to give us Mad Men or Breaking Bad, I can see signs of the novel entering a similarly revolutionary period.
I suspect it won’t be Kindle self publishers OR authors with traditional publishing deals showing us the way. The internet is so rich with unexplored publishing opportunities, I suspect the novels that grab my attention back as a reader will be quite untraditional in how they are published.
Have you spotted authors re-inventing the storytelling of the novel? Give me a lead, I’d love to read them.