We Keep Pronouncing The Novel “Dead,” But It Can Survive

In a society of diminishing attention spans and with a heightened desire for immediate, easily accessible entertainment, have the finest years of the novel as a mode of creative expression come and gone? Are the proclamations of its death, irrelevance, and futility merely lamentations from a generation in its twilight, or is the form actually well on its way to becoming obsolete?

In the words of Phillip Roth, prolific author of American Pastoral and Goodbye, Columbus who has shifted in the later years of his career from one of the novel’s finest practitioners to the harbinger of its extinction, “the book can’t compete with the screen; it couldn’t compete with the movie screen, it couldn’t compete with the television screen, and now it can’t compete with the computer screen.” The problem, he suggests throughout an interview with The Daily Beast, is the medium itself—print.

He speaks of a future in which traditional, bound fictional narratives will have become obscure objects with little more than a small, cult following, alike in relevance and readership to Latin poetry or contemporary classical music. Novelists Will Self and Tom Wolfe have predicted similar ends for the novel, attributing its fall to the end of the Guttenberg Era of printing and the advent of New Journalism, respectively. To most of the reading public, the notion does seem—initially, at least—a bit drastic and inflammatory.

Roth has been answered, with varying degrees of eloquence and disdain, by just about every small literary blog and print magazine in the world that still holds the novel as a sacred object. Book-loving bloggers, everywhere from Gawker to terribleminds.com, defend the printed novel as one might protect a weak, younger sibling from bullies, largely from a romantic and sentimentally optimistic position.

The passion is clear, but these are the people who have been taught to love the novel already. If anything, their replies help to paint an eerily accurate portrait of Roth’s predictions.
His unsettling future of a dying print industry and a cultic readership isn’t on its way—it’s already here.

Although the screen of which Roth speaks hasn’t quite killed anything, it has left us in something of a cathartic state of excitable passivity, nearly ruined for the enjoyable consumption of literature. The computer screen serves us well as our main source of information, entertainment, and communication—often all at once. It provides a virtually unbreakable link to the outside world, filling any empty spaces in a user’s neural pathways with music, news, or bits of text from other people for as long as one is able to stay attached. Through constant contact with the computer or television screen, human beings have come closer than ever before to eliminating their most primal fear of being alone.

Quelled by constant technological contact, this fear has spread, transmuting like a cancer into a paranoid dread of disconnection. One finds it nearly impossible to locate a public room without several charging stations and a WiFi signal, saved from any technological shortcomings that might have provided a few moments of seclusion.

With such constant access, the American adult has been habituated to believe that immediate entertainment is her intrinsic, inalienable right, to be sought after at all hours of the day. It has become possible, with the advent of broadband Internet, to switch between videos and articles in the time it takes to blink. If any of them should cease to provide immediate and prolonged stimulation, another is never further than three seconds away.

This unsettling primacy of cheap, quick entertainment is natural—the unfortunate result of a culture predicated largely upon the most hedonistic and utilitarian facets of Western philosophy. There is a crack in the foundations of our ethical reasoning, expanding rapidly and spreading with it a belief that the well-being and internal balance of a human being is dependent solely on the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain.

This is not a problem with print, but the setting and state of mind required for its consumption. A novel begs for a significant block of uninterrupted time and a quiet room, without a news feed or an app at the top for contact with anyone else. It’s a situation that has come to cause anxiety from the outset, and one that many would rather escape as quickly as possible.

The frivolousness and immediacy of electronically mediated entertainment and social interaction have provided a safe haven to which we may run when any feelings of discomfort arise, making loneliness rare and all the more terrifying. That immediacy has taken away the need to “sit in one place and, like, hurt,” as David Foster Wallace put it in Infinite Jest. When feelings of discomfort become imminent, a screen is never far away for distraction.

Good fiction disturbs the comfortable, though it may only do so if the comfortable give up the illusion that comfort is sustainable.

Any future in which the novel can survive—the elusive “literary” novel, at the very least—must correct this misconception and learn once again to view the concepts of pleasure and pain as not being mutually exclusive, but equally important means to a constructive end.

The ability to derive meaning from narrative or joy from the aesthetics of language is not one that anyone is born with, but one that must be cultivated over a lifetime with fair amounts of loneliness, hardship, and frustration. If we can learn to love these again, the audience for novels will only grow.

Featured Image by Jordan Pentaleri / Heights Editor

About Sean McGowan 19 Articles
Sean McGowan is a staff Opinions columnist for The Heights. He is a member of the Class of 2016, double majoring in English and Philosophy. He has been writing for The Heights since September 2014.