The (Supposed) Death of the Novel

It’s interesting when you’re thinking about something and another piece comes along to confirm or to challenge what you’re thinking. I was thinking how – as writer – we’re in a way constrained by the forms we use. So, it’s either a novel or it’s a novella; it’s either an essay or it’s a short story, and that’s pretty much it. I see how visual artists experiment with different media within a single work and maybe we should do the same.

So, I’m thinking about all of this, and I read an article by Zadie Smith on “the essay”. There are a number of important quotes contained within. Firstly, she talks about a new book called Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields:

“Shields argues passionately for the superiority of the messy real … over the careful creations of novelists … For Shields it is exactly what is tentative, unmade and unpolished in the essay form that is important. He finds the crafted novel … to be a dull and generic thing, too artificial to deal effectively with what is already an ‘unbearably artificial world’. He recommends instead that artists break ‘ever larger chunks of ‘reality’ into their work’, via quotation, appropriation, prose poems, the collage novel . . . in short, the revenge of the real, by any means necessary. And conventional structure be damned.”

While I wouldn’t exactly be sounding the death knell on the novel just yet, this does tie in with what I’m thinking, not only with regard to new ways of writing, but it also ties in with the “Fragments” idea I mentioned in a previous post, the idea that the world now should be made up of short bursts of fiction or music or video. I think there are definitely a lot of people thinking about different ways to – as Smith says – “Make it new”.

“The pages are filled with anti-fiction fighting talk: ‘The creators of characters, in the traditional sense, no longer manage to offer us anything more than puppets in which they themselves have ceased to believe.’ And: ‘All the best stories are true.’ And: ‘The world exists. Why recreate it?’ It’s tempting to chalk this up to one author’s personal disappointments with the novel as a form (Shields hasn’t written a novel since the early 90s) …”

“Generally speaking, there are few things more exciting to a certain kind of writing student than the news that the imaginative novel is dead (with all its vulgar, sentimental, “bourgeois” – and hard to think up – plots, characters and dialogue). When your imagination fails you it’s a relief to hear that it need no longer be part of a novelist’s job description.”

This is an interesting – and not unfair point – that just because you’ve gotten sick of writing or reading novels – or are incapable of writing them – that doesn’t necessarily mean that fiction is dead or that the novel needs to be reinvented. However, we are in a new century and I think people are struggling within the constraints that the fictional form places on the writer. Yes, people want to read and write shorter or more experimental pieces of writing, but that doesn’t always necessarily mean it’s because they can’t write anything else. It is sometimes simply because that is the way the written word is evolving.

Traditionally, there was a market there for short stories and for poetry, and it wasn’t as difficult to get a book published. But these outlets have dried up for many people. So now, instead of spending a year writing a book that no-one will ever see – or even a month on a short story that people will never see – writers want to do short, sharp blasts that – whether seen or not – they haven’t wasted their lives on. Or blog posts that they can get out there in front of people. It doesn’t always mean that quality is good (it oftentimes means it’s not) but these are simply the new ways that the writer is interacting with the world.

(On that point, I have tried to do something along those lines with the “V-Fiction” experiment here)

You can read the Zadie Smith article that I quoted from here


9 thoughts on “The (Supposed) Death of the Novel

  1. I’m not sure I’d agree. At the same time of this posting there are authors and publishers bemoaning the difficulty of selling a short story. Many publishers are setting the lowest word limit at 50K or above.

    I do agree though many authors are more interactive with their audience via blogs, interviews, free fiction pieces. I think it may be more that marketing for the authors has evolved. Either way your post definitely provokes thought on the subject.

    Great work!


    1. Oh I agree that short stories and poetry are a hard sell. That’s why I’m suggesting artists try other ways and means to “make it new” and get their work out to a larger audience. Thanks for the comment 🙂

  2. Firstly I do not think the traditional novel will die. Classical music didn’t die with the advent of large scale popular music. Cinema didn’t die with the invention of TV. And, dare I say it, good old vinyl isn’t dead yet either.
    As with these other art forms one of the main differences is that many more people are ‘creating’ than before. Technology means that anyone can have a recording studio on their lap, so there are millions more music makers than before. Loads more people own a computer than would have owned a typewriter thirty years ago. So there are more writers and artists of all kinds. All scrabbling to be heard…and hopefully the really good, new and original creations some of them make will float to the surface for all to enjoy.
    I think perhaps we at beginning to witness new forms of writing through such technology. Blogs and ebooks are allowing people to combine art forms in new and unthought of ways to tell stories. For example you have music on your blog, some have video, original photography and art work. Now imagine all of those in an ebook novel – a character walks into a bar on page two and the music from the bar plays as you read, video montages of the room appear to give you a sense of atmosphere and you choose the door through which the character walks, all surrounded by the written word in a variety of fonts and colours and styles.
    I know that sounds cheesy and like a lot of crass video games but we are already seeing some classic works being given this kind of treatment for the iPad. But sooner or later imaginative authors are going to create a new kind of novel like this that is an art form in itself. Perhaps we can’t begin to imagine what they will be like…and how it might transform the actual writing itself…
    And like all new forms, many will reject it, like many reject ebooks now. There will always be room for the novel…nothing like a good book in your hands, and as you know there are so very many brilliant ones out there and not enough time in our short lives to read them all…shame…

    1. I’m definitely with you on that one Simon. I’ve tried mixing media myself, mixing fiction, music and video. And I do think the kind of advances you talk about in ebooks would be very exciting.

  3. Does Shields have any evidence the novel is dead? Novels seem to be selling quite well. Fiction seems to be selling quite well. Certainly I’m biased, but so is he – the arguments presented above aren’t arguments, they’re witticisms.

    Even though I prefer the novel style to read and write, I’m hoping the technological change of ebooks will bring back short fiction as a valid option for writers. The high financial barriers of printing and distribution are much crueler to short fiction than full length books, and anthologies leave the reader facing the unappetizing prospect of purchasing a book only for one or two stories it contains. This is exactly the barrier the electronic medium has removed.

    I don’t know that ebooks will bring back the short fiction story. It’s just speculation, but I’d like to think so.

    1. I do think Shields is being a bit mischievous in declaring the death of the novel but I also think he has a point about the evolution of the novel and how it should start to incorporate other media. Thanks 🙂

  4. I experimented this year with a collection of novellas that I published. They were met with great sales and a lot of happy people – yet they also caught some flack for being too short. The theory I wanted to test was that in todays hectic and ADHD riddled world we could use brierfer stories that were focused on entertaining the reader. I priced them accordingly, but still I caught hell for it from a small minority of readers.

    The moral of the story? I’m still not sure given that people love to gripe and complain more often than they love to offer praise. I do know the next release I have planned for this series will be longer!

  5. If the ‘something new’ is never seen by anyone, is the time any less wasted on them than on a novel no one ever sees? I think not, although I would argue the time invested in art of any kind is not wasted. Though I have never published anything, the mere act of writing creates in me a deep sense of personal satisfaction and contentment.

    I also think arguing the novel is dead just because one can no longer write them (or no longer desires to) is a bit convenient and trite. Like any artist, a writer is free to express their art in any form they like, but it seems that the more radical the art (of any kind) the more diminishing the audience, so to argue this is for the market is also often trite. This is about what the artist wants, not what the market wants, and while there is nothing wrong with that, I must insist on honesty.

    Personally I would not read something ‘tentative, unmade and unpolished in the essay form’ because what I want to read is a novel (and the more polished the better). If I wanted to read an essay, then I’d go read an essay. There is a fundamental mistake in arguing for the ‘messy real’. Readers don’t want real. If they wanted real, they’d be watching the news, not reading fiction…

  6. The Wool series by Hugh Howey as a great example of a series of short stories that did well on Good Reads and ended up being optioned by Ridley Scott.

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