Arts Investigates: The Death of the Novel

The Death of the Author has turned into the Death of the Novel. With many traditional plot devices centring on chance meetings and misdirected letters, unless they want to have their work stuck in the past forever, authors are looking into new ways to make books work. But with technology meaning many problems posed in novels set in the modern-day are able to be solved with the click of a button, we must ask – is the novel really dying, and where does art go from here?

Consider the three classic forms of literature – drama, poetry and novels – it isn’t difficult to see that they all have their own ‘modern’ counterparts in more recent forms. Plays have turned to movies, with some films providing as much social commentary as the best plays do; poetry has been replaced by (or rather re-transformed into) song lyrics; and novels are starting to be drawn, the marriage of visual art and traditional text resulting in the creation of comic books, and later, the graphic novel.

“There is still an audience out there for poetry”

But this does not mean the old forms are dying. As the release and promotion of Kaur’s Milk and Honey and Porter’s Grief is the Thing With Features proved, there is still an audience out there for poetry, however traditional or experimental, with the latter resurrecting interest in Ted Hughes. Hundreds of new plays are released every year, unhindered by the movies, and musicals are becoming increasingly synonymous with theatre, showing that the ‘old’ forms are evolving into a multitude of new ones, rather than being simply replaced by different mediums (indeed, Grief… beautifully combines prose, poetry and narrative in a way very few artists would dare try).

New novels, set in the modern day, are experimenting with new storytelling techniques, such as Ian McEwan’s Nutshell, told from the point of view of a foetus, bypassing all of the text messages and technology a foetus cannot experience. And while some novels do make reference to modern technology jarringly, seeming to force-feed us with sentences which may as well read ‘WE KNOW WHAT THE INTERNET IS’, check out Khair’s brilliant How to Fight Islamist Terrorism from the Missionary Position, a book every bit as good as its name, to see how some expertly utilise technology sparingly so as to contribute but not impose on the story – and the plot does not suffer in the least for it.

“It’s undeniable that some of Kanye West’s songs carry heavy social and political commentary”

But this does not deny that there is a rise in new forms which right now are steeped in ‘Popular Culture’ whose ‘literary worth’ academics in the future may only mine once they have been removed from their immediate context. For example, despite his overblown public persona and stage shenanigans, it’s undeniable that some of Kanye West’s songs carry heavy social and political commentary, with particularly prominent examples being ‘Diamonds from Sierra Leone’ and ‘Jesus Walks’. And even despite some of the outlandish lyrics from his latest record, The Life of Pablo (yes, you know which line I mean), even here he is doing something to push the boundaries of art, his continual tinkering with that album being a live-commentary on what a record can actually be.

Art is continually in a state of change, always evolving and responding to the social environment in which it is created. But the old forms do not stagnate and fade into the past, they are continually taken up again, like different languages which split from an old form which continues to develop itself. The novel will never die – historical and fantasy novels, and humanity’s constant desire to experiment will prevent that – but even if its popularity diminishes, it is worth remembering that novels in the West have only really been around for three hundred or so years, and they also naturally evolved out of literary forms that were around before them.

“It is now difficult to actually find dedicated physical publications of short stories”

One form which arguably is on its last legs is that of the short story. Once popular in magazines and even newspapers, it is now difficult to actually find dedicated physical publications of short stories with any sort of ‘literary’ worth. Perhaps the Internet can account for this, too, with the rise of flash fiction and fan fiction replacing the form as a go-to for quick entertainment. But these forms can have ‘literary’ worth too, with an increasing number of publications seeking for high-quality flash fiction – just because we live in an age where distractions are paramount and more readers are seeking shorter and shorter pieces, this does not mean that there needs to be a decline in quality within these forms.

And while Fifty Shades of Grey might not be everyone’s favourite example of fan fiction-turned-published work, it’s worth remembering that the longest published piece ever is a Super Mario-based piece of fan fiction called The Subspace Emissary’s Worlds Conquest, clocking in at a staggering 3.5 million words – much longer than Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which holds the Guinness World Record for the longest ‘novel’.

“The Internet has made art more accessible than ever before”

Art constantly changes to reflect time and this must not be seen in a negative way. The very aim of art is to tap into our consciousness and open up our eyes to the world, and this can only be done through methods appropriate to the time in which they are received. The Internet has made art more accessible than ever before as well as having opened the doors to many new types of art, though due to the devil-may-publish possibilities of the web, it’s hard to differentiate what’s worth reading for literary value from simple entertainment. However, old forms will never die, just as they have never died before – they will always exist, even if just as artifacts from a bygone age, ready for a resurgence whenever they are needed again.

Matteo Everett

Image credit: Shane Gorski via Flickr

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One Comment
  • Jeanne
    17 January 2017 at 18:47
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    “When you get outside of New York City, there is a whole other world out theâ€.reI can’t get past that. How arrogant and insular can you get?

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