Is The Novel Dead?
Lately I’ve been keeping these columns short. Buuuut I figured you all might be in the mood to think about something other than death. Human death, anyway. And I figured you might have some time to kill, whether that’s because you’re sitting at home and getting paid or sitting at home because you’re laid off. Let’s think about something else for a bit.
I heard this diet tip about pizza: when you have a frozen pizza in the freezer, stack a bunch of healthy stuff on top. Leftovers or frozen vegetables, stuff you can blend together for a smoothie.
The idea here, you have to touch and move all the healthy stuff to get what you want. You have to pause and make an effort to eat that pizza.
Now, imagine a reversed setup, pizza on top of veggies. You go to eat dinner, and if you go to eat something even moderately healthy, you first have to move aside a frozen pizza. Or better yet, knock down a pizza boy who’s taken up residence in your kitchen. Every time you go for the fridge he stands in your way with a hot, greasy pie. Every time you go in the kitchen for a glass of water, every time you step towards that part of the house, thinking, “Damn, how long has it been since I ate an apple?” Every time, bam, pizza boy is pulling a hot slice out of the oven with that long wooden pizza peel.
That’s the situation I find myself in. With the novel.
I work for a library. And our collections department purchased something called a Pop-Up Library. This is basically a tiny box that broadcasts a signal, a signal that reaches something like 50 feet. Your phone sees it as a wifi network, you connect your phone to it, blammo, you can download or stream books with your library card.
Ideally these end up in places where people are spending a lot of time. The DMV, on a cross-town bus. Places where people are bored, we give them access to books.
Here’s the rub: to access these books, you need a device. Most times this device will be a phone. Meaning you’d have to bypass everything else on your phone to get to a novel. So, we have to convince people to ignore Instagram, stop Crushing Candy, drop email, and instead pick up a novel.
This whole thing has given me some insight into the daily choice most people make. Most people choose whether to read or do something else. And most times, the “something else” is simpler, less taxing, and easier to pick up and put down.
It’s my personal and professional opinion that novels can’t compete with other modern forms of entertainment. I’m sorry. But we're in a place where someone has to walk right past a great game to get to a book. It’s like turning down that hot slice of pizza for a pouch of steamed broccoli. We’d all love to think we’d do it, at least from time to time. But any pizza-boy-in-residence will tell you it ain’t happening.
Why Write This?
I love broccoli. And novels. I really do. I’ve read a lot of them. Though I have to admit, not as fast and as often as I used to.
I’ve seen many an article on this topic, Is the Novel Dead? And most of them say one of these things:
Yes, the novel is dead, and I’m writing this to be seen as a prescient cultural critic.
No, the novel is not dead, and I’m writing this as a takedown of the arguments of another critic, proving that I am truly the prescient critic.
These options both smack of a desire for personal glory. That’s not what I’m here for. If I want personal glory, it's definitely coming from a pizza challenge, one of those situations where you eat several pounds of pizza and get a polaroid up on the wall.
I’m here to tell you why I think the novel is dead. Because although I wish it weren’t true, I think it probably is. I’m a lover of books, and at the same time pride myself on being pragmatic, realistic. I feel well-suited for this. Which is something I’ve only said a few times, like at the Pizza Hut buffet in high school when I changed the game by showing my classmates how to use the paper mat that comes on the buffet trays to wrap up slices and leave with an afternoon snack, unmolested.
While I’m here to say the novel is dead, I’m also here to say that the novel being dead is a good thing. Any way you slice it.
What Does “Dead” Mean?
Let’s define cultural death. Because I anticipate a lot of “The novel isn’t dead, look around, fool! You have novels in your living room!” I anticipate this from my partner. Yes, she calls me "fool" from time to time.
Cultural death isn’t the same as biological death. It’s harder to define. Lifespans in culture vary wildly. And a piece of culture can still exist and be dead at the same time.
A simple example, you can learn Latin on Duolingo, it’s still around, but it’s a dead language. Latin is considered a dead language because it’s not a native language to anyone at this point. People adopt it, its presence is still felt, its ghost haunts our languages, but Latin, itself, is dead.
As an aside, let’s be clear that me saying Latin is dead doesn't imply how important or valid I think it is. We get very hung up on that when it comes to cultural death, that saying something is dead is invalidating it. But that’s not how it should be. When I tell you my grandmother is dead, that doesn’t mean I think she sucks. It means she’s dead. No implied “and therefore…” is hitching along.
Let’s imagine a fictional rock band, Steel War Balloon. They were very active until 1980 when their drummer died, at which point they stopped making new shit and stopped touring. Some would call this the “death” of the band, although their music continued to be culturally relevant. Is Steel War Balloon dead? Sort of yes, sort of no. Nothing new is going on with them, but the spirit lives on.
The remaining members of Steel War Balloon died off over the subsequent years. Dead now?
Steel War Balloon was an inspiration for a lot of modern music. That’s what artists would tell you, anyway. The influences aren’t immediately apparent. Dead? More alive than ever?
Then, Steel War Balloon was cited as a perpetrator in the Me Too movement, and they were “cancelled.” Dead now?
Steel War Balloon radio play dwindled. Dead yet?
Steel War Balloon, 100 years later, is only known (but loved) by a small group of people who are very interested in 20th century music. Dead?
This is where it all gets very confusing. Yes, Steel War Balloon music still exists. People wear their t-shirts, although you suspect that half the wearers could not name 5 SWB songs, and besides, SWB was a band, not a graphic design firm, so what do t-shirts matter?
I would say Steel War Balloon died at some point here, but it’s hard to nail down exactly when. It’s hard to say exactly what qualities in what measures mark something culturally dead.
Form Death And Singular Death
Just because we can make this MORE confusing, there’s a difference between saying Steel War Balloon is dead and saying the type of music they made is dead. Because while Steel War Balloon may live a long time, most of its contemporaries won’t, and the type of music they make will die off. Grunge is dead, even if Nirvana isn't.
I’m going to ask you a question, and I want you to think how you’d answer this question outside the context of books: Do you think forms of content delivery go out of style? Think about paintings. Think about fine woodworking. How about...opera?
Do some people go to the opera? Yes. Do new operas get made? If I told you that no new operas were written in 2019, would you doubt that, or would you KNOW it wasn’t true? Would you be able to prove me wrong with an example from your head?
The connectedness of the world allows us to extend the life of culture beyond its natural lifespan. Niche audiences can connect and be more vocal, and if we google, we can find people who are SUPER into opera. But, time was you could talk to people you knew and find someone who had been to an opera this year. Or ever. And not just that one opera nerd, person studying opera, or person related to someone who is a performer. Regular-ass people. Poll your friends, see how many have been to an opera or even considered going to an opera in the last year.
Let’s not just beat up on opera.
The painting, as a form, isn’t nearly what photography is. Every person you know carries a camera with them at all times, whether they mean to or not. Compare that to the number of people who carry a pocket paint set (and keep in mind, I’m betting the person with that paint set is ALSO carrying a camera). People take photos of famous paintings rather than reinterpreting and repainting them. How many people painted something this year? Much as I might not like it, I have to be honest and say the selfie is alive, and the painting is dead.
Novels are still being written, published, and read. My question, however, is about THE novel, the form, not individual books.
People are still painting. People still write and perform operas. People write sonnets. People make their own clothing. If you look hard enough, you can find someone who engages in any number of dead arts. This doesn’t mean they’re alive.
It's Not About How You Feel
Lots of readers are shaking their heads about the novel being dead, but I bet you were nodding along with the idea of opera being dead. Because you don’t give a shit about opera, and neither does anyone you know.
But you’re shaking your head at the novel being dead because you still care about the novel. You’re personally invested in the continuing success of the novel.
I was personally invested in my grandmother. I did not want her to die. But that was irrelevant in the end. I would trade all the novels in the world to have my grandmother back. Sorry, Franzen, but I totally would. The rest of you would have to find something else to do.
But that choice ain’t on the table.
The novel being alive and vibrant in your life doesn’t make it alive in the culture.
Hate Me, But Only If It Helps
If that’s how you want to defend the liveliness of the novel, go ahead and call me a hypocrite and a fool. I read novels. I write novels. I review novels. I buy novels. I love them.
I’d just ask you to keep in mind, when you tell other people the novel is very much alive, and when you’re reasoning is, “This one idiot on LitReactor said they’re dead. He’s an idiot, therefore what he says is false, therefore the novel is alive” isn’t going to get you very far. Nobody knows who I am. And while you’re spot on about my intelligence, look at the facts: proving that I’m stupid doesn’t mean the novel is alive. Calling me an arrogant, privileged white male isn't going to change the facts.
Hate me for writing this. Be angry at me. But only if it helps. Only if it feeds your desire to keep the novel alive.
Is The Book Dying?
One theory is that the novel is dying because the book, as an object, is dying. That pulp and boards won’t hold our stories together much longer.
I don’t necessarily agree with this. I’m one of the few people who might be in the camp of thinking the novel is dying but also thinking it has nothing to do with the death of the book. Reason being, the eBook does not offer significant advantages over the paper version.
Hang with me a second.
Jumps in media consumption technology stick when they provide a significant advantage to the consumer. We jumped from radio to records because we could control what we listened to. We jumped from records to tapes because music was now portable and less fragile. We jumped to CD’s because we could skip tracks instantly. MP3 worked because we could store infinite music in little bricks. Streaming means we don’t have to manage our music libraries anymore.
But the eBook? It’s not cheaper. It’s not a better reading experience (in fact, it’s worse). While it DOES give you access to your entire library at any one time, that’s not really an advantage for novels. The novel is a commitment. People don’t dive in and out of different novels on shuffle the way they do music. The eReader requires money, charging, and wifi to be useful. The eReader is shittier to leave behind on accident. The modern tablet-style eReader also comes packed with other distractions more interesting than the books it’s meant to display.
I don’t think we’re there yet. Kindle is the laserdisc of the reading technology movement, the 8-track. They’re on the right track, but the advantages are still piddly shit.
No, I don't think the book itself is dead. Just the novel.
Is The Bookstore Dying?
The novel can’t be failing if the bookstore is doing well! Er, wait. The bookstore is doing well, right?
I have a theory on why you think that. I thought the same thing.
In 2018 lots of outlets picked up the story about how the number of independent bookstores grew in the United States. However, this was an increase in independent bookstores, not an increase in the total number of bookstores. With big book retail like Waterstones, Borders, and Waldenbooks disappearing, with Barnes and Noble reducing stores, with lots of other stores removing or reducing that aisle of paperbacks, there was lots of room for indies to pop up. But, it did not mean that people had more access to books than they did just a few years prior. Imagine a world where Subway closed up shop. The number of independently-owned sandwich places would explode, coming up with names like Bukowski’s Ham On Rye and Pete’s Pastrami Hole and Pete’s Pickle Hole (most of the businesses I come up with have the same template: Pete’s [blank] Hole”). But there’s no way we’d see the total number of sub shops on the rise.
The fact is, in book retail, total employees and revenue are down. Growth is in the negative. When you look at the bookstore industry as a whole, the number of bookstores has decreased by 11%. I live in a place that used to have a Borders and a Hastings. Now it has nothing.
There’s another dark secret to the indie bookstore world. Go to Powell’s. Go to The Strand. They sell a lot of merch. They’re destinations, landmarks as much as they are functional bookstores. I love them both. When I go on vacation, I leave space in my bag for books. And when I stand in line, I see that most folks just aren’t as hardcore about books. This is pure anecdotal evidence on my part. I tried to find numbers, but bookstores are pretty tight-lipped about how much of their revenue comes from books.
Please, when you visit a bookstore, buy something. By all means. And I’ve been there, too many books at home, partner that’ll kill me if I bring home any more. Doesn’t change the fact of the line full of people with mugs, stickers, and coffees. Not so much novels.
Lack of habitat is a huge factor in extinction. When the number of bookstores is reduced, and when the front-facing space for novels in the remaining bookstores goes down, replaced with merch, we have to consider what it means.
The bookstore is not dead, but it’s also not thriving in the way we might’ve thought.
The Midlist Author is Being Killed
It’s very difficult, financially, to make it as a midlist author.
We like to point to the big players, the Pattersons and the Kings, and use them as evidence that a lot of money can still be made writing novels. This is like pointing to LeBron and saying, “Professional basketball is a viable career option.”
This is already playing out in the film industry. The film industry has moved to a model where instead of making several smaller-budget movies that each get a modest return, they jam resources into tentpole films and have to make half a billion on that one film, otherwise it’s a flop. Remember the tremendous flop that was Batman V Superman? That movie only made about $200 million dollars in profits. That one movie ONLY made enough money for you and 199 of your closest friends to live your entire lives in total comfort. What a flop!
Books are in the same boat. Publishers have to keep it tight. They’re trapped. I get it.
That being said, the best options for writers are to either be a HUGE success or to go self-pub. The midlist author is having a harder time getting published, and even when they do, they’re not bringing home the money. Author tours for midlisters are over. Promotion is harder to come by. It’s go big or go home, er, go big or publish from home.
And the death of the midlist author means that there are fewer novels getting promotion. Fewer people in the game. The death of the midlist author is the death of the novel's middle class.
Novels Aren’t People-Pleasers
Apps, games, web sites, all this stuff is designed to please humans. This is neuroscience, slot machine shit.
Novels aren’t built the same way. Most novels don’t come from a team of people who are concerned with the research on how long a person can go without getting that positive feedback, that casino payout that is calculated to the penny to come JUST often enough and to be JUST substantive enough to keep someone going. Stories don’t really work that way.
Novels aren’t necessarily designed to please people. They’re usually designed to elicit other emotions from readers, emotions outside of simple moment-to-moment pleasure.
Buzzfeed is absolutely calculated to please people. To keep them on the site. To bring them back over and over. It’s designed to keep you coming there again and again. The content’s goal is to please just the right amount. The content is built to do that one job. Telling a story is secondary to giving readers those happy brain chemicals.
Novels are meant to tell a good story first, please people second. if they please people at all.
We're competing against things that understand the goals of entertainment in a completely new way.
A Rundown of The Novel’s Old Turf
Let’s consider the situations in which people used to have a choice: novel or nothing.
On an airplane, you basically brought a book or annoyed the person next to you. Now you have access to the entire internet. All your subscription services. A queue of movies and TV you’ll never get through. And let’s be honest, watching a movie on an airplane is a lot easier than reading a book. At least if you’re easily distracted like me.
On a train. Mobile gaming has definitely supplanted books on the train, the bus, whatever. You used to see a ton of people reading. Now? Everyone’s on a phone.
Before bed? That’s phone time.
First thing in the morning? That’s email time.
On the shitter? Phones. Which have the bonus feature of fitting in your pocket, meaning if you’re on the shitter at work, you can bring your phone without the uncomfortable looks you’d get if you brought a paperback.
At a coffee shop? That’s laptop land now.
If you’re eating alone at a restaurant? Phone.
We used to have a lot of windows in our lives that were perfect for novels. And...well, we’ve nailed them shut.
How To Lose This Battle
Opera. Have you ever read this much about opera?
Does anyone outside of people who super care about opera give a fuck about opera? Hell, no. You either live and breathe opera or spend zero time thinking about it. It’s not something a lot of folks dabble in. You’re in or out.
Now, novels can go the way of opera. Novels can continue celebrating the old shit. They can look at the masses and say, “Fine, we’re not here to entertain you, anyway.”
Opera is a niche thing now. It’s not popular entertainment. And that’s fine. I got nothing against that. But I’d hate to see novels go the same way.
Novels don’t have to disappear up their own ass. Novels don’t have to become a form that exists for the people who write them and the people who critique them and no one else.
I think there are a few things we can do as writers and readers, concrete things that can change the tide.
There’s contradictory advice coming right up. Not advice. Ideas. I’m not saying you have to use all of them. I’m saying you’ve got to be thoughtful about what the fuck you’re doing. Because when you write a novel, you’re not just writing a novel. You’re saving novels. Or you're burying them.
Freedom Is Nothing To Lose
People not caring about novels means the freedom to do anything. And it’s time novels really started using that freedom.
One of the beautiful things about comics maybe 15 years ago was that nobody gave a fuck about comics except for people who read comics. Which meant that they were free to be and do anything. I’m reading a book now, Warlock, and it’s amazing. It’s weird, it’s cosmic, Adam Warlock's nemesis is himself from the future and with a purple afro. Comics could be this bizarre and out there because nobody was saying, “Whoa, whoa whoa. This isn’t commercial. This isn’t a movie.”
It’s like this: Think of the difference between a picture rail in a Starbucks and a picture rail in a one-off, small coffee shop. In Starbucks, there are stakes. If you hang some fucked-up painting, some artist’s bizarre vision of the world, there’s trouble to be had. Because people care. And Starbucks has shit to lose.
You, as a novelist, have nothing to lose. You can be ultra-niche. You can write about anything, and you can write about it however you want. Filmmakers can’t do this. Bands can’t do this. Novelists can. And so, we should.
We Can Learn From Our Betters
I’m calling app-makers our “betters” right now. Swallow your pride.
Could you tell your story in a way that gives readers a pleasing jolt at a regular interval? I think you could.
Could you design your novel to be pleasing as much as it is challenging for readers? I believe in you.
Can we, writers, bring readers closer? Yeah, we can.
Can we design shorter chapters that let people read while they’re taking a shit?
Can we design stories that make it easy to drop something and pick it up again later?
Are we above having brief recaps a third of the way through?
Are we willing to look at the reading habits of actual humans and tell our stories in ways that conform better to those habits?
Are we willing to choke down that shit sandwich of pride and say that there’s art, there’s craft, and novels are both? And can we therefore balance craft such that we’re creating something that works better for the masses?
Or, Can We Forget That Shit?
Powerbars. The thinking with those was that we could design a food with perfectly balanced nutrition. Careful design is going to feed us better than the randomness of nature, right?
Not so much. Those who study nutrition will tell you the best way to build your diet is to get as much of what you need from “real” food as possible. It makes sense, right? We’ve evolved to eat real food, and our bodies tend to make better use of it than lab-designed food.
This might also be how our emotions work as well. Although we might get pleasure from things like Snapchat, we might find that experiencing longform emotion in novels ends up being more emotionally nourishing than the experience that’s lab-designed to give us those same feelings. “Real” emotions being like “real” food.
So, maybe the less like a designer emotional experience a novel is, the more like a an expression of ideas and emotions is, the better.
What Novels Do Best
There are some things that novels do better than other forms.
House Of Leaves would be a terrible movie. Because it uses the form of a novel so well, creating an experience that only works in novels.
S. by J.J. Abrams is a novel that uses the form. It's best explored with the reader at the helm, not by a camera lens taking a reader down a set path.
Harry Potter works better in book form. Because there's no such thing as believable and unbelievable visual effects in a book.
First-person narration works fantastically in books, sucks in most other forms. There's always a separation in another form, but in a novel, you're right there in someone's head.
If you can, do something in your novel that doesn't work well in other forms.
We Can Think Of This As Competition
I come from the library world, and we've made a mistake for a long time: We never considered Amazon our competition.
Amazon is absolutely our competition.
This probably has something to do with the fact that whenever we considered our competition, it was a David and Goliath situation. Except we weren't even David. We were the crabs on David's nutsack. We felt powerless is what I'm getting at.
When you're writing your novel, especially once you've got the words on the page, think about your competition. Candy Crush. Buzzfeed. Vox. Instagram. The least ethical dating shows ever committed to streaming. Think about these enemies, think about how you can beat them, and do whatever you can.
Are we going to win? Are the crabs on David's scrotum going to turn the tide? Probably not. But we can give Goliath a hell of a time killing us.
Let's Give A Shit About The Masses
We need to stop tearing down popular books and authors. When we shit talk James Patterson, we’re not turning people away from Patterson and towards something “better.” We’re shitting on the things people like. We’re shitting on the rare novels that still earn a spot in the grocery store. We’re shitting on the novels that keep the form alive.
Avant garde, artistic stuff is awesome, and it's the mass appeal novels that keep the form alive. James Patterson selling a billion books pays for cover design, shelf space, production, shipping, everything for a ton of other authors.
Listen, snobs. I’m sure the novel you love is better than Along Came A Spider. How has telling everyone about that worked for you? Did Toni Morrison or James Baldwin call and ask you to do this?
Take a deep breath. And ask: Am I doing this to promote these other novels, or am I promoting my own taste? Is this really self-promotion?
And is promoting yourself worth hurting the novel?
Last thought, here: You can promote a good novel without shitting on a bad one. You can say something is good without saying something else is bad. This is a lesson learned by elementary school bullies. Eventually, they learn that they can be good, interesting people through their own successes. You aren’t stuck where you are, the only option being to push others down, making the level of general success lower. Make the things you love ACTUALLY successful instead of relatively successful.
The novel can’t be about relative success. It needs to be goddamn undeniable.
Why It Has to Be The Novel
The most important thing we do as humans is make stuff. If you’re not making something, you’re missing out on what it means to be human.
Novels are one of the easiest things to make. You need a pen and a notebook. Like $2 worth of stuff. You need some time and a basic grasp on a written language of some kind. That’s it.
No studio time. No tryouts. No Instruments to maintain. No price-y tools. No physical danger. No costumes or uniforms. The novel is even better than the non-fiction book. You don't have to live an interesting life. You don't have to get access to interview subjects.
And while some people will argue this, the novel is one of the few things that’s complete even if nobody else ever sees it. If you build a rocking chair and nobody sits in it, did you build anything? If you build a video game that nobody finishes, do those final bosses really exist?
The novel definitely exists, regardless of where it goes and how it's used. Nobody has definitively proven to me that anyone's actually read the entirety of Moby Dick.
Anyone can write a novel. They can finish it. There’s no “affording” it. And it doesn’t have to support the weight of someone else, literal or figurative.
We all need access to something. Something we can make.
The novel has to stay alive.
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