Is the novel beyond saving?

Novelists believe they can't compete with the shiny objects on the Internet -- and therein lies the problem

Topics: The Weeklings, Novels, literature, Zadie Smith, Jonathan Franzen,

Is the novel beyond saving?Jonathan Franzen speaks during the Hay Festival Cartagena in Colombia on Jan. 28, 2012. (Credit: Joaquin Sarmiento/Reuters)
This article originally appeared on The Weeklings.

The Weeklings  Over the next four Thursdays, Sam Byers is going to take on the state of the novel, specifically the state of the novel today with technology, when everyone thinks technology, the internet and internet-inspired distraction are killing fiction. Read on, and at the end of the month we will be co-publishing the essay as (what else?) an eBook.

NOVELISTS ARE A nervy bunch. This is, in many ways, forgivable, or at least understandable. We’re paid to worry, in both senses of the word. We pick away at stuff. Things bother us, and we, in turn, bother them right back. Since we spend all day worrying on behalf of others, it shouldn’t come as much surprise that when we turn away from the worries we’ve just set down on the page we quickly start sniffing around for something we can fret about in our spare time. And what more appropriate subject than the novel itself?

Novelists are very worried about the novel. The novel, you see, keeps dying. No one thought much of it when it arrived; it had a brief reign as a fancy-pants new medium of entertainment; and then it just started dying all over the place. It became too popular. It became too cheap. It got a bit up itself and was no longer popular enough. It became elitist; then populist again. Cinema did for it. Television did for cinema and so double-did for the novel. Then the web came along and did for everything.

Society, people seem to agree, is somehow to blame. Jonathan Franzen thinks writers are not important enough to “The Culture.” Howard Jacobson thinks there are no decent readers left, anywhere, at all, and that as a result “fiction is fucked.” You can’t go online or open a newspaper (if you still do such a thing, because those are dying too, you know) without bumping into one writer or another tearing their hair out over their place in the world.

“Society,” hasn’t, of course, acted alone.“The Culture” doesn’t just kill things by itself. It needs an assassin, a deadly intermediary, and if there is one common thread through the multiple deaths of the novel, it is that most of the time technology is somehow implicated. Cheap printing meant all the wrong types of people bought books and thus devalued them. Ebooks . . . Well, they sort of did the same thing, really, despite the fact that no one wants to read books any more anyway because they’re all piddling about on the web. The novel, novelists would have us believe, just can’t compete.

The problem, of course, is one of generalization over specificity. Technology is not a thing unto itself, and nor is the novel. Nevertheless, people seem to insist on speaking about both as if they are distinct, self-contained and incompatible entities.

What I’m going to talk about here is the novel’s relationship to technology and the fearful, loin-girding reaction this relationship seems to have provoked. But some distinctions are necessary. There is a difference, for example, between talking about the novel as an art form that must find a way, creatively speaking, to engage with the shifting techno-cultural landscape around us, and talking about the novel as an economic object that must contend with radical shifts in the way it is bought and consumed. The two are not unrelated. Indeed, I would suggest that it is the very sense of fear about the latter that has engendered a sense of stubborn entrenchment about the former. The novel is under threat from without, goes the wisdom; it must protect itself from within.


There is, and has probably always been, a tendency to talk about technology in rather odd terms: either as something that is “happening” or as a “thing” thrust rudely upon us. We do not want to accept that technology is a product of human design; a creation over which we maintain control. For some reason, the idea that technology comes from us, people, is something we are reluctant to accept, leading to a false division between the “virtual” and the “real” that Nathan Jurgenson has characterized as the Digital Dualism Fallacy. Technology is always “over there,” and it is always up to something, and while the something that it is up to may on occasion be beneficial we seem to be in agreement that we should not allow ourselves to be lulled into a false sense of security because technology could, at any moment, get a bit big for its britches and start bossing us all about. When Amazon recently released details of its new range of Kindles, which will, if you want them to, read sections of a book aloud to you, my Twitter feed was clogged with outcry. WHY CAN’T WE JUST READ? People bellowed. WHY WON’T TECHNOLOGY JUST LEAVE US IN PEACE? The answer, of course, is that you can “just read.” Simply because something has been invented, doesn’t mean you have to use it. Did it occur to any of these terrified readers that perhaps this latest technological invasion wasn’t aimed at them?

This remarkable sense of victimization and passivity in the face of perceived technological encroachment reaches its apogee in debate around the internet, which for some reason people have decided you have to be either “for” or “against,” because it is, like technology, a thing, and we’re not sure yet but it might be dangerous and so we all have to have an opinion about it. Peter Hitchens, bless him, thinks the internet is a political group:

“The internet generally is in favor of sex and drugs and rock’n’roll and I’m not. And there is certainly something about the web for which the natural default is of the left. Morally, culturally and socially, it’s definitely leftwing. Morally and socially conservative-minded people aren’t on there anyway or may even be unaware of it.”

Poor Peter. Watching him struggle manfully with something eternally peripheral to his perpetually outraged mind is rather endearing. His characterization of the internet reminds me of my grandmother saying how much she enjoyed picturing the charming young people making telephone calls on her behalf whenever she used the speed dial function on her phone. Have you heard, Peter? The internet has just announced it plans to vote for EVERY SINGLE SOCIALIST PARTY IN THE WORLD and get them into power. What? No it hasn’t actually, has it? Why? Because it’s a mode of communication that’s why. It’s like saying emails are in favour of gay marriage or text messages endorse abortion.

Standing distinct from those writers who think the internet is a very bad thing are another group: those who think it is too much of a good thing. These writers must never go near the internet in case they get sucked in. Jonathan Franzen feels that “it’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.” Zadie Smith, in the acknowledgements to her latest novel, thanks web-blocking software like Freedom for helping her find the time. The accepted term for an inability to stop googling stuff seems to be “internet addiction.” Writers are suckers for a good bit of addiction. We have to be. It eases the psychic fallout from all that worrying we have to do. But really, considering the number of writers who have battled through genuine addictions (opium, smack, booze, gambling, sockpuppeting, etc), it’s amusing to think that it will actually be Twitter that brings us all low.

Then there’s the widespread concern that, even if a writer battles through their internet addiction and actually produces a novel, and even if that novel makes it out into the world unharmed by whatever technological discourtesy has been done to it in order to make sure everyone can read it on the device of their choosing, no-one’s going to want to read it anyway because they’re all on the internet, and even if they’re not, the constant exposure to connectivity has rotted their brains to such an extent that even if they do manage to buy a book and pick it up, the best they will be able to manage will be just to stare at it dumbly, jabbing at words with their forefinger and complaining it’s broken.

So: to recap. Writers can’t write anything because they keep looking at the internet, which, as it does with everyone, is making them stupid. If they do write something, no-one wants to read it. If someone does want to read it, they can’t, because the internet has permanently disabled the part of their brain that enables them to concentrate on any text longer than a tweet. And even if they can concentrate, it’s meaningless because they don’t really care anyway. And even if they do care, they’re not paying enough money for the privilege of reading the thing they don’t want to read or can’t read or think they can read but actually don’t understand so what’s the point? We’re doomed.

Sam Byers is the author of the forthcoming novel "Idiopathy" (FSG)

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