British readers and, perhaps, others will recognise the title as a quote from the sitcom Dad’s Army, frequently uttered by Private Frazer. I must say that I never took to Dad’s Army but I know quite a few people who did, so I am aware of the phrase. Other may perhaps recognise it as the headline from a silly interview with Will Self in the Guardian this past weekend. I have read one Self novel and found it pretty well unreadable. I have dipped into a couple of others and found them even more unreadable. It is possible that, somewhere, deeply hidden, there is a smidgen of talent but Self chooses to conceal it by his faux avant-garde, which makes his book pretty well inaccessible and not worth trying to access for most readers, this one included.
Simon Savidge of the interesting blog Savidge Reads summed up Self in a Twitter post as The Lord of ‘Please Talk About My Amazingly Alienating Avant-Garde Literature Even Though The Novel Is Dead’, which I think is as good a description as any of Self. Thank you, Simon.
I shall ignore Self’s own self-promotion and focus on his the novel is doomed scenario. Better people than I have responded. Roxane Gay put it most succinctly, when she said White men love to declare an end to things when they no longer succeed in that arena. As others have commented, the death of the novel has been forecast since the invention of the radio. Julian Barnes famously said:
Two famous deaths have been intermittently proclaimed for some time now: the death of God and the death of the novel. Both are exaggerated. And since God was one of the fictional impulse’s earliest and finest creations, I’ll bet on the novel – in however mutated a version – to outlast even God.
Indeed, the novel is still doing quite well, even compared to God.
If, in, shall we say, 1960, you wished to be considered well-read in the 20th century novel, you would only have had to read novels from a few countries: the United States, England (but not Wales or Scotland), Ireland, France, Germany, Austria, a (very) few from China, Japan, Italy and Russia, maybe one or two from Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. Though there were novels from Latin America, Africa, Australia, the Middle East and other parts of Asia, you could safely ignore them to be considered well read. Chinua Achebe‘s first novel appeared in 1958 but did not make much of a splash. Latin American writers such as Jorge Amado had been publishing for years by 1960 but till Avon produced its excellent paperback series, very few were available in English. There were Indian writers but, except for Tagore (who did write novels but they were and, indeed, still are not well-known) they were not much read outside India. Patrick White had written five novels by 1960 but was little known outside and even in Australia. The only Spanish novel most English-speaking readers could name was Don Quixote; the only Belgian novelist Georges Simenon and forget the Dutch, even though Louis Couperus and Max Havelaar had been translated. The Middle East novel had not taken off, at least as far as translations were concerned.
In 2018, things have changed a lot. I have reviewed books from 225 different nationalities on my website. You do not have to read novels from 225 nationalities or, as some have done or tried to do, read a novel from every country. However, I would argue that to be considered well-read in the 20th and 21st century novel, you should have read at least one novel from at least fifty different countries. As well as the ones mentioned for the 1960s well-read reader, this would include at least half-dozen different Latin American countries, a few Caribbean ones, at least half a dozen African countries (ideally more. There are fifty five African countries if you count Western Sahara), most of the European countries, excluding the smaller countries, Australia, Canada, several other Asian countries and so on.
In 1960, you would not have been able to read novels from many of these countries. Firstly, many of the countries did not produce novels. Secondly, if they did, they were not translated. Thirdly, they were very difficult to get hold of, whether in the original language or translation. Fourthly, with no Internet, it was not easy to find out about them. The weekend book reviews and literary journals paid scant attention to works in translation. (Some would argue that this has not improved much.)
In 2018 many more countries are producing novels. In some cases, though it is not their mother tongue, some writers are writing in a Western European language, usually English, French or German. There are many wonderful small presses coming into being that are making available a wide range of novels in translation (including translation into French, German and other Western European languages). Many writers are now writing novels, as they accept that this is the way to make their name, whereas their forefathers might have focussed on poetry, short stories or myths/legends. In short, there are a lot more novels available to read than there were in 1960, even if you only read English and even more still if you read another language. Many of these novels are well worth reading.
I read a lot of novels. I find, as I am sure is the same with my fellow bloggers, that there are just too many novels to read. I have a huge list of novels waiting to be read. Some have been on the list for years. No, Will, the novel is not doomed. It is alive and well and thriving.
Self says the novel is absolutely doomed to become a marginal cultural form, along with easel painting and the classical symphony. This is, of course, very much apples and oranges. People are not currently writing classical symphonies. However, they are playing them and listening to them. I remember, way back, it was very easy to get tickets for the The Proms, the BBC’s annual series of classical concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Nowadays, unless it is something particularly obscure, you have to jump on them the first day they are available and even then you may not get tickets for the ones you want. Easel painting is often done for the joy of the painter rather than as a means of selling a work. Other art forms – Renaissance painting, traditional blues and jazz music, sonnets, for example – may not be still being produced but they are still enjoyed.
The novel is very different from these examples. The novel is still being written in large numbers and is still being sold in large numbers. Though overall book sales are (slightly) declining (at least in the US), the number of books being published is increasing dramatically. It is the same in the UK and, I expect, in many other countries. Obviously many of these books are not novels but quite a few are. The proliferation of ebooks has helped. If I want to publish a novel and no publisher will take it on, I can publish it myself in just a few minutes. Yes, of course, it probably means no-one will buy it or know about it, but some ebook writers have been quite savvy at marketing themselves. Fifty Shades of Grey anyone?
Self also stated It’s impossible to think of a novel that’s been a water-cooler moment in England, or in Britain, since Trainspotting, probably. On Twitter someone mentioned Girl on a Train. I would add Fifty Shades of Grey, Game of Thrones (driven, of course by the TV series), and Harry Potter. I have read none of those and, frankly, do not care about water-cooler moment books. Why does it matter? What I do know is that I have read a large number of first-class novels over recent years, that I have a lot of fascinating novels sitting on my bookshelves that I am looking forward to reading and that I know that there many worthwhile novels of which I am completely unaware that will come to my attention over the next few years.
So, in conclusion:
1) Novel not dead or doomed.
2) As usual, Will Self has his head stuck up his arse.
3) There are many, many first-class novels out there to be read – far more than Will Self or I are aware of – and many more will be published over the coming years. None of them, however, will be written by Will Self.
4) Will Self really needs to look around and he will find that, far from being doomed, the novel, very much including the literary novel, is booming more than it has ever done.
5) Will Self needs to acquaint himself with some of the many excellent blogs out there which will introduce him to the many excellent novels that he clearly has not read or even heard of.
6) Don’t waste your time reading Will Self. There is much, much more worthwhile reading.