Category: Death of the novel

We’re doomed!

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.

Possibly the first major African novel, published in 1958

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.

A novel you must read to be considered well-read

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.

Dead but not doomed

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?

A water-cooler novel?

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.

The novel is (not) dead

Will Self - dead

Will Self – dead

I noticed Will Self‘s tired article on the death of the novel a couple of days ago but, having skimmed through it, I felt it really was not worth reading but a tired rehash of the old story, not least the idea that the idea of the novel being dead really meant that people aren’t buying Will Self’s book. And who can blame them? I read Umbrella, only because I had vowed to read all the short list for the Man Booker that year (2012) but I found it a very tiresome and uninteresting novel. The pity was that it had a good idea but Self had messed it up by being resolutely post-modern. You know the sort of thing – disjointed plots, people speaking but you have no idea who is speaking, quotes from pop songs, etc, etc, etc. I have dipped into a couple of his other novels and found them equally tiresome. However, reading the Guardian Review in the bath, as one does, I came across the print version of Self’s article and more or less persevered. (I do tend to read the Guardian Review in the bath, though there is a slight disadvantage, as the Guardian sometimes has this annoying habit of having one page printed on a single sheet instead of a double sheet, and this occasionally falls in the bath, which can be inconvenient. It is not the only annoying thing about The Guardian.)



While we are doing annoying, I have to confess to finding Self annoying. When you see him on TV, which I very much try to avoid, or when you read him in the press – he is sadly ubiquitous in the posh British press – he comes across as arrogant, pompous and very much full of himself. The photo on the right of Self holding his book over the heads of the other candidates at the Man Booker promotional photo shoot is an example. I have to admit, I was expecting to be annoyed by Self’s article and I was not disappointed. Conversational Reading had already expertly trashed him, so I thought I might just focus on his language. In the first sentence he used the word benison. At first I thought it was a Guardian type for venison. For non-UK readers, I should point out that the Guardian is famous for its misprints and, indeed, is often known as The Grauniad to reflect this. I soon realised that it was not a misprint. I vaguely recalled what benison was, not least because it comes from the French bénir, meaning to bless. However, I can safely say that it is a word I have never used and do not recall seeing used outside a religious context. He goes on to talk about queered demographics. As he must know and we all do, queer and queered are now used by the gay community to refer to gays and gay issues. But just as only blacks can say nigger (ask Jeremy Clarkson; on the page on the Self article linked to above, there is a reference to Clarkson begging for forgiveness for using it (this may differ for you, depending when and from where you link to the page)), it is generally not PC for non-homosexuals to use queer. I could go on about his use of language but I won’t as it is very boring for me and very boring for you.

Certainly better than many 80s English novels

Certainly better than many 80s English novels

Self’s thesis starts with one of his canaries. Canary seems to be the word he uses for children. This is partially explained by the fact that the canary he is mentioning is an aspiring rock guitarist but, as he uses it to refer to all of his children, it seems that it is not used in the sense that canaries are known songbirds. He bangs on about how music has changed with the advent of the web. I don’t entirely agree with him but we are here to talk about the death of the novel. He starts In the early 1980s, and I would argue throughout the second half of the last century, the literary novel was perceived to be the prince of art forms, the cultural capstone and the apogee of creative endeavour. It was? Classical music? Fine art? Opera? Theatre? And what novels does he cite to bolster his arguments? Those well known 1980s novels Ulysses and To the Lighthouse. What was happening in the early 1980s in the novel? Sticking only to the English novel, the likes of Anthony Burgess, Lawrence Durrell and John Fowles were fading away, Doris Lessing was on her sci-fi thing and the likes of Julian Barnes, Graham Swift, Ian McEwan, Peter Ackroyd, Pat Barker, Kazuo Ishiguro and Martin Amis were getting going. Oh, young Will was reading PPE at Oxford. That’s Politics, Philosophy and Economics, not Literature. To be quite honest, the works of those young writers (and the old writers) were not nearly as important and relevant as a work that appeared two weeks before the start of the 1980s – The Clash‘s London Calling.

An interesting 1980s novel

An interesting 1980s novel

Of course, there were some interesting novelists around at this time – Héctor Aguilar Camín, Ismail Kadare, Cees Nooteboom, Carlos Rojas, Michel Tournier, César Aira, António Lobo Antunes, Max Frisch, José Saramago, Hugo Claus and Christa Wolf – I am guessing he was not referring to these. They have a couple of things in common. They were written in languages other than English and they were not written by Will Self.

Available in ebook and hard copy

Available in ebook and hard copy

He goes on. Those who reject the high arts feel not merely entitled to their opinion, but wholly justified in it. (For which read, those who reject Will Self novels feel wholly justified in it. Yes, Will, I do.) Of course, the readers of Barbara Cartland, Jeffrey Archer and other low-brow writers have always felt justified in damning Ulysses and To the Lighthouse and, frankly, I do not blame them. Neither is an easy read and both require a certain amount of commitment, learning and dedication to fully appreciate and, if people do not feel like giving this commitment, learning and dedication, I, for one, do not mind. However, Self’s arguments come down to five things. 1) E-books are bad (but I use them). 2) Amazon is bad (but I use it). 3) The gatekeepers who kept us away from the crap are disappearing and now crap is everywhere. 4) Creative writing programmes are bad (even though I teach one). 5) My first book was not published in hardback. What an affront! 1, 2 and 4 have been regurgitated on websites and in blogs galore. I do need to add anything except to say I have generally found both 1 & 2 positive from my point of view, though I can understand why authors are less enthusiastic. As for 3, did the gatekeepers really do a good job?

No Will Self on Smashwords

No Will Self on Smashwords

Self likes slinging in a few quotes so here is one. The great American novel has not only already been written, it has already been rejected (Somerset Maugham). In short, the gatekeepers rejected many great novels and promoted many crap novels. A free-for-all democracy, where anyone can publish a novel on the web, with self-publishing or in Kindle format and sell it through Amazon is, I think, a good thing. The gatekeepers are still there. The literary reviews in newspapers or in the better quality reviews like the TLS or NYRB still review (primarily) books that have been published in hard copy and by accredited publishers. That does not mean that Will Self is going to be reviewed before E L James but it does mean that someone somewhere is making a judgement, however flawed, as has always been the case. And, yes, there are many blogs and websites that do review on-line books and good for them. The likes of Smashwords are to be encouraged.

Gaddis - difficult but highly enjoyable

Gaddis – difficult but highly enjoyable

The current resistance of a lot of the literate public to difficulty in the form is only a subconscious response to having a moribund message pushed at them, he states. In other words, all too many people do not like Self’s deliberate obfuscation (a nice Selfian word) either in this article or in his novels. I have read many difficult books. Yes, Will, I have read Finnegans Wake and enjoyed it. I enjoyed The Pale King, which many did not. I love William Gaddis. But all of these writers had a point to their difficulty. If there was a point to the difficulty of Umbrella, I missed it. I had the feeling from reading the book and reading Self’s comments on it that the difficult style was the point. He could have made it more readable without losing anything but chose not to.

The best book I read in 2013

A very good book from Latin America

In conclusion, I will say one thing (though I could say a lot more). In 1960, if you wanted to be considered well-read in the contemporary novel, you would have had to read a fair amount of novels from the UK, US, Ireland, France and perhaps one or two other countries. You might have read the odd novel from Italy, Germany, Japan, Scandinavia and China. Indeed, unless you could read other languages, you probably could not read all that many novels from the twentieth century from non-English-speaking countries. I have reviewed books from 209 countries on my website. While you do not have to have read books from all 209 to be considered well-read in the contemporary novel, you certainly should have read books from at least twenty-five different countries and probably more. The novel dead? Of course it isn’t. People are reading. More and more books are being published every year and that is excluding the many, many ebooks that are not published in hard copy and it also excludes self-published books. While many of them may be non-fiction, reprints or plain crap, I find that every year there are more and more books I want to read because more and more worthwhile book are being published, both in the English-speaking world and elsewhere. Have you been to Latin America recently, Will? They are reading books there – good books – and writing them and talking about them. The novel dead? Hell, no. Maybe it is just you who are.

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