Death of the Novel

by John Boland

The novel is dead. So says American critic Lee Siegel who, writing in a New York newspaper, has dismissed contemporary fiction as “culturally irrelevant.” And his pronouncement has been greeted as worthy of extensive coverage in media outlets on both sides of the Atlantic – “Literary storm as top critic declares death of fiction” being the Observer’s excited headline to its two-page story on the piece.

There are only two things wrong with that headline. Firstly, far from being a “top critic”, Siegel is unknown to most people who read, even to the readers of literary pages; and secondly, if his comments have caused a storm it’s in a very small teacup and only among those who imagine that what he’s arguing is in any way new or controversial.

It isn’t. In the 1920s  the Spanish philosopher and essayist Jose Ortega y Gasset and the German theorist-critic Walter Benjamin pondered the role and relevance of prose fiction in the modern world, while in 1936 George Orwell thought the prestige of the novel “extremely low” and worried that if it survived at all it would only be in “some perfunctory, despised and hopelessly degenerate form.”

The debate continued as the decades rolled by. In the 1970s, Tom Wolfe predicted that the New Journalism practised by himself and some other young mavericks (mostly contributors to Rolling Stone magazine) would displace fiction as the preferred literary mode for depicting and analysing society, while in the 1990s the eminent academic critic George Steiner argued along much the same lines, asking rhetorically: “What novel can today quite compete with the best of reportage?”

Andrew Marr took up the same theme in a much-discussed 2001 Observer article, sweepingly stating that the novel “is no longer a way of understanding the world freshly” and that non-fiction writing is “better – stylistically better, more ambitious, more interesting, more dangerous – than fiction,” with a new generation of historians, biographers and memoirists making use of “the tricks of the novel” for their own non-fiction purposes.

And this is the recurring argument being rehashed and reheated yet again by Siegel, whose piece in the New York Observer is intended as a slap in the face to rival weekly, the New Yorker, which recently – and to much fanfare – published a list of the twenty most exciting and promising fiction writers under the age of forty.

Rubbishing this celebration of new novelists (most of them unknown to the majority of people), Siegel contends that contemporary fiction “is now a marginal enterprise.”  No longer a “vocation,” it has become merely a “profession.” Meanwhile, “the most interesting, perceptive and provocative writers of our moment write narrative non-fiction.”

All of this may seem puzzling to anyone who sits in a Dart or a bus or a cafe and observes every second person engrosssed in a novel by Steig Larsson, Henning Mankell, Marian Keyes, Maeve Binchy, Jodi Picoult, Patricia Cornwell or PD James.

These, though, are not the authors  that Siegel and his predecessors are talking about. If not beneath their contempt, these writers are certainly beneath their consideration – just as that superb novelist of our age, John le Carre, is deemed beneath the consideration of those who draw up Booker Prize longlists, and just as Elmore Leonard has never been awarded a Pulitizer Prize or National Book Award.

In other words, they’re not practitioners of the “literary novel,” a category that’s never been satisfactorily defined but that remains the criterion for relevance and meaningfulness among those who set themselves up as arbiters of literary importance and who fret over the decline of such fiction in the world.

These are the people who in America have so elevated the reputations of Thomas Pynchon, William Gaddis, John Barth and Don de Lillo that – despite the general reading public’s sensible indifference – a whole generation of college students have been compelled to dutifully and joylessly submit themselves to an obscurantist brand of fiction no one else wishes to read.

And the crisis for those who espouse the American “literary” novel has been exacerbated by the demise of such revered  masters as Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Norman Mailer and John Updike and by the failing powers of  such writers as Philip Roth and Tom Wolfe.

The same arbiters of literary taste also operate on this side of the Atlantic, though the gulf between what literary critics applaud and what people actually read isn’t as marked – the latest novels by Colm Toibin, Colum McCann, Joseph O’Connor, Sebastian Barry, William Trevor, Ian McEwan and Hilary Mantel may be earnestly praised in books pages, but they’re widely read on the Dart, too.

And so fiction, even “literary” fiction, isn’t quite in the dire straits described by Siegel, Steiner and Marr. Its pride of place on the bookshelves may have been challenged in the last couple of decades by other forms, especially by the memoir (Frank McCourt has a lot to answer for, even if Angela’s Ashes remains by far the best of an increasingly tawdry genre) and by such skilfully “novelistic” explorations of history as Antony Beevor’s books on Stalingrad and Berlin, but a few minutes spent in any bookshop will demonstrate that fiction continues to thrive – especially if it’s written to engage and engross the reader and not to win academic approval.

Tolstoys may be thin on the ground and Dostoevskys, too, and various nations may be vainly waiting for their new Flaubert or Stendhal or Jane Austen or George Eliot or James Joyce, but in the meantime marvellous fiction continues to get written and published along with the negligible and the meretricious.

Some of these books become celebrated and some don’t reach the audience they merit, but that’s always been the way, and if there’s to be a debate about the state of fiction it should concern itself with the fine contemporary novels that tend to get ignored and with restoring the reputations of writers from earlier decades who really do matter. I’m thinking of such diverse writers as Elizabeth Bowen, Patrick Hamilton, Gerald Hanley, Joyce Cary, William Maxwell, Charles McCarry, Brian Moore and Charles Willeford  – people who wrote in various genres and are united only in their mastery of fiction.

There are scores more who could be mentioned, too, which leads one to conclude that Lee Siegel and all the other doomsayers about the death of the novel must be reading the wrong books.

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