Novels, Death of (Take 50,000)

So, there’s a little discussion going on over at the new and already extremely useful Metaxu Cafe’s forums about whether blogging is dead. The consensus seems to be no, and the question has branched into whether blogging is sexy. It’s also referenced the endless "Novels Are Dead" statements that pop up from time to time. I’ve been reading* Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel and found her comments on this subject interesting enough to post them here:

When we talk about the death of the novel, what we are really talkign about is the possibility that empathy, however minimal, would no longer be attainable by those for whom the novel has died. If the novel has died for the bureaucrats who run our country, then they are more likely not to pause before engaging in arrogant, narcissistic, and foolish policies. If the novel has died for men (and some publishers and critics say that men read fewer novels than they used to), then the inner lives of their friends and family members are a degree more closed to them than before. If the novel dies, or never lives, for children and teenagers who spend their time watching TV or playing video games, then they will always be somewhat mystified by others, and by themselves as well. If the novel should die, what is to replace it?

My guess is that mere technology will not kill the novel. It is too different from movies and other forms of visual entertainment to be replaced by them. Nor do I believe that novels are bannable. Too many of them reside in private hands; they would be as hard to get rid of as guns and bullets. But novels can be sidelined–dismissed to the seraglio, where they are read by women and children and have no effect on those in power. When that happens, our society will be brutalized and coarsened by people who speak rather like us and look rather like us but who have no way of understanding us or each other.

*Passages such as this I am reading and loving; I must admit to skimming some of the more lengthy analyses of individuals novels to make a point. But overall, well worth a look.

8 thoughts on “Novels, Death of (Take 50,000)”

  1. She actually starts with The Tale of Genji, moves on to some sagas and epics, then The Decameron and The Heptameron, before finally reaching Quixote.

  2. So, if we’re talking about the history of the novel, or about the novel’s effect on society (or on the psychology of its readers), there wasn’t really any relationship between Genji and Quixote (or between the Japanese novel and the European novel, if you like) until you reach late-19th-century Japan. And the influence of Genji on the western novel is still pretty tenuous.
    (I should note — though I think I’m on pretty safe ground w.r.t. Genji — that when it comes to the history of the western novel, I’m unhealthily influenced by Kundera.)

  3. I think if this interests you at all, you’d be interested in (at least this portion of) her book. Nothing there disagrees with anything you’ve said, and she elaborates interestingly on what Cervantes was reacting to when he wrote Quixote. Smiley doesn’t interest me all that much as a writer, but her thoughts on the novel are pretty damn fascinating. And anyway, the broader view she takes of what is or isn’t a novel and what’s important from our vantage point and how novels actually work are well thought out, even if I don’t agree entirely with her conclusions or methodology.

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