Thursday, January 21, 2010

The death of the novel and other things. . . .

(today's blog is lovingly dedicated to Louli)

I was listening to Eleanor Wachtel on Writers and Company yesterday. I was a reluctant listener because I was driving and there was nothing else on the radio. I actually can’t stand the show because there is nothing more boring and obnoxious than listening to writers talk about themselves, particularly writers of fiction. For some reason many writers have it in their mind that they are the smartest people around. Listening to Writers and Company always reminds me of a Monty Python sketch in which John Cleese is interviewing a pompous, upper-class film director played by the great Graham Chapman and when the film director starts talking about his youthful days of struggle John Cleese just says “Oh.. . .. shut up.” That is what I want to say to most of the writers that Ms Wachtel interviews on her show. Other than the pomposity, another reason that Writers and Company drives me crazy is that the novelists that appear on the show don’t realize how little evolution the novel has undergone in the past hundred years or so and they are really under the delusion that the novel is still the meaningful art form that it once was.

On yesterday’s show Ms Wachtel was interviewing two authors about the subject of writing biographies. This is obviously something that interests me because I have a biographical work coming out later this year. The show was mildly interesting but what struck me in particular was a comment made by the guest Hermione Lee. Now Ms. Lee puts me off right away because she is so painfully upper-class that it is hard for me to listen to her accent. Furthermore anyone who is that upper-class and is a professor at Oxford (as well as visiting professor at such schools as Yale)  is probably so far out of touch with the lives of the majority of people that I am not really interested in much they have to say. Anyway, be that as it may, she made a remark, the import of which was that people who had predicted the death of the novel were foolish. This interested me because I have thought for a long while that anyone who doesn’t think the novel is largely dead is rather foolish. And if not foolish than just a wishful thinker. And Ms. Lee, who is such a high level academic, suggesting the novel is not dead just further convinces me that it is.

People who defend the novel will usually point to the fact that many novels are still being written, some very good, and people are still reading them; ergo the novel must not be dead. However, the persistence of an art form, regardless of the quality of its contemporary examples, is surely not the standard by which we are to judge the status of an art form. People still go to opera, many people still actively pursue the art of calligraphy, and millions of people are still engaged in the bizarre art of paper-toll painting. The fact that people still practice an art form is not the measure of its vitality. In his book Search for a Method, Jean-Paul Sartre contended that there is only one living philosophy at any one time. Now, while he may have overstated the case he still made a good point about the status of a ‘living philosophy.’ A living philosophy is one that is building on the past and moving the human imagination forward to new ideas and hopefully new ways of living. I think the same could be said about the arts. The novel is dead not because there are no good novelists writing or not enough people reading them. It is dead simply because it has stopped moving forward and ceased to play the role of a living art form which is pushing people and ideas into new frontiers. This falling stature is in large part because of the commercial imperatives that have taken over the publishing field. But it is also a result of the atrophying of the minds of that part of the public that regularly reads novels. (This is a bigger issue and one that requires a whole other blog) 

But the death of the novel is also part of a wider issue, and that is the repositioning of the arts in general. All the traditional arts are dying because they are not prepared to address the demands of a new, more technologically driven society. The art of painting could never be what it once was in a society where the poster becomes the primary form of household decoration. The novel cannot be what it once was in a society of television, film, and now video games which are beginning to become increasingly complex at the narrative level. Just the other day my 16 year old son was telling me about a new video game in which you are sent back into renaissance Italy to find ancient artifacts and you travel through the country and thousands of the ancient buildings are recreated and you can make virtual tours of them and get all the information about their construction and history. This seems to me the first step into virtual stories in which there is not long a ‘reader’ but an active participant. It has shadows of the Hologram-novels in Star Trek Voyager in which you enter what is essentially a real world and take part in a real story.

The arts constantly change and adapt to new technologies, new societies, and new ideas. It is nothing to be afraid of. When we are at the cusp of such changes it can seem difficult but mostly because we are melancholy creatures. I now I am. I come from what I think is the end of the generation of traditional painters and writers. And I still paint and write. I will see the publication of my first book this year, I am almost finished another and I hope to publish a novel in the next few years. And I have been an active painter for three decades. So I know I will never be part of the new arts the way my kids will be. But that is just life. I know when the printing press began to take over the role of the illuminator of manuscripts lots of people protested and complained, and even mourned the death of the art of illumination. But that is just the way it goes. I can imagine some ancient human painting on cave walls and complaining to a friend “my kids are no longer painting on the walls, they have some new thing called paper. But I think it is crazy to say cave painting is dead. When I was young, we used to make paint from the blood of the Woolly Mammoth and my parents. . . .” "Oh. . . Shut Up!"

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was just thinking as I was reading my third new canadian novel since Christmas, (2 of which I picked up because I heard them discussed on CBC radio), how the novel has changed. They now read like movies and tv, with short scene here edited into flashback here,as opposed to a longer and solid progression of time and thought, as in say Jane Eyre or Tale of Two Cities, (which I was reading before christmas because my kids were reading them for school, so I picked them up too).
Incidentally, the novel I would never have found without CBC was Red Dog, Red Dog -- which I would recommend. You say the novel hasn't changed, but I don't see that at all. I think it has changed in just the same way that society has changed, especially in thought pattern. I also value a perspective on literature, since the bookstores are disappearing, it's pretty hard to get a sense of a book or its author on the amazon dot ca website.