Late last week writers, self-published or otherwise, would have struggled not to notice Will Self’s essay in the Guardian titled “The novel is dead (this time it’s for real)”. The essay is a good read, it makes some good points and it uses some interesting examples, but the overall point is the Self believes that the novel, despite its continual existence, will become a specialist art form on a par with classical music or easel painting.
Those are the two examples that he uses, by the way, which I don’t think represent an activity quite as niche as he is trying to get at. If he is saying that novels, whether written or read, will become an unlikely activity, perhaps he should in fact compare it to animal hunts and public executions.
In all fairness, if classical music and easel painting were dying art forms, then they wouldn’t have entire radio frequencies dedicated to them, or Saturday morning classes in art galleries. I don’t know about you, but I know several people (myself included) who still listen to, and enjoy, classical music every once in a while (often more than just once in a while), and as for easel painting, if it really is dying then why did my friend’s toddler recently ask for an easel for her birthday so that she can practice painting like they do at school.
Responding to Self’s weekend essay, David L. Ulin of the Los Angeles Times wrote in the LA Times (an article titled “Notes on the (non-)death of the book”) that if serious novels are still being written and read, as Self admits, then it is tough, if not impossible, to day that the literary novel is dying. Self writes that the literary novel as an art work is “literally dying before our eyes,” however Ulin points out that Self immediately backtracks on his own shocking revelation and says that “I do not mean narrative prose fiction tout court is dying”. Well, which is it then?
Ulin’s article shows both sides of the story, there are parts where he agrees with Self and admits that, yes, the literary novel is not now as popular as it has been in the past, but he also disagrees with Self who suggests that books were at their highest currency in the 1980s. Ulin argues that perhaps books were at their most important closer to the beginning of the 20th century, but laments the argument that there ever was a ‘golden age of reading’.
Ulin insists that the challenges of a writer remain the same: “how to evoke experience in a manner that does it justice.” The critic admits that getting noticed in a world where thousands of books are published every year is no mean feat, but makes a very valid point as he says that books are dying “only in the sense that everything is dying – which is to say, only in the sense that they are alive.”