Does the Novel Have a Future?
Tuesday 19th April 2022.
Another question on Quora (an online forum.) Another of my answers. Having seen a question about the future of the novel, I felt inclined to respond. What I wrote in my response, is set out below. I then go on to develop this theme and discuss the issues it raises.
The Future of the Novel
In my respond to the question, I said, ‘Good question. And an optimistic one, if I might say so. It seems to suggest that the novel has a future. Personally, I doubt it. I say that because I doubt that writing has much of a future. The novel is something that is written. What else is there? If people stop writing then there will be no more novels. There might be movies and television-type series. I don’t see that type of media ending any time soon. Movies might continue to be made that are based on novels. No shortage of them, to date. People will continue to read books printed on real paper. That will continue for centuries to come. At least, for a tiny minority of people. We are on the very of the post-literate society. One aspect of that is the decline in the desire to write with a pen. Our age is characterised by the keyboard. Using a pen is regarded as being something peculiar that our parents once did. (I realise I am typing this post on my keyboard.) As electronic gadgets take over our lives, we loose the traditions that made us what we are now. One of those was reading. More and more people can handle text if and only if it is read to them. Very soon, people will abandon the keyboard in favour of the microphone and words will become something that is dictated. That is taking the electronic age to its logical conclusion. Many other things will die off, not only the novel. Ever since the first novel was written, such artistic works were inherently created with the pen; or the typewriter. And later the word processor. Take away the means of production and the product ceases to exist.’
When I respond with an answer, on Quora, I do not try to make it a Wiki-type statement. I have always assumed that this website is a forum rather than a version of Wikipedia. As far as I am concerned, it is a place where people post their thoughts. Not an encyclopedia. Even so, it is more than the average forum and that is why I bother with it. Were it just another forum, it would be full of irrelevant dross. Some of it is, of course, but much is worthy of serious consideration. The way I post my answers to questions is that I generally emphasise my own experience. Even though I might sometimes comment about the world in general, much of what I say is from my own experience and about my experience, as a writer. Most of my comments are about writing and related topics. The weakness of Quora is that young people are allowed to use it without regulation. Some of the questions posted by American high school students are not just semi-literate they are completely ridiculous. Stupid questions that do not make sense. At the other end of the spectrum are people with considerable knowledge who contribute thoughtful and edifying posts that are well worth reading.
How long have people been writing novels? I read an interesting post recently in which the author examined this very question. He suggested that novels went back to the ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians. Also to the ancient Chinese. In the west, however, the published novel, as a work of entertainment, was a fairly recently invented thing. Early examples include Robinson Crusoe, a novel by Daniel Defoe, first published on 25 April 1719. Jonathan Swift (30th November 1667 to 19th October 1745) Gulliver’s Travels was published in 1726 and is regarded as his masterpiece. John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) and Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (1688) are also contenders for being the first English language novels. None of this appeared in my comments on Quora. But then, it was not my objective to write about the history of the novel. I was more concerned with its future. Since it started, whenever that was, the novel has endured and still is today an important part of the world of entertainment and literature. Novels aside, books have long been published in this country and abroad. Some religious works were not novels nor were they intended for the entertainment of their readers. Take, for example, The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan (1628 to 1688), one of the greatest works in the English cannon. It is described thus: ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World, to That Which Is to Come is a 1678 Christian allegory written by John Bunyan. It is regarded as one of the most significant works of theological fiction in English literature, as well as one of the progenitors of the narrative aspect of Christian media. It has been translated into more than 200 languages, and has never been out of print. It appeared in Dutch in 1681, in German in 1703 and in Swedish in 1727. The first North American edition was issued in 1681. It has also been cited as the first novel written in English. According to literary editor Robert McCrum, “there’s no book in English, apart from the Bible, to equal Bunyan’s masterpiece for the range of its readership, or its influence on writers as diverse as William Thackeray, Charlotte Bronte, Mark Twain, CS Lewis, John Steinbeck and even Enid Blyton.’
Notice it was said to be a work of fiction. The English text comprises 108,260 words. Quite a big work. My novel The Streets of London currently stands at 219,010 words, at the time of writing. Bunyan’s work was not the earliest to be published; we might also note, The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, also known simply as the Arcadia. This is a long prose pastoral romance by Sir Philip Sidney written towards the end of the sixteenth century. Having finished one version of his text, Sidney later significantly expanded and revised his work. Scholars today often refer to these two major versions as the ‘Old Arcadia and the New Arcadia’, published in 1593. Geoffrey Chaucer (1343 to 1400) was an English poet who lived before William Shakespeare. Chaucer was the author of the Canterbury Tales, written in Middle English in 1387 to 1400. Even before him, Piers Plowman was written by William Langland (1332 to 1386) around 1370 to 1386. It was considered to be one of the greatest works of English Literature of the middle ages. Also a poem, it was born of the same ecclesiastical sources as the works of Chaucer. To my mind, medieval times did not have entertainment, as we would recognise it today. The word ‘Entertainment’ derives from the Old French word ‘entretenir’, meaning hold together or support. It was associated with hospitality. When you entertained a guest, you were keeping them happy. From there, it came to mean amuse or distract. Later it came to signify a distraction. Some sources argue that the word came from Latin where its meaning was different again. It is found in the texts of late middle English. The word meaning ‘the amusement of someone’, is from the 1610s; in the sense of ‘that which entertains.’ From the eighteenth century it signified ‘public performance or display meant to amuse.’ Hence, it is a word found in the lexicon of modern English.
It seems a little trite to describe the novel as being ‘entertainment.’ Great works of literature do much more than that. There are many types of novel, in today’s world. These are referred to as ‘genres.’ They include romance, mystery, horror, crime, science fiction, adventure and fantasy. Some novels fail to meet any known criteria for a recognised genre. Some novels help readers to make sense of the world; others help readers to forget the world of their current reality and enjoy fantasies of worlds that do not exist, never existed or might exist in the future. That, it could be said, is a distraction. I am content with regarding novels as being part of the broad spectrum of entertainment but one in which there is also deepness of thought, the desire to challenge, to invoke a wide range of emotions and to explore issues and concerns in a way that is more sophisticated and nuanced than many works of non-fiction. Literature is, however, just one method of providing entertainment that sits alongside a variety of others.
Here I stopped for a while. I realised that the word novel is an aggregate. It brings (or should I say ‘lumps’) together a very wide range of fiction works that often share little in common other than their length in words. Novels are long but definers vary in their insistence about the number of words involved. If not long enough then the work is either a ‘novella’ or even a long short story. Can we justifiably bring into one class Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment with a pulp romance by Barbara Cartland? If such a diverse collection of writings are all novels, then is that not something too trite to be taken seriously? Does the very name loose integrity? When I write about fiction, I tend to refer to works of literature and books written simply for entertainment. These are not the same. There are, I am sure, some people who would find reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace entertaining. Even some who would see Cartland’s romantic stories seriously revealing about the nature of human society. We all talk about the novel as though it was something intelligible. Having thought about it (and even about my own use of the word), I have misgivings about it. Works of fiction are just ‘books.’ Other than the way they are published, they share little in common. What might be entertaining about them is a matter of opinion. Or perhaps of literary criticism. At minimum, a novel is simply a type of book. This begs the question, ‘What is fiction?’ This is an issue I played with before. Fiction is imaginary but, as I have previously argued, not all fiction is purely imaginary.
Consider the Alternatives
Novels offer one piece of the minestrone soup of public entertainment. They float in it alongside movies, television series and a variety of other televisual ingredients. We might then ask, ‘What will be the competition?’ With what will the novel compete when it comes to fulfilling the public’s desire for entertainment? The visual media would be, I suggest, the novel’s strongest opponent. When it comes to telling stories, film is perhaps the most commanding media of public choice. Does the novel still occupy the position it once did in the domain of culture and literature? Bear in mind that the novel is a concept rather than a set of physical artefacts (books.) The twenty-first century offers a wide range of devices that set out to deliver culture – computers, laptops, tablets, mobile phones, e-readers – and these compete with paper-based outlets. To what extent is the concept of a novel capable of being provided through electronic media? To some people, reading is tiresome, slow and lacking in immediate impact by comparison to movies and television programmes. The novel has always been made with words. Words require a certain level of linguistic ability. They also require intense concentration. That is not always the case with filmic productions. Electronic gadgets are reducing literacy; not stimulating it. Literacy is more than merely the ability to read and write. It requires an understanding of the unique characteristics of language. It demands a love of language or, at least, a familiarity with it. I have suggested elsewhere, that writing is not likely to exist in our digitally-oriented futures. Not the kind of writing that is done with a pen. Having said that, how a story is composed does not matter as much as why it is composed. If I dictate a novel (which is then turned into words by a piece of software) then it is still a novel, if I have followed a set of rules that defines what a novel is. The way I produce a novel does not impact on its success as a story. Novels can be produced as books with pages printed on paper. They can also be produced by digitising manuscripts for use with electronic devices. Either way, they are the same artistic creations and still works of fiction. All my novels have been written using word processors; some might have started on paper but they were developed on the computer and the latest versions of them are all digital. They are all far too long to be printed, at home, using my own printers. I know not whether any of them will be published by established companies. It is possible that one of them might appear on my blog in a serialised form. My novel Holiday, for example, is one I have considered putting on the Internet if it never gets accepted by a publishing house.
The novel will continue to exist and has a future. I argue this because, as a concept, the type of entertainment provided by the novel is one that will continue to attract readers for as long as can be foreseen. Whatever means are used to publish novels, they will always provide a format that will be demanded and continue to be saleable in the commercial realities of the future. There is no reason to believe that story-telling will fade from human interest. Film and movies have become firmly established as means of telling stories. But writing allows consideration of material that has levels of understanding and comprehension beyond what is possible with the filmic media. The pen is mightier than the camera.