Do Novels Matter?

I got to thinking about this after reading Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story.  (It's really great by the way. Definitely check it out.) Shteyngart's book is a satirical dystopian romance set in a future where books are a thing of the past. Instead of reading, people spend all their time glued to their apparat, a smart phone like device, where they shop and watch videos.

Now people have been saying the novel is dead since...what? The 60's? And it's not dead yet. On life support maybe, but not dead.

But we have to be realistic, right? Art forms fade. Heck, there was a time when epic poems were all the rage. Things like plays and poetry and opera and the ballet used to be at the center of the cultural conversation and now they've become the province of relatively small groups of enthusiasts. And we have to admit the fiction outlook is not the best it's ever been. Fewer and fewer books are sold each year and movies and TV seem to be doing better and better.

Now there's probably not much point in getting into the old "is the novel dying or isn't it" argument. I think it's safe to say that pretty much everyone here thinks that the novel will and should endure. What I think might be a different way to go about this is to think about how it will endure and why it should.

A little background. Before I wrote books I wrote plays. Have an MFA in it actually. You think the novel is in trouble? Try theater.

Live theater has been under threat for a while now for any number of reasons--it's expensive to produce in comparison to the potential audience size, and the realistic stories of characters and relationships that were the bread and butter of theater for so long...well, TV tells those sorts of stories really well now. Also it costs a heck of a lot less and is right there in your living room

Theater artists saw that trying to emulate movies and TV was a losing game and to survive they had to have a frank discussion about what it is that theatre does that no other medium can offer.  Something people could only get in a theater. Where that conversation took theater varied. In some cases artists created smaller more intimate work that relied on a strong actor/audience bond while others took theater to a more boldly theatrical place, full of physicality and lyricism. By and large you see a little less strict realism. More ideas. More poetry. A greater connection to the local community the theater is created in.

 Now obviously theater hasn't taken over the country, but I will say that this conversation has led to some amazing work and has done a lot to justify it's continued existence artistically.

So if the novel is in trouble then we, the lovers and practitioners of the form, have to be the ones who advocate for it's continued place in the culture. We're its ambassadors. We have to be able to argue for why it's unique and why it cannot and must not fail.

So how would you all approach this? How would you answer the questions, "Why is the novel important?" and "What can the novel do that no other art form can?"

And hey, if there's anyone out there who thinks the novel is doomed I want to hear from you too!


Christina Dymock said...

Novels are friends. They welcome me with their outstretched pages into the worlds revolving in my own mind. A movie, though entertaining for up to three hours, doesn’t transport me into the lives of action adventures – it shows them to me. I cannot smell the dust at Indiana Jones’s archeological dig, but I can in Aladdin’s Cave of Wonders. Television may numb my mind for a short time; however, a novel stimulates my thoughts providing true release from the stresses of the day. The novel cannot fail because the human mind craves the mental tango and sweet caress of escape fueled by imagination.

Marcia said...

The novel allows you to experience the story at your chosen pace. It allows you to imagine the scene as you wish without every single detail supplied for you. It allows you to have a private experience rather than a public one. A movie CAN do that, but isn't as likely to, I don't think. And a novel is more about language than movies and TV are.

Laura S. said...

The novel isn't dying. People said the same thing twenty years ago when cable television and video game systems made their debut, then came computers, then the internet. Technology will always grow and expand; who knows what will claim our attention tomorrow? But novels have been around for decades. Novels aren't going anywhere!

Jeff Hirsch said...

Great thoughts everybody, thanks. I think that idea of the novel being the only popular form that requires us to bring something to it,to use our imagination to complete the process, is great. I love that. Maybe in the future people will start to look at novels as a refuge from all the technology.

I also agree that there's a level of getting lost in the details of a book that I don't feel as much in movies and TV, as much as I love those things too.