Sunday, November 18, 2018

The Premature Death of the Novel

This is interesting, particularly since I've been reading so many novels this year.

At Quillette, "The Novel Isn't Dead — Please Stop Writing Eulogies":

The 69th National Book Awards Ceremony will take place this Wednesday in New York City. Nominees for the Fiction award include Brandon Hobson’s novel Where the Dead Sit Talking, Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers and Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend—all excellent and acclaimed specimens of a literary genre that English novelist J. B. Priestley had called a “decaying literary form” even before Nelson Algren’s The Man With the Golden Arm won the inaugural National Book Award for Fiction back in 1950.

Two decades later, postmodernist American author John Barth argued in The Literature of Exhaustion that the novel may have “by this hour of the world just about shot its bolt.” He won a National Book Award six years later for Chimera. More recently, Zadie Smith discussed her “novel nausea” while paraphrasing David Shields’ description of the crafted novel, “with its neat design and completist attitude,” as being “dull and generic.” Her most recent novel, Swing Time, made last year’s National Book Award longlist.

None of these obituarists seem to agree on the novel’s hour of death. According to veteran The New York Times writer Doreen Carvajal, the novel died in the 1980s, when books started to be valued less on their literary content and more on their sales. And yet over at The Guardian, Robert McCrum claimed a few years ago that the 1980s ushered in a golden age for writers and publishers alike. Meanwhile, Will Self, author of 11 books and five collections of short stories, claims the novel has been in a state of decay since the beginning of the 20th century, and is “absolutely doomed to become a marginal cultural form, along with easel painting and the classical symphony.”

While it is hard to argue with grand, subjective generalizations about the state of the novel, some objective facts are known: It is true that many novelists find it harder to make a living today compared to just a decade ago. A study done by the Authors Guild in the United States found that from 2009 to 2015, the average reported income of full-time authors decreased by 30%. Self-described part-time authors had their income decrease by 38% over the same period. However, this trend doesn’t seem to be affecting the best-selling literary novelists. Colson Whitehead sold 825,000 copies of The Underground Railroad. Emma Healey sold 360,000 copies of Elizabeth is Missing. Kate Atkinson sold 187,000 copies of A God in Ruins. These are strong numbers for literary fiction.

It is the “midlist” writer—the novelist who dedicates years of her life to writing a book that will sell perhaps 15,000 copies from Amazon and the deep recesses of Barnes & Noble—who is seeing her income disappear. Midlist writers frequently are having their manuscripts either rejected outright or accepted with a small advance. Rupert Thomson, a midlist author of over 10 novels, reports that an editor at Faber & Faber told him that he’d love to publish Thomson’s new work, but can no longer afford to offer respectable compensation. When Thomson asked what the editor could offer, he was presented with an amount so tiny that, by the author’s report, “I went home and sat at the kitchen table and drew up a balance-sheet. I thought: I’m going to have to change the way I live.”

Broadly speaking, there are two reasons commonly cited for the decline in sales and income. The first is what author Douglas Preston calls “the censorship of the marketplace”: Since midlist writers are no longer given advances large enough to survive on, many great books are simply never written in the first place because would-be authors are too busy working full-time jobs...