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<nettime> Will Self: The novel is dead (this time it's for real)
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<nettime> Will Self: The novel is dead (this time it's for real)


The novel is dead (this time it's for real)
Will Self
The Guardian, Friday 2 May 2014 13.00 BST

If you happen to be a writer, one of the great benisons of having 
children is that your personal culture-mine is equipped with its own 
canaries. As you tunnel on relentlessly into the future, these 
little harbingers either choke on the noxious gases released by the 
extraction of decadence, or they thrive in the clean air of what we 
might call progress. A few months ago, one of my canaries, who's in 
his mid-teens and harbours a laudable ambition to be the world's 
greatest ever rock musician, was messing about on his electric 
guitar. Breaking off from a particularly jagged and angry riff, 
he launched into an equally jagged diatribe, the gist of which was 
already familiar to me: everything in popular music had been done 
before, and usually those who'd done it first had done it best.  
Besides, the instant availability of almost everything that had ever 
been done stifled his creativity, and made him feel it was all 

A miner, if he has any sense, treats his canary well, so I began 
gently remonstrating with him. Yes, I said, it's true that the web 
and the internet have created a permanent Now, eliminating our sense 
of musical eras; it's also the case that the queered demographics of 
our longer-living, lower-birthing population means that the 
middle-aged squat on top of the pyramid of endeavour, crushing 
the young with our nostalgic tastes. What's more, the decimation of 
the revenue streams once generated by analogues of recorded music 
have put paid to many a musician's income. But my canary had to 
appreciate this: if you took the long view, the advent of the 78rpm 
shellac disc had also been a disaster for musicians who in the teens 
and 20s of the last century made their daily bread by live 
performance. I repeated one of my favourite anecdotes: when the 
first wax cylinder recording of Feodor Chaliapin singing "The Song 
of the Volga Boatmen" was played, its listeners, despite a lowness 
of fidelity that would seem laughable to us (imagine a man holding 
forth from a giant bowl of snapping, crackling and popping Rice 
Krispies), were nonetheless convinced the portly Russian must be in 
the room, and searched behind drapes and underneath chaise longues 
for him.

So recorded sound blew away the nimbus of authenticity surrounding 
live performers -- but it did worse things. My canaries have often 
heard me tell how back in the 1970s heyday of the pop charts, all 
you needed was a writing credit on some loathsome 
chirpy-chirpy-cheep-cheeping ditty in order to spend the rest of 
your born days lying by a guitar-shaped pool in the Hollywood Hills 
hoovering up cocaine. Surely if there's one thing we have to be 
grateful for it's that the web has put paid to such an egregious 
financial multiplier being applied to raw talentlessness. Put paid 
to it, and also returned musicians to the domain of live performance 
and, arguably, reinvigorated musicianship in the process. Anyway, I 
was saying all of this to my canary when I was suddenly overtaken by 
a great wave of noxiousness only I could smell. I faltered, 
I fell silent, then I said: sod you and your creative anxieties, 
what about me? How do you think it feels to have dedicated your 
entire adult life to an art form only to see the bloody thing dying 
before your eyes?

My canary is a perceptive songbird -- he immediately ceased his own 
cheeping, except to chirrup: I see what you mean. The literary novel 
as an art work and a narrative art form central to our culture is 
indeed dying before our eyes. Let me refine my terms: I do not mean 
narrative prose fiction tout court is dying -- the kidult 
boywizardsroman and the soft sadomasochistic porn fantasy are 
clearly in rude good health. And nor do I mean that serious novels 
will either cease to be written or read. But what is already no 
longer the case is the situation that obtained when I was a young 
man. In the early 1980s, and I would argue throughout the second 
half of the last century, the literary novel was perceived to be the 
prince of art forms, the cultural capstone and the apogee of 
creative endeavour. The capability words have when arranged 
sequentially to both mimic the free flow of human thought and 
investigate the physical expressions and interactions of thinking 
subjects; the way they may be shaped into a believable simulacrum of 
either the commonsensical world, or any number of invented ones; and 
the capability of the extended prose form itself, which, unlike any 
other art form, is able to enact self-analysis, to describe other 
aesthetic modes and even mimic them. All this led to a general 
acknowledgment: the novel was the true Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk.

This is not to say that everyone walked the streets with their head 
buried in Ulysses or To the Lighthouse, or that popular culture in 
all its forms didn't hold sway over the psyches and imaginations of 
the great majority. Nor do I mean to suggest that in our culture 
perennial John Bull-headed philistinism wasn't alive and snorting: 
"I don't know much about art, but I know what I like." However, what 
didn't obtain is the current dispensation, wherein those who reject 
the high arts feel not merely entitled to their opinion, but wholly 
justified in it. It goes further: the hallmark of our contemporary 
culture is an active resistance to difficulty in all its aesthetic 
manifestations, accompanied by a sense of grievance that conflates 
it with political elitism. Indeed, it's arguable that tilting at 
this papery windmill of artistic superiority actively prevents a 
great many people from confronting the very real economic inequality 
and political disenfranchisement they're subject to, exactly as 
being compelled to chant the mantra "choice" drowns out the harsh 
background Muzak telling them they have none.

Just because you're paranoid it doesn't mean they aren't out to get 
you. Simply because you've remarked a number of times on the 
concealed fox gnawing its way into your vitals, it doesn't mean it 
hasn't at this moment swallowed your gall bladder. Ours is an age in 
which omnipresent threats of imminent extinction are also part 
of the background noise -- nuclear annihilation, terrorism, climate 
change. So we can be blinkered when it comes to tectonic cultural 
shifts. The omnipresent and deadly threat to the novel has been 
imminent now for a long time -- getting on, I would say, for a 
century -- and so it's become part of culture. During that century, 
more books of all kinds have been printed and read by far than in 
the entire preceding half millennium since the invention 
of movable-type printing. If this was death it had a weird, 
pullulating way of expressing itself. The saying is that there are 
no second acts in American lives; the novel, I think, has led a very 
American sort of life: swaggering, confident, brash even -- and ever 
aware of its world-conquering manifest destiny. But unlike Ernest 
Hemingway or F Scott Fitzgerald, the novel has also had a second 
life. The form should have been laid to rest at about the time of 
Finnegans Wake, but in fact it has continued to stalk the corridors 
of our minds for a further three-quarters of a century. Many fine 
novels have been written during this period, but I would contend 
that these were, taking the long view, zombie novels, instances of 
an undead art form that yet wouldn't lie down.

Literary critics -- themselves a dying breed, a cause for 
considerable schadenfreude on the part of novelists -- make all sorts 
of mistakes, but some of the most egregious ones result from an 
inability to think outside of the papery prison within which they 
conduct their lives' work. They consider the codex. They are -- in 
Marshall McLuhan's memorable phrase -- the possessors of Gutenberg 

There is now an almost ceaseless murmuring about the future of 
narrative prose. Most of it is at once Panglossian and melioristic: 
yes, experts assert, there's no disputing the impact of digitised 
text on the whole culture of the codex; fewer paper books are being 
sold, newspapers fold, bookshops continue to close, libraries as 
well. But â but, well, there's still no substitute for the 
experience of close reading as we've come to understand and 
appreciate it -- the capacity to imagine entire worlds from parsing 
a few lines of text; the ability to achieve deep and meditative 
levels of absorption in others' psyches. This circling of the wagons 
comes with a number of public-spirited campaigns: children are given 
free books; book bags are distributed with slogans on them urging 
readers to put books in them; books are hymned for their physical 
attributes -- their heft, their appearance, their smell -- as if they 
were the bodily correlates of all those Gutenberg minds, which, of 
 course, they are.

The seeming realists among the Gutenbergers say such things as: 
well, clearly, books are going to become a minority technology, but 
the beau livre will survive. The populist Gutenbergers prate on 
about how digital texts linked to social media will allow readers to 
take part in a public conversation. What none of the Gutenbergers 
are able to countenance, because it is quite literally -- for once 
the intensifier is justified -- out of their minds, is that 
the advent of digital media is not simply destructive of the codex, 
but of the Gutenberg mind itself. There is one question alone that 
you must ask yourself in order to establish whether the serious 
novel will still retain cultural primacy and centrality in another 
20 years. This is the question: if you accept that by then the vast 
majority of text will be read in digital form on devices linked to 
the web, do you also believe that those readers will voluntarily 
choose to disable that connectivity? If your answer to this is no, 
then the death of the novel is sealed out of your own mouth.

We don't know when the form of reading that supported the rise of 
the novel form began, but there were certain obvious and important 
way-stations. We think of Augustine of Hippo coming upon Bishop 
Ambrose in his study and being amazed to see the prelate reading 
silently while moving his lips. We can cite the introduction of word 
spaces in seventh-century Ireland, and punctuation throughout 
medieval Europe -- then comes standardised spelling with the arrival 
of printing, and finally the education reforms of the early 1900s, 
which meant the British Expeditionary Force of 1914 was probably the 
first universally literate army to take to the field. Just one of 
the ironies that danced macabre attendance on this most awful of 
conflicts was that the conditions necessary for the toppling of 
solitary and silent reading as the most powerful and important 
medium were already waiting in the wings while Sassoon, Graves and 
Rosenberg dipped their pens in their dugouts.

In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan writes about what he terms 
the "unified electrical field". This manifestation of technology 
allows people to "hold" and "release" information at a distance; 
it provides for the instantaneous two-way transmission of data; and 
it radically transforms the relationship between producers and 
consumers -- or, if you prefer, writers and readers. If you read 
McLuhan without knowing he was writing in the late 1950s, you could 
be forgiven for assuming he was describing the interrelated 
phenomena of the web and the internet that are currently 
revolutionising human communications. When he characterises 
"the global village" as an omni-located community where vast 
distances pose no barrier to the sharing of intimate trivia, it is 
hard not to believe he himself regularly tweeted. In fact, McLuhan 
saw the electric light and the telegraph as the founding 
technologies of the "unified electrical field", and, rather than 
being uncommonly prescient, he believed all the media necessary 
for its constitution -- broadcast radio, film, television, the 
telephone -- were securely in place by the time of, say, the 
publication of Finnegans Wake.

McLuhan, having enjoyed his regulation 15 minutes of fame in the 
unified electrical field of the 1960s has fallen out of fashion; his 
rigorous insistence that the content of any given medium is an 
irrelevance when it comes to understanding its psychological impact 
is unpopular with the very people who first took him up: cultural 
workers. No one likes to be told their play/novel/poem/film/TV 
programme/concept double-album is wholly analysable in terms of its 
means of transmission. Understanding Media tells us little about 
what media necessarily will arise, only what impact on the 
collective psyche they must have. In the late 20th century, a 
culture typified by a consumerist ethic was convinced that it -- that 
we -- could have it all. This "having it all" was even ascribed its 
own cultural era: the postmodern. We weren't overtaken by new 
technologies, we simply took what we wanted from them and collaged 
these fragments together, using the styles and modes of the past as 
a framework of ironic distancing: hence the primacy of the message 
was reasserted over its medium.

The main objection to this is, I think, at once profoundly 
commonsensical and curiously subtle. The literary critic Robert 
Adams observed that if postmodernism was to be regarded as a genuine 
cultural era, then it made modernism itself a strangely abbreviated 
one. After all, if we consider that all other western cultural eras 
 --  classicism, medieval, the Renaissance -- seem to average about half 
a millennium a piece, it hardly matters whether you date modernism's 
onset to Rousseau, Sturm und Drang or Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, it 
clearly still has a long way to go. By the same token, if -- as many 
seem keen to assert -- postmodernism has already run its course, then 
what should we say has replaced it, post-postmodernism, perhaps? It 
would seem better all round to accept the truth, which is that we 
are still solidly within the modernist era, and that the crisis 
registered in the novel form in the early 1900s by the inception of 
new and more powerful media technologies continues apace. The use of 
montage for transition; the telescoping of fictional characters into 
their streams of consciousness; the abandonment of the omniscient 
narrator; the inability to suspend disbelief in the artificialities 
of plot -- these were always latent in the problematic of the novel 
form, but in the early 20th century, under pressure from other, 
juvenescent, narrative forms, the novel began to founder.  
The polymorphous multilingual perversities of the later Joyce, and 
the extreme existential asperities of his fellow exile, Beckett, are 
both registered as authentic responses to the taedium vitae of the 
form, and so accorded tremendous, guarded respect -- if not 

After Joyce, we continue to read; we read a great deal -- after all, 
that's what you do when you're wheeled out into the sun porch of a 
care home: you read. You may find it difficult to concentrate, given 
the vagaries of your own ageing Gutenberg mind, while your reading 
material itself may also have a senescent feel, what with its 
greying stock and bleeding type -- the equivalent, in codex form, of 
old copies of the Reader's Digest left lying around in dentists' 
waiting rooms. Yet read you do, closing your ears obstinately to the 
nattering of radio and television, squinting so as to shut out the 
bluey light from the screens that surround you, turning your head in 
order to block out the agitation of your neighbours' fingers as they 
tweezer info panels into being. I've often thought that western 
European socialism survived as a credible ideological alternative up 
until 1989 purely because of the Soviet counterexample: those on the 
left were able to point east and say, I may not altogether know how 
socialism can be achieved, but I do know it's not like this. So it 
was with the novel: we may not have known altogether how to make it 
novel again, but we knew it couldn't go the way of Hollywood. Now 
film, too, is losing its narrative hegemony, and so the novel -- the 
cultural Greece to its world-girdling Rome -- is also in ineluctable 

I repeat: just because you're paranoid it doesn't mean they aren't 
out to get you. When I finished my first work of fiction in 1990 and 
went looking for a publisher, I was offered an advance of Â1,700 for 
a paperback original edition. I was affronted, not so much by the 
money (although pro rata it meant I was being paid considerably less 
than I would have working in McDonald's), but by not receiving the 
sanctification of hard covers. The agent I consulted told me to 
accept without demur: it was, he said, nigh-on impossible for new 
writers to get published -- let alone paid. At that time the 
reconfiguration of the medium was being felt through the ending of 
the Net Book Agreement, the one-time price cartel that shored up 
publishers' profits by outlawing retailer discounting. In 
retrospect, the ending of the agreement was simply a localised 
example of a much wider phenomenon: the concertinaing of the textual 
distribution network into a short, wide pipe. It would be amusing to 
read the meliorism of the Panglosses if it weren't also so 
irritating; writing a few months ago in the New Statesman, Nicholas 
Clee, a former editor of the Bookseller, no less, surveyed all of 
the changes wrought by digital media -- changes that funnel together 
into the tumultuous wordstream of Jeff Bezos's Amazon -- before 
ending his excursus where he began, with the best of all possible 
facts implying we were in the best of all possible worlds: "I like," 
Clee wrote, "buying books on Amazon."

Groucho Marx once said to a man with six children taking part in his 
TV show: "I like my cigar, but I know when to take it out." By the 
same token: I also like buying books on Amazon, but I'm under no 
illusion that this means either the physical codex, or the novel -- a 
form of content specifically adapted to it -- will survive as 
a result of my preferences. Because I'm also very partial to 
sourcing digital texts from Project Gutenberg, then wordsearching 
them for a quotation I want to use. I like my typewriter as well, a 
Groma Kolibri manufactured in the German Democratic Republic 
in the early 1960s, but I'm under no illusion that it's anything but 
old technology. I switched to writing the first drafts of my 
fictions on a manual typewriter about a decade ago because of the 
inception of broadband internet. Even before this, the impulse to 
check email, buy something you didn't need, or goggle at images of 
the unattainable was there -- but at least there was the annoying 
tocsin of dial-up connection to awake you to your time-wasting. With 
broadband it became seamless: one second you were struggling over 
a sentence, the next you were buying oven gloves. Worse, if, as a 
writer, you reached an impasse where you couldn't imagine what 
something looked or sounded like, the web was there to provide 
instant literalism: the work of the imagination, which needs must be 
fanciful, was at a few keystrokes reduced to factualism. All the 
opinions and conceptions of the new media amount to nothing set 
beside the way they're actually used.

While I may have registered the effect of digital media on my sense 
perception, I by no means feel immune from them; on the contrary, 
I've come to realise that the kind of psyche implicit in the 
production and consumption of serious novels (which are what, after 
all, serious artists produce), depends on a medium that has inbuilt 
privacy: we must all be Ambroses. In a recent and rather less 
optimistic article in the New Yorker on the Amazon phenomenon, 
George Packer acknowledges the impact on the publishing industry of 
digital text: the decline in physical sales; and the removal of what 
might be termed the "gatekeepers", the editors and critics who 
sifted the great ocean of literary content for works of value.  
He foresees a more polarised world emerging: with big bestsellers 
commanding still more sales, while down below the digital ocean 
seethes with instantly accessible and almost free texts. Packer 
observes that this development parallels others in the neoliberal 
economy, which sees market choice as the only human desideratum. The 
US court's ruling against the big five publishers in the 
English-speaking world and in favour of Amazon was predicated on 
this: their desperate attempt to resist Amazon's imposition of 
punitive discounting constituted a price cartel. But, really, this 
was only the latest skirmish in a long war; the battles of the 
1990s, when both here and in the US chain bookstores began to gobble 
up the independents, were part of the same conflict: one between the 
medium and the message, and as I think I've already made clear, in 
the long run it's always the medium that wins.

I've no doubt that a revenue stream for digitised factual text will 
be established: information in this form is simply too useful for it 
not to be assigned monetary value. It is novels that will be the 
victims of the loss of effective copyright (a system of licensing 
and revenue collection that depended both on the objective form of 
the text, and defined national legal jurisdictions); novels and the 
people who write them. Fortunately, institutions are already in 
existence to look after us. The creative writing programmes 
burgeoning throughout our universities are exactly this; another way 
of looking at them is that they're a self-perpetuating and 
self-financing literary set-aside scheme purpose built to 
accommodate writers who can no longer make a living from their work.  
In these care homes, erstwhile novelists induct still more and 
younger writers into their own reflexive career paths, so that in 
time they too can become novelists who cannot make a living from 
their work and so become teachers of creative writing.

In case you think I'm exaggerating, I have just supervised a 
doctoral thesis in creative writing: this consists in the submission 
of a novel written by the candidate, together with a 35,000-word 
dissertation on the themes explored by that novel. My student, 
although having published several other genre works, and despite a 
number of ringing endorsements from his eminent creative-writing 
teachers, has been unable to find a publisher for this, his first 
serious novel. The novel isn't bad -- although nor is it Turgenev.  
The dissertation is interesting -- although it isn't a piece 
of original scholarship. Neither of them will, in all likelihood, 
ever be read again after he has been examined. The student wished to 
bring the date of his viva forward -- why? Well, so he could use his 
qualification to apply for a post teaching -- you guessed it -- 
creative writing. Not that he's a neophyte: he already teaches 
creative writing, he just wants to be paid more highly for 
the midwifery of stillborn novels.

If you'll forgive a metaphoric ouroboros: it shouldn't surprise us 
that this is the convulsive form taken by the literary novel during 
its senescence; some of the same factors implicated in its 
extinction are also responsible for the rise of the creative writing 
programme; specifically a wider culture whose political economy 
prizes exchange value over use value, and which valorises group 
consciousness at the expense of the individual mind. Whenever tyro 
novelists ask me for career advice I always say the same thing to 
them: think hard about whether you wish to spend anything up to 20 
or 30 years of your adult life in solitary confinement; if you don't 
like the sound of that silence, abandon the idea right away. But 
nowadays many people who sign up for creative-writing programmes 
have only the dimmest understanding of what's actually involved in 
the writing life; the programme offers them comity and sympathetic 
readers for their fledgling efforts -- it acts, it essence, as a 
therapy group for the creatively misunderstood. What these people 
are aware of -- although again, usually only hazily -- is that some 
writers have indeed had it all; if by this is meant that they are 
able to create as they see fit, and make a living from what they 
produce. In a society where almost everyone is subject to the 
appropriation of their time, and a vast majority of that time 
is spent undertaking work that has little human or spiritual value, 
the ideal form of the writing life appears gilded with a sort of 
wonderment. The savage irony is that even as these aspirants sign up 
for the promise of such a golden career, so the possibility of their 
actually pursuing it steadily diminishes; a still more savage irony 
is that the very form their instruction takes militates against the 
culture of the texts they desire to produce. WB Yeats attributed to 
his father the remark that "Poetry is the social act of the solitary 
man"; with the creative-writing programmes and the Facebook links 
embedded in digitised texts encouraging readers to "share" their 
insights, writing and reading have become the solitary acts of 
social beings. And we all know how social beings tend to regard 
solitary acts -- as perversities, if not outright perversions.

As I said at the outset: I believe the serious novel will continue 
to be written and read, but it will be an art form on a par with 
easel painting or classical music: confined to a defined social and 
demographic group, requiring a degree of subsidy, a subject for 
historical scholarship rather than public discourse. The current 
resistance of a lot of the literate public to difficulty in the form 
is only a subconscious response to having a moribund message pushed 
at them. As a practising novelist, do I feel depressed about this?  
No, not particularly, except on those occasions when I breathe in 
too deeply and choke on my own decadence. I've no intention of 
writing fictions in the form of tweets or text messages -- nor do I 
see my future in computer-games design. My apprenticeship as a 
novelist has lasted a long time now, and I still cherish hopes of 
eventually qualifying. Besides, as the possessor of a Gutenberg 
mind, it is quite impossible for me to foretell what the new 
dominant narrative art form will be -- if, that is, there is to be 
one at all.

What I can do is observe my canary: he doesn't read much in the way 
of what I'd call serious novels, but there's no doubting that he's 
alive, breathing deep of a rich and varied culture, and shows every 
sign of being a very intelligent and thoughtful songbird. On that 
basis, I think it's safe for us both to go on mining.

* This is an edited version of this year's Richard Hillary memorial 
lecture, which will be given by Will Self on 6 May at the Gulbenkian 
theatre, St Cross Building, Oxford.

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