Readers’ Corner: The Death (and Life) of the Novel

U.S. Government Printing Office, 1942 (Library of Congress)
U.S. Government Printing Office, 1942 (Library of Congress)

Point / counterpoint in the latest round of hand-wringing over the long rumored death of the novel.

First, Will Self in The Guardian, “The novel is dead (this time it’s for real)“:

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.

Granted, Self is taken the opinions of his teenaged son (his “canary” in the cultural coal mine, as it were) perhaps too seriously. Also, he seems to be arguing for the death of something that was already long dead. The novel as the primary cultural artifact was supplanted decades hence by movies, television, what have you. And today, yes, all the cultural elites reading The Goldfinch at the same time as all their friends are often just waiting to start nattering on about Game of Thrones.

goldfinch1David Ulin had a brief riposte to Self’s critique in The Los Angeles Times, that was notable for its lack of patience:

I’m tired of reading about the death of the book. It’s not true, in the first place, and in the second, it’s a lazy signifier, a way of addressing cultural import (or risk) that’s not really justified.

In other words, when people stop reading completely, then we have something to worry about. Nearly 200,000 copies of The Goldfinch have been sold so far this year. Say what you will about it, that’s a book that clocks in at nearly 800 pages and goes for $30 a pop in hardcover. Somebody is still reading out there.

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