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Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Novel in the 21st Century

There was a time when the novel was the hegemon of the literary arts; when Dickens came out with his latest book, customers pack themselves four deep at the booksellers, hence the expression, “Selling like Dickens.” Everyone who could read, read books, and those who read books discussed them passionately with one another and wrote about them in their letters and diaries.

Those days, alas, are no more, nor will they ever come again.

The Alpha Dog of entertainment is video in its various forms. Ask the man on the street what he’s been reading lately, and he’ll blush and shrug and stammer he just doesn’t have the time. Of course, he has ample time to watch Boardwalk Empire, Halloween XXMI (Jason goes to Mars), and You Tube videos of talking dogs. Leaving aside the question of whether the latest episode of Glee as a topic of cocktail party conversation instead of Crime and Punishment marks an improvement or diminishment of our culture, it’s worth considering the challenges to a serious writer of being the underdog, or if you will, the Omega Dog.

When the novel was new, when it was truly novel, people could be astonished by the mere existence of book-length fiction. Long acquaintance with the form has made us forget how really and truly odd it is. What an elephant we have to swallow after all, that there is this story, written down and divided into chapters, typically told by an invisible God-like narrator as if speaking to himself and unaware of any reader. Early practitioners like Richardson solved the riddle of their novels’ existence by writing them in the form of letters. After all, people do write letters – or at least they did in Richardson’s time – so it would be completely probable that someone’s letters could be printed and bound together to form a book as in Pamela or Clarissa.

But other novelists weren’t so cautious. For other novelists, it was the Wild West out there. Fielding did a hilarious send-up of Richardson’s Pamela, called Shamela. Was it just parody? These days we might call it “deconstruction.” And what are we to do with Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, which ends chapter 12 with a solid black page to mark the death of Yorick? Even earlier than that Don Quixote – which some might argue isn’t a novel – has the don and Sancho discussing their own adventures as recorded in print and fulminating or wondering at the “historians” who have set their adventures down. (Some of these conversations dealt with pirated versions of Don Quixote, but if you live in the Wild West, you’ve got to expect a few outlaws.)

As the novel became familiar, writers like Richardson no longer had to dress their narratives up as letters to justify their existence; conventions arose both on the writer’s and reader’s side of the page. Readers accepted the fantasy of the novel, and writers tacitly agreed not to call attention to the fact it was a fantasy. The novel had become so accepted that people forgot there was anything unusual about reading a story in a book. Of course, experimentation continued, but with spotty results. Dickens’ Bleak House interrupts its third person omniscient narrative for first person accounts from Esther. It doesn’t entirely work. Moby Dick, with its slippery narrator and leviathan scope fared very poorly in the 19th Century, and at first Huck Finn didn’t fare much better.

Twain, Dickens, and Melville were writing when the novel was at the height of its influence and ubiquity, and readers weren’t prepared for authors who winked at them over the tops of the characters’ heads as Fielding, Cervantes, and Sterne had done. But times are very different than they once were. Or rather, times are very much like they once were, if you go far enough back. The novel is an outsider again; its existence is an anomaly. It can either go the Richardson route and justify itself in more accepted genres – Richardson used letters; latter day Richardsons might ape screenplays – or else put on the cap and bells with Sterne and become meta-fiction.

It’s the Wild West out there.

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