BACK TALK ———————————————————— Culture Topic – The Novel Is… Not Really Dead

I saw David Shields speak at the 2010 Boston Book Festival. I immediately had the hots for the man. Tall, bald, charismatic, slick black sweater of some type—but I’ve seen those qualities before and I’ll see them again. I was enthralled by the tone of his voice and his confidence without grandiosity. He was big and strong-willed but not arrogant; there was generosity in his gestures. He was definitely an intellectual thinker making provocative declarations about all of literature. Yet he wasn’t bloated about it.

Shields was on a panel about The Novel and had prepared an edgy, thoughtful presentation on the topic. (A tough combo to pull off. Most writers end up sounding edgy for the sake of style or thoughtful to the point of hermetic elitism.) Shields argued that The Novel is stagnated, stuck in its 19th-century form, with a few minor modernist alterations from the 20th. Sounds like the usual Chicken-Little schlock, except when you read or hear David Shields, he really actually cares about fiction and the novel—he isn’t just pushing memoir as the only alternative or bemoaning the state of book sales. He wants new forms. For example, I love his idea about novels needing to be more concise. He wasn’t offering a sentimental defense of minimalism; he wants to change the whole idea of the novel. Like Shields, I loathe most novel paragraphs wasted on setting. (I skimmed much of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—all those exacting details about the little Scandinavian town and the family tree. Agony, but I was carried to it by the hype. In the end, I decided the novel could be reduced to about 78 pages and still be complete.)

Like Shields, when I read, I want to get into the ideas and humanity of the story.  I’m not looking to the book for Entertainment or Escape.  Like Shields, I am captivated by challenge and precise aesthetics that have a point.

But I don’t like when Shields says, “The novel is dead.” Oh David, how even you fall back on 20th-century conventions. So melodramatic. So sweeping. So reductionist as to be blatantly untrue when held up to any level of thought. Novels are bestsellers in huge numbers every year. Tween girls, nerd boys, housewives, men with cigars, Brooklyn couples at their neighborhood indie bookstore, and elderly women infatuated with their detective-of-choice all buy novels. They might buy mostly the same novels—and uncompromised uniqueness is not tolerated by most publishing houses, the corporate marketplace, or even the so-called avant-garde with its specific style de jeur—but that doesn’t mean the novel is dead.

I prefer, “The novel should not be what it was.” Pithy, not reductionist. Suggestive, but hopefully not didactic.