COLUMN: Huckleberry Finished
Published: Sunday, March 17, 2013
Updated: Monday, March 18, 2013 00:03
“The American novel is dying.“ Literary critics have been writing these words for decades now, as they either criticize the changing tastes of the American public or eulogize a far more romantic literary yesteryear. And people have largely ignored these critics, because of the shameless melodrama of their writings. Dying? Murdered? These words add a hysterical mood to the arguments, and people are less likely to take them seriously as a result. You would think that literary critics would be more careful in choosing their words.
But I do think that underneath the ill-advised wordings, there is a more profound point that the American public ought to consider. The American novel is receding into the background of the cultural landscape. This is not the result of a concerted effort by any one group or coalition, but it is an unfortunate and potentially damaging side effect of the technological revolution.
Novels used to be one of the major forms of entertainment in our culture. They were frequently serialized in newspapers and magazines, and they occupied the part of our societal dialogue that is now occupied by movies and films. The commencement of the age of images meant that there was a technological challenge to the old world order. But initially, those were only available to a limited portion of the population. Obviously that is no longer the case. TV, movies, and the Internet have inundated our culture, creating a technological society that no longer makes reading the only available form of sedentary entertainment.
The emergence of social media has also reduced the public appetite for heavy reading. Twitter confines the everyday reading for most people to 140 characters. This sort of reading habit does not promise growth in the number of readers in society, especially in the younger generations.
Society’s increasing disregard for the novel has lead to diminished role of the novelist as well. Novelists like Mark Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald were national celebrities, who were the documenters of the national conscience. But now, where are the celebrated novelists? No modern writers have truly stepped into the void left after the deaths of David Foster Wallace and John Updike more than a decade ago. Jonathan Franzen has been called the best American novelist alive, but he could only be considered a minor public celebrity. He has won the National Book Award, and written the two most acclaimed novels since the turn of the millennium (The Corrections (2001) and Freedom (2010)). Franzen himself has written famously on the precarious future of the novel, saying that he foresees a time when Americans no longer look as reverentially to the novelist. The film director has taken the place of the novelist in not just American culture, but worldwide.
So where does that leave Americans and the novel? It is unclear. The novel will never truly be dead, in the sense that it will never completely disappear from society. The great novels that already exist will be treasured in all times. And certainly people will continue to write books. But a technologically induced visual age is not conducive to promoting public interest in novels, nor to encouraging writers to strive to write the next “Great American Novel.” And we should consider that to be a serious problem. The Great American Novel strives to depict and deconstruct an era, not just for those living in it, but also for posterity. It is a symbol of America in a particular time, written in such a moving and poetic way that it can be considered timeless.
The novel is unique in the realm of entertainment, because of its length and ability to allow characters and plot to develop over time. What other form of entertainment can allow for such slow paced and organic complexity? Movies are far too time-constrained to match the narrative richness of the novel, and are actually limited by the capabilities of cinematography. The possibilities of the written word are only limited by the author’s imagination. And in terms of character development, the only other form of entertainment that could possibly match the novel is the television series. Even then, only the most ambitious series could ever hope to match the capacity of the novel.
By letting the novel be submerged in the cultural landscape, we have all unwittingly let something desperately important to our culture slip away. The novel helps to define who we are, and it helps us all make sense of the complicated times we live in. I do not deny the pleasure of modern entertainment. I tweet, skim the web, and went through the first season of House of Cards on Netflix in a day and a half. But I know that nothing can match the sheer joy of opening a John Updike novel and rediscovering the charisma, tragedy and underlying beauty of the American experience.
Editor’s Note: The views presented in this column are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of The Heights.