The Man with the Harmonica

Will Self takes to the pages of the Guardian Review this weekend to deliver a familiar lament. Over a ‘canary in the mine’ analogy, stretched to four paragraphs, he gets to his point: the novel is dying. Not, he concedes, that commercial fiction doesn’t sell: ‘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.’ Not, he concedes again, that books in general aren’t being written and published: ‘During [the last] 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.’ He concedes also that ‘nor do I mean that serious novels will either cease to be written or read.’ It was not, he concedes once more, that in the twentieth century, Self’s golden age of the novel, ‘everyone walked the streets with their head buried in Ulysses or To the Lighthouse‘. So what, exactly, is Self’s problem? What justifies the drama of his headline? This is what he gives us:

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.

So the problem is that people are reading and writing novels (but not the right novels). The problem isn’t that literary novels are not getting published, but that these are ‘zombie novels’, in Self’s words, ‘instances of an undead art form that yet wouldn’t lie down.’ The problem is an ‘active resistance to difficulty.’ There is a lot unsaid here. Define ‘difficulty’ for me. (After all, it is more difficult to write a compulsive, readable crime thriller than a postmodern bildungsroman, as dozens of slushpile Len Deightons have discovered.) Also, if we accept a literary definition of ‘difficulty’ and that there is a popular resistance to it, what form does this resistance take? It is not readily apparent. There are no shortage of big sponsored prizes that hand buckets of money to the authors of ‘difficult’ novels.

Self does not tell us. Instead he takes aim at well-meaning literacy 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’. Surely Self is being a little harsh here. Child literacy, in particular, is absolutely vital even if most twelve-year-olds aren’t quite ready for Beckett and Celan. In his lecture to the Reading Agency, Neil Gaiman talks about the building of private prisons in the US, constructed according to algorithms, including one ‘based about asking what percentage of ten and eleven year olds couldn’t read.’

Then Self gets to the thrust of his argument:

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.

Self’s question rests on the assumptions that 1) the vast majority of text will have this web link and 2) people won’t be able to cope with more than one thing. Do you buy this? After all the internet has been around in some form for around twenty years and there are still vast swathes of the country where people don’t understand computers or want to use them (and miss out on goods and services as a result). The invention of the e reader was a foregone conclusion once the technology was there. In my experience they are mainly used by older people who need them because such devices let you enlarge the text, useful if your eyesight is failing.

Or perhaps the internet isn’t the problem after all. Over another four paras, Self argues 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.’ Modern publishing, over 114 years, is still reeling from the advent of the wireless. He continues: ‘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.’ Really? A cursory reading of twentieth-century literature will tell you that novelists have had less difficulty than Self realises in the absorption of experimental storycraft. Come to think, didn’t Shakespeare use interior monologue in his plays?

Here I’m acting as if there’s some kind of coherence to Self’s thesis, when in truth it’s an exercise in scattershot moaning. Self moans that broadband internet distracts him from his writing (in that case, you should be writing something more interesting than what’s happening on Twitter) he moans about creative writing programmes, even about one of his students, who apparently ‘wants to be paid more highly for the midwifery of stillborn novels.’ Although Self writes that the creative writing programme is little more than ‘a therapy group for the creatively misunderstood’ he seemingly doesn’t mind using it as a source of income. And, gods, he must be a barrel of laughs in the classroom.

‘Whenever tyro novelists ask me for career advice,’ Self says, ‘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’. Self himself was a tyro novelist once, and he makes some decent points here. But the shriek of doom is almost always a cry for attention, and while that’s forgiveable in a young hothead, it becomes somewhat disconcerting when the attention seeker is still banging the drum into his ‘national treasure’ years.



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