DEATH OF THE NOVEL, DEATH OF THE READER: A DEBATE (WITH AIs)

This post is inspired by two articles about novelists considering whether the novel is in its dying throes. The interview by Vicent Bosch of Guillem López (Castelló, 1975) for JotDown bears the heading “No creo que la novela sobreviva medio siglo” (https://www.jotdown.es/2018/06/guillem-lopez-no-creo-que-la-novela-sobreviva-medio-siglo-la-literatura-si-pero-sera-otra-cosa-tal-vez-un-videojuego/). The Guardian’s article about the BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking talk by novelist Howard Jacobson (Manchester, 1942) is titled “‘The Problem is the Reader’”.

Guillem López is one of the most important Spanish fantasy writers, and Challenger (2015)–which does deal with the space shuttle disaster of 1986–his most acclaimed novel. Here is an anecdote. López novel won the 2016 Ignotus for best fiction, the main award for fantasy fiction in Spain (apart from Planeta’s Minotauro). The awards ceremony is usually celebrated within Hispacon, which that year coincided with Barcelona’s Eurocon–and there I was. López was not in the room and his publisher, Cisco Bellabestia of Aristas Martínez (Badajoz, active since 2010) collected the award. He then launched into the total opposite of the thanks speech you might expect, shaming everyone in the room into considering sheepishly the charms of the floor tiles. His main point was that it was no use giving awards and clapping authors on the shoulder if sales remained so low–he mentioned having sold only 100 copies of Challenger in its first year. My, he was angry… The JotDown interview mentions an iron ceiling of 2000 copies at most for Spanish fiction (not just fantasy), and other editors and authors I know put habitual sales figures between 150 and 450 copies. In contrast, top YouTuber El Rubius has 30 million subscribers worldwide–yes, that is correct. There is a series of books presenting him as a superhero. No wonder…

Towards the end of the JotDown interview, López is invited to speculate on the future of the novel. He notes that even though the foundations of the genre remain quite static, innovation is still possible, as shown by Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000)–most likely, the only truly post-postmodern novel I have come across and an admirable text but also a one-off eccentric beauty. López remarks next that, in his view, novels will have probably disappeared in about fifty years, with only a small circle of committed readers keeping them alive at the end of the 21st century. If, I add, pastoral poetry went out of fashion why shouldn’t the novel go out of fashion, too? If, furthermore, you can date the birth of a genre then why couldn’t you imagine its death?

In López’s view, and this is what gives the interview its controversial subtitle, “Perhaps we should all be writing videogames because videogames are the literature of the end of the 21st century”. For López literature will survive, then, though not necessarily the novel. I must clarify that López does not mean that videogames are literature as they are right now but that they offer a model to explore. He stresses that the novel should fit the world awaiting us round the corner and not the other way round, and we need to start thinking of novels amenable to virtual and augmented reality, transmedia contents, etc rather than just the book. Why he assumes that ‘literature’ is a synonym for ‘narrative’ is an issue that I’ll leave aside for the time being.

What is in question, then, is not so much the novel’s survival but the convention according to which the novel must be read between the covers of a book and transmitted in printed text. This is not at all a new argument, though so far the constant obsolescence of computers has prevented most of the hypertextual fictional experiments to make it into any kind of canon (popular or otherwise). I still wonder that we don’t have hypertextual editions of the classics, with ‘footnotes’ popping up windows with all kinds of information. And, though I’m not sure this will ever happen, I have no problems imagining the use of virtual reality technology in immersive versions of novels, as if you could insert yourself in a BBC adaptation as you listen to Charles Dickens, to name an example. The videogame format that López alludes to suggests, however, something more interactive but, then, I’m not sure how that would still be a novel rather than an enhanced film.

In Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 (1953) the protagonist’s wife, Mildred, is totally addicted to a soap opera she can interact with through the four screens in her living room, a sort of predecessor of immersive virtual reality. This might be the kind of novel most valued in the 22nd century. Of course, in Bradbury’s dark tale books are banned and firemen are, ironically, in charge of burning them–the texts survive in the wondrous memories of volunteers who recall them verbatim for future generations, that is to say, the literary works survive as oral artefacts. Perhaps audiobooks and not videogame books are the future, one way or another, for even Bradbury grants that while books need to be written they needn’t be read.

Jacobson’s talk was given at the Man Booker festival (Southbank Centre, London) at a time when the award itself is under fire for not generating the enthusiasm of past decades. Incidentally, Michael Ondatjee’s The English Patient (1992) has been voted the best Man Booker novel in the 50 years of the award’s history, which sounds a bit suspicious to me for this in an extremely demanding novel and I would think that many voters were thinking of the far more accessible film. Maybe I’m wrong… Anyway, Jacobson’s argument is the opposite of López’: for him, the screen is the enemy to beat (he forgets e-book readers, as usual). Instead of the “infinite distractions of the Jumpin’ Jack Flash screen” Jacobson praises the “the nun-like stillness of the page” and, above all, of the page that requires concentration. “To say that reading more closely resembles study is not to be a killjoy: concentration and enjoyment are not opposites”. To reinforce his point, he offers a comparison: “Strange that when everyone’s running marathons and otherwise raising sweat for the hell of it, working hard at a novel is thought to take the fun away”. Um, perhaps that explains why few keen readers are also keen athletes: our sport is reading.

“Until people fall out of love with the screen, I don’t know what will win them back to writing”, Jacobson sentences. We are, then, lost because unless nuclear Armageddon or alien invasion wipes out electricity-based civilization, the reign of the screen in all its multiple forms is here to stay. Jacobson, the way I see it, is a combination luddite/print Taliban, not much to my taste. I love screens (cinema, TV and computer) and I don’t see that this love has affected in any way my passion for reading. Neither the screen nor the page are monogamous affections for a great percentage of individuals, though I agree that the youngest age demographic is where the real problem lies. People change and, thus, my father who had not read more than ten books before he hit 80 is now reading a thick novel every two days–boredom has unexpected effects. It is, however, much harder for me to imagine my 17-year-old nephew suddenly dropping his iPhone for a bunch of printed papers between covers. The last book I bought him was an exercise in self-defeat for both author and aunt: it explained, in print, why young people like him do not find enjoyment in reading and studying.

I grant, then, Jacobson one major point: concentration is going the way of the Titanic and the iceberg is not so much the screen itself but the downsizing of dialogue and discourse to the tweet and the Instagram post. Influencers’ blogs are all photos, no need to go through much text. And why read if YouTube can teach you all you need to know? Just imagine what I am thinking these days, now that I know that next year I’ll have to teach Romantic Literature (the main poets, Mary Shelley and Jane Austen) at 8:30 in the morning, and on Fridays. I can feel already the waves of enthusiastic concentration…

The problem which the reader has become for the writer is a consequence of the ambitious US white guys, now billionaires, who have peddled their wares to the most vulnerable age segment: Google, YouTube, Instagram, Whatsapp (add whatever you wish) have their uses but they are heavily undermining the more productive revolution which Johannes Guttenberg brought about (I’m not sure whether he would like the idea of the online repository of e-books Project Guttenberg being named after him…). Many defend the idea that reading is at no risk because we are continuously reading what reaches us though the screens (like my posts!) but nobody should claim that reading thousands of words in tweets is the same as reading longer, monographic pieces of writing.

I myself do not fear very much for the novel but I do fear for the book-length essay, as I see more and more of us, academics in Literary and Cultural Studies, publishing collective books rather than monographs. The short essay has its place in journals and volumes of this kind but, again, it aims at a short burst of attention both from writer and reader. There are days when it seems to me that only doctoral students will ever produce monographs–unless they start producing, as my university wants, theses which actually compile three or four articles.

Is the novel dead or dying, then? I think the answer is ‘it depends on which novel you mean’. The books that are dying, whether they are fiction or not, are those that demand, as Jacobson notes, concentration and attention. Ulysses will die faster than The Pillars of Earth, if anyone under 35 can recognize either of the titles. Conquering The Magic Mountain, still a badge of honour in my time as an undergrad in the mid-1980s, now means nothing. And I’m sorry to say that Howard Jacobson’s own novels are not really that thrilling as a readerly challenge. We may be going towards a world without difficult books, which is not the same as a world without novels.

I read yesterday that AIs are already writing fiction and perhaps our hope is that our machines will generate a new fashion for the exquisitely crafted page though, so far, the snag seems to be that they’re not very good at characterizing human beings. Perhaps the new Jane Austen, the new Noam Chomsky will be born from AI talent and computers will be not only the truly sophisticated authors of the future but also the only accomplished readers left, while human beings continue wasting their lifetime and the precious gifts of the human brain in inane messaging in the social networks.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

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