What is the cause of its demise? The novel has lost its sense of, well, novelty. Novel itself means new, original and striking, but as of late, the way in which we discuss, read and reward novels has ignored this quality. Author Philip Roth has said that within a few decades the novel will be as irrelevant as Latin poetry, speaking to the seemingly inevitable irrelevance and perceived pretension of the novel. His sentiment has been echoed by Ronald Sukenick, Tom Wolfe and even David Foster Wallace, among others. If we hope to resuscitate the novel, we must be willing to ask ourselves the difficult, albeit obvious, questions: who reads novels, who writes novels and why do they even bother to read and write novels?
Who reads novels? Well, those who can read. If you can read this article, you are more fortunate than the 3 billion people who cannot read it at all. I, and all of us at Duke, have the privilege of being able to read. However, literacy alone is hardly the only component determining who reads novels. Even within countries that boast high literacy rates, like the United States, there are many who could read novels, but choose not to. According to a report titled “To Read or Not To Read” by the National Endowment for the Arts, only 57 percent of adults in America read at least one book not required for work or school in the past year. Compare that to the average five hours a day of television watched in an American household and the average seven and a half hours millennials spend online a day, and it is apparent that the screen has superseded the page.
Reading novels has become bourgeois again, almost like the days before the printing press. Your level of income and education are better determinants of whether you will read a book than your age. Reading has not become uncool; reading has become a privilege.
Who writes novels? Of course, as NaNoWriMo advertises, anyone can write a novel, but who does write novels? (I’ll give you a hint, it’s not just overly-caffeinated Duke students like myself.) I am going to shamelessly take a note from Virginia Woolf and say that those with a room of their own are able to write. It is important to note that a room of one’s own is not just about a physical space to write, but about a literary space for marginalized populations to have a voice. Who has rooms of their own? Those who are most socioeconomically privileged in society, meaning that writers and publishers of novels are generally from overrepresented identities.
Consider this: since 2002, the Duke Summer Reading Program has hosted 12 different authors, but there have only been two female authors (Jodi Picoult and Ann Patchett) and two authors of color (Junot Díaz and Khaled Hosseini) during the entirety of the program. In fact, not a single class year currently at Duke has read an author who is not caucasian for their summer reading, and only one class has read a female author. True, the Duke Summer Reading Program is not the best way to measure who is writing novels, but it reveals popular conceptions of who writes novels. In fact, in 2011, journalist Roxane Gay discovered that 88 percent of books reviewed by "The New York Times" were written by white authors. And Francine Prose’s 1998 piece about sexism in the literary world, “Scent of a Woman’s Ink,” is still unfortunately relevant today. Notable authors, like Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith, stand as leaders in incorporating diverse perspectives into the world of the novel, but they are exceptions, not the rule.
After the realization of how limited the scope of readers and writers of novels is, it may seem discouraging to ask why we bother to read and write novels. Yet, the why can provide the solution to this very problem. Stories transcend time and space, allowing us to inhabit someone other than ourselves. Stories offer a remedy to what is unknown, making the unfamiliar feel familiar. As David Foster Wallace once said, “Fiction’s about what it is to be a f***ing human being.”
The first time I read “Song of Solomon” by Toni Morrison, I was in eighth grade and needlessly trying to prove superior literacy to myself. The second time I read “Song of Solomon,” I was riding the Bull City Connector and got so caught up in the story that I sat in a corner of the bus for two loops throughout Durham until I finished the book. Similarly, when we speak of novels, it can feel a bit like my middle school self trying to prove something. I wanted to establish myself within an arbitrary hierarchy of “good” readers and “bad” readers, implicitly supporting cultural inequities. But, when we embrace novels as glances through a keyhole to infinite landscapes of humanity, we reveal the power of good fiction to immerse us into someone other than ourselves, so much so that we forget that we’re on a continuous loop on the Bull City Connector.
This is true across all mediums, whether it’s a video game or a TV show, a film or a YouTube video. Good fiction concerns stories about what it means to be a human being and can open up perspectives previously unknown. So we must ask ourselves, how are human beings of all identities telling their own stories? At Duke, it is largely through Tweets, Facebook statuses, Instagram pictures, Tumblr posts, text messages, emails and in conversation. So long as new novels continue to adopt archaic formats that do not account for this type of storytelling, they will continue to be irrelevant to contemporary readers who no longer tell their own stories in pristine prose and elongated timelines.
Just as modernity changed what the novel could be through landmark works like James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” so can this current moment of rapid technological advancement and interconnectedness change what the novel can become. Today, we see stories that are not quite like the novels we know but not quite like anything else done before, such as Device 6 or The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. They capture the spirit of originality and newness that the novel ought to inspire.
So perhaps, it is necessary to concede that the novel as we know it is dead, but the novel as we will come to know it is being reborn and we are writing it. Novels must stop merely indulging nostalgia and be willing to adapt and grow into accessible multimedia formats that better showcase diverse perspectives, or else risk their demise. Luckily, I think contemporary storytellers and the stories they have yet to tell are up to the task of breathing life into the novel again. To quote novelist Richard Price, “No more talk about the death of the novel; the novel will be at your funeral.”