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Will Self is wrong, the novel isn't doomed at all

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Twitter has been set alight with Will Self’s latest claim that the novel is doomed and will become a marginalised art form in the near future.

Will Self at Texas A&M, cropped, levels adjusted

His pessimistic assertion that, in fact, this decline has already happened, is not the first time he has mentioned this. It’s been his position since at least 2014, when another article in The Guardian warned of the novel’s imminent demise. Meanwhile, Self has published both Shark (2014) and Phone (2017).

The irony is staring us in the face: a man who relies on a particular genre of writing for his livelihood and status is condemning it to the rubbish heap. This is before we consider that his preferred method of reading – digitally – may be contributing to declining sales. And as for his parting realisation that he doesn’t read much contemporary fiction and that the reading list for a class he teaches is dominated by men – well, perhaps this might explain why the books he reads are falling out of favour.

However, it’s one particular aspect of this most recent interview that I want to address. In discussing how he has seen the novel fall from favour, Self says the following:

“It’s impossible to think of a novel that’s been a water-cooler moment in England, or in Britain, since Trainspotting, probably.”

For Self, no book has been the talk of the country since 1993, the year the European single market was created and Bill Clinton became the 43rd President of the United States. According to Self, Liam Payne of One Direction has never lived in a Britain which discusses fiction avidly and obsessively. That’s how long it has been since a novel was a ‘water-cooler moment’.


Which, of course, is nonsense. According to a 2009 analysis in Self’s paper of choice, The Guardian, the top twenty-three best-selling novels of all time were written post-1993; 19 of those were written since the millennium. By sheer force of sales alone, the novel seems to be more alive than ever.

 

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Of course, it’s worth considering what those best-selling novels are, and yes, I expect they’re not quite what Will Self would consider literary. Almost half belong to either the Harry Potter or the Twilight series. Dan Brown’s novels are well-represented, as is Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series. With the addition of the Fifty Shades trilogy, the only standalone books in that top two-dozen are The Lovely Bones and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. With perhaps the exception of those two, few of us would consider most of these to be ‘literary’.


Yet that’s not necessarily what a book being ‘water-cooler’ fodder means. Surely all it means is that it gets people talking, and I can honestly think of no books more discussed and torn apart than Harry Potter and Fifty Shades. I can vividly remember the night that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was released. People drifted from the pub to the Waterstone’s down the high street for the midnight release, returning with book in hand. Somebody shouted ‘Does he die?’ and people either skipped ahead or frantically hushed each other to avoid spoilers. There was a real buzz in the air. More beer-cooler than water-cooler, perhaps, but surely precisely what Self has claimed has been missing for over two decades.

Pile of Harry Potter books

This notion of ‘water-cooler’ moments has been a hot topic across the entertainment sector for several years, with Netflix and Amazon supposedly signalling the end of the kind of televisual events which will have us all unable to function at work the next day because we just have to talk about them. Occasionally, a programme such as Broadchurch or Game of Thrones is afforded the title, usually followed by a claim that they just don’t happen anymore. If Self believes the novel is unique in no longer distracting people from their work, then he needs to look around.

Life has changed. With people increasingly working more flexibly, the water cooler is not even a feasible meeting point anymore, whilst the internet offers new ways to talk about the literature we love. Those conversations are still happening, about texts such as Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give and Naomi Alderman’s The Power: they’re just taking place online.

Yet what this all really smacks of is elitism. Self isn’t the only person to proclaim the death of the novel. Speaking at an A Level Literature conference in November 2017, Pat Barker also talked of the death of the novel, but specifically the literary novel, suggesting that many writers are rebranding themselves as historical writers in order to survive. Hilary Mantel has turned to the court of Henry VIII for her award-winning Wolf Hall trilogy; Barker herself has returned to the First World War for her ongoing series which began with Life Class. They’re still novels; they’re just different novels.

Self also claims that the film and TV industry has now divorced itself from the novel, no longer needing the underlying narrative the original provides. It’s an equally as odd statement given how many Netflix Originals are adaptations of books, from Alias Grace and Anne with an E, to Altered Carbon and Orange is the New Black. 13 Reasons Why became Netflix’s most Tweeted-about show last year, clocking up over 11 million mentions in just one month – how’s that for a water-cooler moment?

Where would Game of Thrones and The Handmaid’s Tale, two of last year’s most popular TV series be without the novels which inspired them? And how about the Oscar-nominated Call Me By Your Name?

What Self needs to realise is that times have changed. Yes, there are more distractions, in the form of on-demand services, but that doesn’t mean that our love for literature has diminished. The relationship has simply changed, both between us and novels, and novels and film. It’s much more dynamic and instant, much more reciprocal and interactive than it was in 1993 when Trainspotting was the title on everybody’s lips. It’s a new way of reading and a new way of talking, but the conversation goes on.

Perhaps the simplest way of saying what I mean is: The Novel might be dead – but long live the novel.

Image credit: Will Self at Texas A&M, 21st September 2013 by Texas A&M University Commerce Marketing Communications Photography via Wikicommons.

 

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