Louis D Rubin Jr. in the face of the certain death of the novel
When the editors approached me to ask if I had any interest in curating The Town Crier for a month, I was living in the US Virgin Islands. (The things I do for love, as the pink cartoon dog was apt to sigh). I was about as fit a transplant for St. Thomas as a toadstool in the Mojave. Try to imagine a seaside resort town on the East Coast of the United States (I’m thinking Ocean City, Maryland) where the Summer People have taken up permanent residence because autumn never comes and they have no reason to stop partying and go back home, and you’ll get the gist of it. An expatriate with a literary hangup is prone to isolation in such a place. There’s not a single bookstore on the whole island. The only person you’re likely to see reading is the resort-goer lounging on the beach with an airplane novel. When I’d sit by myself with a notebook and pen at the corner of a bar patio, the novelty of the sight often brought women (and sometimes very drunk men) to my table. (Footnote: they didn’t stay long). Sometimes I’d try to talk about books with the younger, hipper people I knew, and most of the time I was given a report on a glossy coffee table-sized astrology tome, or told about the guide to healing crystals, or the Eat, Pray, Love paperback they got for Christmas and were meaning to finish. (It is difficult to report these facts without sounding judgmental). Meanwhile, the rejections from the lit zines were stacking up, and my second self-published novel was selling even less briskly than my first self-published novel (although, granted, “aggressive” would be the very last word for my efforts to promote it).
From this vantage point, the for-the-clicks “writers, you’re screwed!” web headlines and think-pieces loomed alarmingly large, which undoubtedly informed my thinking as to what The Town Crier’s topic of the month ought to be.
Today I’m living in Philadelphia and feeling a whole lot better about everything—even though very little has actually changed.
Not too long ago I wandered across a passage in a book called The Curious Death of the Novel: Essays in American Literature by Louis D Rubin Jr., which deserves to be quoted at length:
Sometimes I wonder who it was who first discovered that the novel was dead. I suspect it was some English literary critic who, having read Pamela and Tom Jones, happened upon Tristram Shandy and immediately afterward announced that the form had now been fully explored and that therefore no more works in that genre could be written. And when someone offered to lend him the new work by Jane Austen entitled Sense and Sensibility, he refused to look at it, declaring instead that the genius of his age lay in works of nonfiction such as Charles Lamb’s Recollections of Christ’s Hospital, or perhaps in the throbbing vitality of magazine journalism as exemplified in Blackwood’s and the Edinburgh Review. But on second thought it was probably not an Englishman who discovered that the novel was dead; doubtless it was a Frenchman, for that is the sort of thing that the French are constantly discovering …
So the novel is dead. Who killed the novel? There has been no lack of answers. We are told that the age of prose fiction is dead … that there is no place for the novel. The bewildering cacophony of modern times, with its continual crises, its everyday reality more weird than anything formerly portrayed in the most visionary works of fiction, has left no room for the mere loveliness of the belles-lettres. Actual events boggle the imagination; this is the age of non-fiction, of the quest for meaning involved in interpretive reportage. Furthermore, television and journalism have provided our culture with art forms that mirror contemporary reality far more accurately and faithfully than the leisurely prose of the novel could ever do …
It is only archaisms like “Englishman” and “Frenchman” (and perhaps the conspicuous absence of the Internet) that date the passage in the 20th century. Louis D Rubin Jr. published The Curious Death of the Novel in 1967, although the hand-wringing and prognostications regarding the health of the novel it reports are apparently timeless. If the novel really did die sometime around the 1960s (as critics in the 1960s were claiming), then I suppose The Alchemist, Beloved, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Harry Potter, Infinite Jest, etc., have some explaining to do.
So why does it seem that the novel (or print literature) is always dying?
Though our contributors throughout the month have touched upon the descent and persistence of literature, the areas of consensus bear repeating. Any talk about literature in decline has to be in the context of the mass media monopoly print held down for centuries. The art forms predicated on print are in decline, insofar as they’ll never command the heights they did when print’s share of the media market was effectively the total market. Books had only to compete with other books instead of other media. As technology re-terraforms (directly or indirectly) our social, urban, and ecological environments, engendering unprecedented situations and new perspectives, artists (the antennae of our species) will devise forms of expression appropriate to the new patterns. Not everyone with an aesthetic conviction, a bone to pick, or a story to tell will find YouTube, Twitter, or Imgur the most suitable vehicles for their work. Some will write, and those who do will invariably wander into new frontiers and discover new ways of spinning a yarn, making a point, and putting on a show in the theatre of the mind.
But will anyone be reading? The answer we find is “maybe.” It has always been “maybe.”
Patrick Roesle’s basement
As I said before, I’ve moved from the Caribbean to Philadelphia. One of my roommates here is an old friend from school. When he and I were introduced some ten years ago, we didn’t hit it off right away. I blame cultural differences. I’m from Jersey; I can’t (read: don’t) shut up. My roommate is from Ohio; his temperament reminds me of the Minnesotan old-timers chronicled by Garrison Keillor. He speaks only when there is something fit to speak of, pronouncing every statement like a meteorological observation issued from a covered porch. “Storm coming soon.” “Cold today.” “Weather’s getting better.” The other day he said: “Got hit by a car on the way home.” Then he took a draw from his cigarette and gave a little affirmative nod, looking straight ahead.
Lately my roommate has been paying his bills as a dog walker; in the past he’s worked behind a deli counter, painted houses, managed a team for the United States Census Bureau, did a term with AmeriCorps, and served as the night watchman at an asphalt plant. He leaves the house at nine in the morning and returns sometime between three and six—whereupon he’ll have a smoke, take a shot of whiskey, and disappear into the basement, where he has a workshop set up. He likes to make things out of wood: little chests of drawers, jewellery boxes, and the like. He’s sold a few on eBay for a couple hundred dollars a pop. There are about five finished pieces sitting around the house; he means to get around to putting them up for sale at some point. He’s not in any hurry.
So on a given evening my roommate will be in the basement, sawing, sanding, and lacquering; I’ll be upstairs trying to string together sentences and make metaphors seem unlaboured. Every couple of hours we’ll meet in the kitchen for a smoke and have a brief chat about what we’re working on. As a writer who talks to other writers, I notice a stark difference in the way my roommate talks about what he does and how writers talk about what they do. He doesn’t beat himself up for not being “good enough” to make a living doing what he does in his workshop. He doesn’t read Popular Woodworking Magazine and seethe with envy at the designer profiles, muttering, “They’re just good at networking, that’s all it is.” He doesn’t compose long explications about 3D printing and how it is (or is not) threatening his craft. He just goes downstairs and makes stuff. When he finishes making one thing, he gets some more lumber and moves on to his next project.
Marshall McLuhan and Steve Jobs were right: the printed word is no longer our cultural polestar, and the technological precession of coming decades will wheel it farther from the centre as electronic media continues to proliferate and evolve. But that doesn’t mean nobody will be reading, and it doesn’t mean you can’t write—if writing is what you can do and want to do. The Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote: “Love the art, poor as it may be, which thou hast learned, and be content with it; and pass through the rest of life like one who has intrusted [sic] to the gods with his whole soul all that he has, making thyself neither the tyrant nor the slave of any man.” I can’t think of any better advice to the 21st century author, aspiring or otherwise. As long as people are writing, interesting, virtuosic, and (dare I say) noble things will be written, and literature will live on.
Let’s be realistic: the novel isn’t dead, but the celebrity novelist is a moribund breed. People who write books (e- or otherwise) are going to be increasingly less relevant than the people on the screens, the people who make the pictures, the music, and the software. Should we care? The furniture craftsman is rather less indispensable to his community than he was before the invention of steam power and automated manufacturing, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t people today who cherish his work—even if most of his admirers will probably be his immediate friends and his peers in the crafts community.
Has my roommate given this much thought? I somehow doubt it.
Patrick Roesle is from Jersey, but ended up in Philadelphia after a sequence of adventures and accidents. He is the author of two novels (The Zeroes and All the Lonely People), and his short fiction has appeared in The Puritan and, more recently, Four Chambers. His blog is Beyond Easy and he sometimes says things he regrets on Twitter.