The death of the novel is greatly exaggerated.

WillselfauthorI was reading an article recently by the  literary novelist Will Self in which he proclaimed, if not quite the death of the novel, then certainly the demise of literary fiction. You can read his full piece here.

His central argument is that the serious literary novel has been pushed from the mainstream and has become more like classical music, the preserve of an interested minority.

While I do believe the novel, and reading generally is being changed by the digital age, I’m not sure I buy his idea about this shift in the place of the serious novel. I mean, it was always a minority interest wasn’t it?

41P7822EM1L._Does anyone really think coal miners got round a table in the pub in 1913 to discuss how DH Lawrence had portrayed their lifestyle in Sons and Lovers? Then as now the serious novel was the preserve of the few who felt motivated to pick up the books.

And, in the days when literacy rates were a lot lower than they are now, it was also the preserve of an intellectual elite.

Probably still is come to think, that hasn’t changed. If you have never been exposed to the magic of great books then sadly, you might never discover it for yourself.

But what impact has digital technology made? The temptation is to say that it has stopped people reading books – we stare at tablet screens and mobile phones now, we are hooked up to laptops and video games, even television is feeling the pinch, never mind fusty old reading.

But, when you examine things closer, reading books as an activity seems to be in rude health. No writer, or reader, could immerse themselves in social media today without coming to the conclusion that there are an awful lot of other readers and writers out there.

Doubtless the business model for publishers and writers is changing significantly. Will Self alludes to this in his article when he’s talking about the difficultly of making a living out of literary fiction and the need to do something else, such as teach creative writing, to make ends meet. But again, wasn’t it always difficult to make a living as a writer? And the more serious your work, the more you cut down your potential pool of readers by aiming at a small proportion of them, then the fewer books you would sell.

Now at least there is a connected community of readers around the world – so, as a writer, it is easier to reach your readers than it ever has been before. And those readers can be truly international, even for first time authors like me.

Perhaps it is the case that, overall, fewer people are reading books, and perhaps it is also the case that the books they do read have taken a dive down in class on the scale from literary to pot-boiler. But it is also the case that those people who are interested in the literary novel, and in writing as an art form, can find new books and connect with their authors more easily than ever before.

Song of the Sea GodDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USAhere.

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44 thoughts on “The death of the novel is greatly exaggerated.

  1. Chris, my impression (and I admit I have no facts to support it) is that people are reading more now than ever before, but with e-books giving people the chance to both read and publish, the range of topic (and quality) is far broader. As you say, the literary novel has always been the choice of a limited audience, but my feeling is that it’s far, far from dead. Great post!

      • Couldn’t agree with your more Chris. I was just recently reading a rather moany piece sponsored by the big 5 about how ‘evil Amazon’ is ruining it for large publishing houses by making them charge less for ebooks.
        The traditional publishing world is having a hard time dealing with the transition and so ultimately they start crying “Apocalypse!”

      • It’s a revolution, and nobody knows what’s going to happen in a revolution – not even the people who start it. I think, as a writer, the way to go is just keep producing work you can feel proud of – there’s is an outlet for that, even though the mechanism may have changed.

  2. As much as we all hate to admit it, I think Amazon is actually preventing the novel from dying. As you say, people are much more keen to look at screens nowadays, and some people have been drawn further into reading with the use of their Kindles. My own mum, for example, reads an awful lot now, except she has ditched the physical book in favour of her Kindle due to lack of bookshelf space in our house. She read a lot before, but now she has access to a lot more genres and doesn’t have to spend as much money. She can also take her Kindle to work and not have it take up any more space in her bag. So, in all honesty, one specific genre may be dying, if anything, but the novel is actually being reborn.

    But while there’s a load of people who have moved to the Kindle, I think there are just as many who still love the physical book. Just because sales are down doesn’t mean that people don’t read anymore – it’s all to do with money and space nowadays!

    • All very true – I think what is changing is the industry and so those who are dependant on the traditional system of big publishers, book advances and physical book sales through book store chains feel it most.

  3. Hi, great blog and I’ve reposted it at my site Shirley McLain on WordPress. I think books will always be around. I own a Kindle and I have a lot of books downloaded, but I find that after awhile I just want to hold a book in my hand and smell the pages. It is comforting in a way. Have a blessed day.

    • Thank you Shirley, I’m a big fan of paper books too, but more importantly a fan of novels themselves and my hope is they survive and thrive in some format, and I think they will 🙂

  4. Hello Chris! I agree with Val in saying people are now reading more than ever. The novel is not by any means on its way out. Self-publishing has helped people like me who decide to go on and pay to be in print,rather than continue to be stifled by rejections. So, we are gaining a lot of new voices from all walks of life! Lynn

  5. Nice post, Chris,

    What is interesting to me is the remodelling of stardom and an increased sense of the novel as a participatory form. Are the literary stars the voice of contemporary society any more? I don’t think so, despite some of the grand claims when authors come to visit bookshops or universities.

    Self’s gripe seems to boil down to novelists not being acknowledged legislators of the world. Not a surprise, surely. It’s perhaps a different set of reasons to read that are emerging, other than to hear the voice of a generation or a singular philosophy.

    Hasn’t novel writing – along with spare time, literacy and word processing technologies – become a more common pursuit and less of a spectator sport? I’d say it’s not dying but shape-shifting. A large percentage of readers are reading largely to inform their own writing. Isabel Ashdown said at a presentation this year that, although she liked to pretend that she was being approached by her fans, she knew that most of the audience at author-readings were wanting to know how to emulate her publishing success.

    A new “internet-shaped” thinking allows for writing to have an implied readership no matter which publishing company may (or may not) be the middle man. This seems more pertinent to the “death of the novel” – a broadening at the base of the pyramid and less of a belief in the author as the chosen one – instead, more of a companion who got rather luckier with Bloomsbury.

    MJ WILSON
    @GrubStreetBum

    • I think there’s a lot of truth in what you say – I’ve noticed literature festivals have become more like writer festivals these days with a lot of seminars on how to use Social media for marketing etc. I often get interviews about my ‘road to publication’. I do think though that there are plenty of readers out there – including, one would hope, all those writers – because, never trust a writer who doesn’t read! 🙂

  6. Really interesting and thought-provoking post, Chris. Will Self’s premise, as far as I can see, is that if more novels are being read – because of Amazon or whatever – then the quality is really dumbed down. He seems to think that mass-market appeal and quality literary writing cannot go together, but I think there are and have always been great books that straddle the divide

    • Thanks Sandra – personally I think a rising tide floats all ships and that if more books are being read then some of those will be literary fiction. I can see how the digital age has been disruptive for big publishers and bookshop chains but it’s also brought new opportunities. There’s no way someone like me, with a first literary novel out on a small press, would have readers (in modest numbers) in Australia and Canada and in different parts of the USA under the old system – it’s given my book a life it just wouldn’t have had. I think there will be lots of other authors in my position as well as the ones producing more commercial or genre fiction.

  7. Very interesting post. I think Wilf Self is both wrong and right. Wrong in that Amazon is bringing lots of readers in and that’s a good thing. But right in that there is an impact on the kinds of books that are available. Some self published books are brilliant and should have been picked up by a mainstream publisher but they are too cautious. But others are not. And I really cannot subscribe, as some clearly do, to the idea that you don’t need editors and any idea can sell.

    I also think that the distinction between literary and commercial is very blurred. Will Self is an erudite, brilliant, challenging writer who is certainly literary. But he is also a superstar and his novels sell. I can’t think Amazon has made his personal situation worse.

    I’ve just had my first short stories collection published, and Amazon is making me sales that quite frankly wouldn’t be there in the old way of doing things. I am grateful for that. But, I am conscious, that this is a company that pays people poorly, doesn’t pay taxes and makes it hard for indy bookshops. So it’s a complicated deal and my hope is that we see more alliances between indy presses and bookshops so that they can mutually reinforce each other. And I would like to see Amazon pay its taxes, then I’d have less of problem with what they do.

    • Good points Virginia – I think not just self-published but all small fry authors (like me) benefit from books being available worldwide online. A small publisher can’t break into the book shop chains and doesn’t have a big marketing budget. I have no brief for Amazon but I think if it wasn’t them doing most of the online selling it would be someone else and at least now our books are available to potential readers should they wish to buy.

  8. Chris, it’s interesting that some people seem to equate the supposed death of the literary novel with the death of printed books in general. This reminds me somewhat of the warning cries a few years back that movie theaters would go the way of the dinosaurs with the advent of pay television. Yet the experience of going to the theater to see a newly released movie is still a very large part of the movie business (where else are they going to get away with charging that much for popcorn?). I think the same holds true with digital delivery of books, and the experience of holding a printed book in hand—there’s plenty of room for both formats.

    Are literary novels going south? I doubt it, as quality always finds a home. But the marketing of literary novels—like that of all books these days—is significantly harder and involves much more effort on the part of the writer. That’s something we’re all going to have to get used to.

    • I think that’s quite right – these are changes in the industry, the technology and the marketing – I don’t think they will mean the death of anything personally. It’s not a situation like newspapers where the business model is bust, so long as people want to read books, in whatever format, there will be a market for them.

      • Sadly, with the demise of newspapers, an important watchdog will be out of the picture. Amazon won’t be in a position to tell us what mischief our local planning commission has gotten up to!

  9. I think Will Self was bemoaning the loss of people worshipping Will Self….. as he frequently does. I do not see the novel dying …. more, as one of your commentators said, changing…. and becoming more interactive. Now readers want to chat to the writer, question him/her, comment and own the book by writing reviews, blog comments. As long as there are people, there will be stories, and as long as there are stories, there will be writers… and as long as there are writers……..

    • Mhm – I think the medium has changed rather than the message, but I suppose only time will tell how things finally shake out and where it leaves the novel, particularly more serious literary novels.

  10. I think Will Self is probably about right, to be honest – there is a much smaller market for contemporary fiction of the ‘literary’ style than there is for, say, the adventure thriller or the chick lit easy read, or the throwaway light romance. I always equate it to the general tastes of the masses – more people watch The X Factor and The Only Way is Essex than they do wonderful documentaries about the Plantagenets on BBC2, for instance. Recently, I read the beginning of a chick lit bestseller on Amazon. It was absolutely dreadful, with an unfeasible, predictable plot, ridiculous dialogue, bad grammar, you name it. But the punters are loving it – a lot more than some of the more literary works I’ve read recently! It’s just the way it is, I’m afraid. This is a huge subject, and if I wrote all I thought (which veers off into the media, education, etc!) my comment would be longer than your piece! I will just say that I think there IS always a BIG market for a well-written literary novel – but it needs to be very good, and be well marketed.

    • I’m really not sure that’s a change though – I don’t think there ever was a point in history when the literary novel was a mass market proposition – it was always the preserve of a small minority of readers.

  11. Hi Chris, first time on your blog – it was very interesting and informative, including the comments. But I am going to digress slightly from this particular post. As someone who’s just written a novel and is now trying to find an agent – it’s very tempting to go down the self-publishing route ( I read the guest self-publishing post). And am very happy that this option exists now – but – somehow, I keep wondering (it’s my own particular demon) whether that would be considered as a ‘failure’ of some sort (which is a ridiculous thought?). So how long should one keep trying? Before one decides to go down the publishing route. How does one know? Or one doesn’t? Any thoughts? Thanks!
    Anjali (http://anjalideshpande.com)

    • Hi Anjali! I really think it depends what your personal dream is. For me it was always to find a traditional publisher so I stuck like glue to that even though it took years to do. If your goal is simply to get your work out there as quickly as you can then self publishing has got to be a serious option these days. Good luck whatever you decide!

      • Yes true..I guess I’ve got to make up my mind! But do you mind if I asked how long it took you? (just so I’ve the nerve to keep going!) I hope I’m not being too nosy 🙂 Thanks for replying!

      • Probably took me about three years or maybe more to find a home for it after it was finished, I wrote another book in the meantime (which has yet to be published). The reality is if you are looking for a traditional publisher you have to accept your book might not make the grade and could never be published. That’s one of the reasons self publishing is so popular – there is no entry requirement, anyone can do it. But many good authors self publish too, it’s not just ones whose work isn’t good enough to find a traditional publisher. Here’s a post I did with some tips on finding a publisher https://songoftheseagod.wordpress.com/2013/03/09/how-to-get-published/

  12. Hi. Great blog post, and also found the comments above about publishing options very useful, as i will soon be approaching this hurdle myself, daunting thought.

  13. Great blog Chris. I had similar thoughts when I read the article.The literary novel has always been the preserve of a monority. But it’s heartening to see that there’s always one or two out there on the bestseller lists. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch comes to mind. I’m reading it at the moment and savouring every page.

    • Annette, I looked up some reviews of this book, The Goldfinch on Amazon and see that it is 755 pages. That is an amazing task in these fast-paced times. Please let us know if you think this is novel that would fit the bill of true literary work and I will get it also. Some found it hard to get through and others called it a series of novellas. Thanks, Lynn M.

      • I enjoyed her book The Secret History a lot – but I try to spread myself around different authors to try as many as possible so The Goldfinch will have to wait for me 🙂

      • Yes, Chris. I have been trying to read a lot of new authors myself. i haven’t read any long work of fiction since I took on Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina a few years back.

  14. Your point about it always being difficult to a earn a living from literary writing is well made. George Gissing’s New Grub Street comes to mind. My impression is that the reading world is now more vibrant than it has been for years: witness the rise of the literary festival, book towns, and in particular the phenomenal rise of bookclubs. I’m not sure that the reading public owes authors a living, but if there is a fault in the system, it seems to me that the first place to look is not to readers but to the business model of the publishing and book retail industry.

    • I agree Jessica – perhaps things have been made more difficult at the top end for authors with the big publishing houses – but there is more opportunity for people like me working with small publishers as it is easier to reach a readership than it used to be.

  15. When I read the original article I disagreed with him and I still do. The arrival of e-readers has meant that folks like me, writing literary-ish novels that don’t fit into easy, saleable categories, can get our work out there to be read and enjoyed.
    A train journey will show how many still read, whether *real* books or digital ones on a device.
    Great article.

    • Thanks Viv – I do think the ‘death of the novel’ doomsayers are mixing up the product with the delivery system a little bit. Big publishing is struggling in it’s current form and so those who are locked into that system might see things changing around them and predict disaster. But there are still plenty of readers out there!

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