The Novel

bookBy Savannah Thorne

A book rather simply and aptly named The Novel was written by Richard Friedman in 1973. This was decades before the advent of Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code, before the surging interest in historical fiction, before the use of the Internet to advertise authors’ works, before e-books, and before Print-on-Demand publishing. The author asks:

“How relevant does…faith in the future of the novel appear today…when magazines publishing fiction have nearly all gone out of business; when book publishers regard novels with the same anxiety or contempt formerly reserved for slim volumes of esoteric poetry; when most readers proudly say they ‘have no time’ for reading fiction? … [T]he greatest challenge to the novel in our time has been the movies and television. They have sapped the novel of its unique strength and stolen its producers and readers…devastatingly.”

Is the novel as we know it on the brink of extinction due to today’s media and other electronic stimuli? Does it need to reinvent itself? Should it pander to a quicker-paced environment, or return to a classical format? Are red-hot bestsellers really good for book marketing? Are they bringing about a Renaissance in reading?

In fact, I believe that authors like Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling are damaging to publishing and book selling as a whole. It seems as though the blockbusters attract certain people, taking a potential audience away from other, less-known authors. And it sets the bar at an unrealistic high for the authors who just aren’t those blockbusters.

I don’t think there’s a correlation between blockbuster sales and book sales in general for other authors. And I am unconvinced that the people who read these books will expand their tastes and read other works. I think these sorts of readers tend to be mainly a movie-going audience, interested in the latest “social phenomenon” type of book such as Twilight, mysteries by Dan Brown, or Harry Potter.

I used to be glad for Rowling’s success, believing that she was fostering a new generation interested in reading. It seemed so nice to see the American world become more “literary” through such an author and her phenomenal success. But Sara Backer, author of American Fuji, reminisced of a school librarian telling her that Harry Potter fans only read Harry Potter books; they simply were not interested in branching out and trying more books. In some cases, reading the latest Harry Potter book has become a social norm, not a reading pleasure.

Blockbusters set the bar too high for other authors, as they compete in the same arena. How can the very best novel of an unknown writer crack the New York Times’ top 10 list if Dan Brown releases his book at the same time? His work will remain in the #1 slot for perhaps a year, decreasing the number of other titles that can appear on the list. That is not to mention the bookstore tables Dan Brown uses up, crowding out the room for other titles. Book stores have spatial limitations and, there simply is not room for everyone.

This year’s best-reviewed novel sold 10,000 copies, while Stephanie Myer’s Twilight sold over three million. How do you become a blockbuster? It is a mystery. It depends upon that mystery goddess, luck. For myself, I have always felt that entertainment value plays a vital role in the arts. A good novel appeals on many levels, deeper meaning being one of them, sheer delight of words being another, but entertainment value not excluded.

However, what the audience will find to be of particular interest is continually changing. John Grisham was told there was no interest in court dramas anymore, and his first novel sold so little that he bought copies to give away as Christmas presents; many ended up in the dump . On the other hand, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code spawned at least a half-dozen copycats and probably quite a few more. What is hot at the moment cannot be predicted.

There is no question that writers like Stephen King, Mary Higgins Clark, John Le Carré, and, yes, even Joanne Rowling faced their share of rejections and troubles, and I am always glad to see an author succeed. However, when said author puts out yet another humdrum duplication of their repertoire that crowds out a talented effort by an unknown author who could use this one chance, the system fails not only the new author, but adventurous readers as well. And then we hear the cry, “Why is America not reading anything new or intelligent?” The answer is on the shelves, when we use our limited funds in a poor economy to buy only the biggest book.

6 Comments on “The Novel”

  1. I think that reading is a lost art, not unlike math …. pleasure has to have an edge to be enjoyed anymore and it has to be instantanous … I read to relax in a world that cannot seem to find any time to smell a rose or learn of an art that has no place in the fast paced world of the internet and porn …. like newspapers, books will go cyber soon and no one will know the smell and feel of a book on your chest and a world beyond your own horizon ….. it is sad how much literary history is lost because of neglect … how do people who don’t read …. dream ???? thanks for this, it was fun to read something so intelligently presented.

  2. All that a best seller means is you found someone who knows how to wrap the package up in a manner that appeals to the public and promote it. I don’t really know if the future means an end to paper publishing. It’s possible. I’m sure if it’s true, a few trees will be relieved to hear the news. However, i think something will be lost if our reading time becomes completely dependent on electronic delivery. There will be nothing to hold and cherish in our hands; no marked pages to return to again and again, no leafy companion waiting by our bedstead when we are too tired to sit abruptly in a chair. One of the things i’ve already noticed about the net is an informational bias. I have books that detail a clear outline of historical differences for many subjects that aren’t even mentioned on the net, or that entail very elaborate research. I reflect how very easy it actually is to manipulate informational channels without the permanency of paper recording. At the same time, i think there is a great future for electronic fiction. We will always need new stories; fresh stories, invigorating stories that reflect the here and now, the rambling, sighing past and the cautious future.

  3. I myself have thought this over a lot. I have a deep love affair with actual books. I must have them surrounding me at all times and the smell and feel of them are important to me. Of course the content is too. But with the advent of things like the Kindle I found myself thinking…”Would I like this?” I could carry books easier download them. I haven’t been able to change over yet though because nothing does it for me the same as an actual book. When I set to serious reading I have a hard time staying with it if I have to read it on the computer.
    However I think I am becoming a minority. People like to have things at their fingertips. I go to people’s houses and marvel at their book-less-ness. How do they live like that? The idea of watching a movie before reading a book is abhorant to me in most cases. There are very few movies that have been better than the book. That is because the mind is engaged, each individual building something unique from one story.
    I will say that my experience with my kids reading Harry Potter was a good one. For my oldest who thought he couldn’t get into reading finishing a book that big gave him confidence, a sort of “If I can read that, think of what else I can read.” But I can see where the franchise problem comes into play for a lot of people. They are sold a brand really.
    I am at times encouraged by the future of literacy and liturature and at other times I dispair. I sometimes think of the book “Logan’s Run” and the old man who stayed in the defunct Library of Congress protecting books for mankind, when they came around again. I think there will have to be some of us who do that someday. But who knows.

  4. I cannot stay in a bookless house, Grainne! I agree: “How can they live like that?” I am a book addict; they even smell good. My husband likes to point out that “if the grid goes down,” Kindle devices and the like won’t matter anymore.

  5. “And then we hear the cry, “Why is America not reading anything new or intelligent?” The answer is on the shelves, when we use our limited funds in a poor economy to buy only the biggest book.”

    This really says it all.

    We’ve raised a generation and a half on a steady diet of sitcoms and video games; small wonder they wind up being the kind of ‘readers’ who frequent the “New in Print” table at Barnes and Noble, to find either chick-lit, horror, or purpose-written ‘blockbusters’ tailor-made to become movie-scripts.

    I grew up on classics. When I went to college, and saw the beginnings of the drivel-landslide with limited-editions of LOTR, I asked someone, “Why would I want to spend time with this? It’s got nothing to do with reality – it’s actually a collection of the author’s bedtime-stories.”

    Blank stare.

    I remember reading that Rowling had made up the Harry Potter tales to put her own kids to bed. Proof that Everything Old Is New Again, made up names and impossible plots sold books in the late ’90’s, too.

    We’re now a nation – if not a world – of self-indulged ‘entertain-me’ types; people who not only can’t think, we avoid it at every turn.

    Small wonder the novel is dead.

    For every college student reading Hemingway, there’s a dozen raised on Harry Potter who have no idea about The Old Man and the Sea.

    Speaks poorly for civilization.

    We’re not far from the scenario in ‘1984’, where the government turned out pulp-fiction in factories for the entertainment of the Proles. We already have the perfect vehicle for delivery: Corporate bookstores.

    Ah, the future….

  6. “small wonder they wind up being the kind of ‘readers’ who frequent the “New in Print” table at Barnes and Noble, to find either chick-lit, horror, or purpose-written ‘blockbusters’ tailor-made to become movie-scripts.”

    And those tables are PAID FOR. Who has that kind of money? Only the bestsellers.

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