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The Novel Is Dead! Long Live The Novel!

July 6, 2010

Literature is not dying, but regenerating

From the “I think that’s really daft” files. Off course the novel isn’t dead.

Why Lee Siegel is wrong to declare the novel dead Robert McCrum [Guardian online]

The US critic’s attack on the novel does us good, but history will view this as a golden age of English language creativity.

Every few years, some columnist in Britain or America pops up to declare the novel dead, or at the very least in the ICU.

From memory, the last time anyone in the UK got any traction from flogging this elderly nag was in 2001 when Andrew Marr told readers of the Observer that the novel was deader than a dozen doornails. Sure enough, the ensuing debate ran on for days.

Now, this seasonal ritual has been revived by the US critic Lee Siegel, writing in the New York Observer. Contemporary fiction, says Siegel, has become “a museum piece genre”. The real creative energy today lies with non-fiction.

Siegel and his editors will have been delighted at the ink generated by this unexceptional opinion. In the US, from the LA Times to the Huffington Post, everyone has weighed in. The last time this topic was so comprehensively ventilated was in 2003, when Harold Bloom denounced Stephen King as unworthy of a National Book Foundation award.

The New Yorker, which provoked this latest row by publishing a “20 under 40” list of new writers, will be doubtless delighted. But once the dust has settled, and the protagonists have gone back to their foxholes, we are left with that overwhelming question: is it true?

There can be no definitive answer, but these, I think, are the factors that make Siegel’s provocative intervention pertinent.

First, there’s no doubt that literary culture in the US is going through lean times. Newspaper coverage of books no longer sets the cultural agenda in the way it did as recently as 15 years ago.

As a corollary, second, literary publishers are feeling the pinch. Ignored by the mainstream media, and squeezed commercially by the innovations of the IT revolution, traditional book publishers are beginning to show signs of losing confidence in their vocation. Most of the editors I know in New York have no appetite for curating a “museum-piece genre”, but they are being forced to confront the inconvenient truth that “literary fiction” is not the headline grabber it was.

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