Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Novel Is Dead, Of Course

Walter Kirn made a great point recently in his New York Times book review of Cynthia Ozick's latest book of literary essays, The Cannon as Cannon. It doesn't matter whether the novel is dead or not, he contends, because if it is, no one has noticed.

"The form's latest self-styled guardian is Cynthia Ozick, an accomplished novelist herself and a high-ranking literary critic who, along with so many other traditionalists, cherishes the belief, now quixotic, that serious fiction and those who dream it up are still controversial enough to be embattled and 'in danger of obsolescence.'"

The only people wrestling with the dire predicament of the novel's demise are, um, novelists. Just as the people who read literary journals are, well, young writers who want to publish in them (more than they want to read them, of course).

Ozick's precious grandiosity is quite out of touch, to say the least.

"But if the novel were to wither — if, say, it metamorphosed altogether into a species of journalism or movies, as many popular novels aready have — then the last trustworthy vessel of the inner life (aside from our heads) would crumble away," she writes.

It is hard to imagine much crumbling if the novel did die, as much as I love it (and will fight for it until its death, which I doubt will ever truly happen). And, my, the novel is bound to metamorphose into something far beyond journalism or the movies (heck, it's already done that). The next time that Ozick is in a bookstore, she should mosie on over to the graphic novels section, or pick up Grand Theft Auto or The Sims 2.

Kirn's point isn't that we should devalue good fiction or quit reading and rush out to buy Playstations, but that this ponderous struggle with a meaning of the world that can only be represented by the novel is quite useless, if not preposterous, simply because no one is paying attention except for a few readers (writers, book club members, forlorn technophobes, etc.).

We've lost, and so we should enjoy the merits of our failure (a certain creative freedom, to be sure). We novel lovers are a niche, and those of us who write and read literary novels, God bless our souls, need to grow beyond the notions we held as college freshman. This generation of novelists will never be venerated as the singular and sacred voices of their generation. This generation of novelists will probably be lucky to be published.

Still, we persist. I wonder why. Certainly not to save civilization, let along convert a few affficionados of Grand Theft Auto to our superior medium.

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