Does the Novel Have a Future? Yes, and it has a past too

A response to Tao Lin’s article in the New York Observer.

Every so often the “Novel” is brought out on the stage of a newspaper, magazine or manifesto like a patient aboutto go under the knife in an operating theater. “Does the Novel Have a Future?” reads the headline of Taiwanese-American writer Tao Lin’s latest thoughts on the subject in the New York Observer. Yes, here we go again.

From André Breton to the author of Reality Hunger David Shields, the anti-novel party has proved remarkably resilient, prophesying the literary form’s decline without letting themselves be distracted or discouraged by actual novels. No, like a Don Quixote who hasn’t become deranged by novels because he is too busy predicting their extinction, they keep tilting at their theoretical windmill, while the novel plods along seemingly unaware.

A successful young novelist himself, Lin is not presenting such a bleak assessment. In fact, it is not clear he is presenting an assessment at all. Whatever he is doing is immediately obscured in his opening paragraph behind the barbed wire of sentences like this:

“I discerned this afresh while studying said discourse for my addition, arguably, in terms of ‘the future of the novel,’ to the discourse. My addition—herein, itself a distraction from the composition of my third novel—summarizes part of the discourse I’ve studied …”

Huh? Okay, back to the novel and its questionable future.  What follows is an amusing but extremely limited summary of critical opinions on a handful of American novelists dating from 1976 (pre-history for Lin, who was born in 1983). The fact that the article is illustrated with a photo of Tom Wolfe is not a particularly good omen. Is this Colonel Sanders look-alike the right face to illustrate the question of whether the novel will live or die?

The summary brings up some key American debates on fiction, but is so narrow and provincial that what it leaves out is more significant than what it contains. The only foreign names to be found in it are Zadie Smith, Emile Zola and Attila the Hun. You wouldn’t otherwise know that over the past 35 years the definition of the novel has been challenged, transformed and expanded by writers like Gabriel García Márquez, Milan Kundera, Georges Perec, Thomas Bernhard, Roberto Bolaño and W.G. Sebald among others.

In fact, what Lin presents as a contentious debate over an art form ends up looking like a faculty room tiff at an MFA program. Barthelme, Barth, Cheever, Vidal  – the fate of the novel? What novel? This soon becomes clear enough.

Kundera has defined the novel as a “prose form in which an author thoroughly explores, by means of experimental selves (characters), some great themes of existence.” There are many other definitions  of course, over many centuries and across different cultures. Yet there is a tendency in the US and its MFA writing culture to take a much more ahistorical approach.

According to Lin’s vapid pop psychology explanation, the writing of poems, short stories, essays and novels appeal “to those who feel unsatisfied with verbal communication because of social anxieties or persisting feelings of loneliness/misunderstanding or simply a desire to communicate more accurately or elaborately …”

And Lin builds up to what amounts as his manifesto, a Francis Fukuyama -like end of literary history. The relation of one novel to another no longer matters, nor do the “great themes of existence.” Each novel should be judged on its own merits, as an attempt by the writer to communicate. Write a realistic story of your suburban childhood or your cross-country road trip after sophomore year. Write a metafictional story from the perspective of the tip of a pencil. It’s all valid, and innovation and originality no longer matter.

This view of writing is a godsend above all for those writing students who haven’t gotten around to reading very much yet. It is writing as therapy, and after Lin states that he isn’t interested in reading novels that are “improvements or innovations on other novels” (and so is likely to read a lot of bad, unoriginal novels) he concludes by narrowing down his interest in reading novels into two questions, voicing the ultimate in MFA writing-as-therapy mantra:

“But mostly I want to know, ‘What are you thinking about?’ and ‘How do you feel?’”

I think the novel will be just fine. At least, that’s how I feel.

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