death of the novel, revisited

Yesterday, my colleague Ben Vershbow at the Institute for the Future of the Book posted an excerpt from an interview with Gore Vidal in which the author suggested that the age of the novel was coming to an end. A debate on the site about Vidal's position ensued. I enter in with my argument reproduced below, but read more in the original context.

Vidal isn't the only advocate of the novel to make such an observation (John Barth famously did some time ago). Nor is he off base. Take the transformation of the New Yorker, for instance. It was once known primarily for its fiction. Shirley Jackson's the Lottery drew more mail than any story in the magazine's history and writers like Philip Roth and John Updike graced the pages. Who writes the stories for the New Yorker today? I routinely skip over the fiction and don't know anybody who reads it. Malcolm Gladwell, Adam Gopnik, and Seymour Hersch are the names I follow. In a world of insanely rapid change and daily threats to our existence (read: the Bush administration), reality is more compelling than fiction.

What surprised me is the simplicity of Vidal's argument: novelists aren't famous anymore because they don't command media attention. This is something of a tautology. We have to ask why novelists aren't famous anymore, why novels aren't such a focal point for society anymore.

Fiction is a form of virtual reality, a way of getting into someone else's head. We have new ways of doing that now. But more than that, the novel is losing its central role in society as the subject is becoming thoroughly fragmented. As Ian Watt pointed out in his Rise of the Novel, modern fiction is an 18th century product, the purest art form of the bourgeoisie, the place in which the bourgeois subject is constituted. Already 40 years ago, Roland Barthes was suggesting that the death of the author was nigh, the result of the birth of the reader. Our age of participatory media is a fulfillment of his prophecies. If we increasingly understand ourselves as nodes in a network (or multiple networks) rather than as Jeffersonian individuals, then a medium constituted by the latter model of subjectivity is obsolete. This is not to say that there won't be any great novels in the future, but remember that there was a time when poetry was a popular form. I know that some of you will consider me a philistine for saying so, but who reads poetry anymore? Fiction will slowly move in the same direction.


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