The Novel Is Dead – Notes of Note

This is from the 2014 Richard Hillary Memorial Lecture,  Oxford, given by Will Self.

NovelIn Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan writes about what he terms the “unified electrical field”.  This manifestation of technology allows people to “hold” and “release” information at a distance;  it provides for the instantaneous two-way transmission of data; and it radically transforms the relationship between producers and consumers — or, if you prefer, writers and readers.

  • In the late 20th century, a culture typified by a consumerist ethic was convinced that it — that we — could have it all.  This “having it all” was even ascribed its own cultural era:  the postmodern.   We weren’t overtaken by new technologies, we simply took what we wanted from them, and collaged these fragments together, using the styles and modes of the past as a framework of ironic distancing:  hence the primacy of the message was reasserted over its medium.
  • The literary critic Robert Adams observed that if postmodernism was to be regarded as a genuine cultural era, then it made modernism itself a strangely abbreviated one.
  • If — as many seem keen to assert — postmodernism has already run its course, then what should we say has replaced it, post-postmodernism, perhaps?
  • The crisis registered in the novel form in the early 1900s continues apace.  The use of montage for transition; the telescoping of fictional characters into their streams of consciousness;  the abandonment of the omniscient narrator; the inability to suspend disbelief in the artificialities of plot.
  • So it was with the novel:  we may not have known altogether how to mae it novel again, but we knew it couldn’t go the way of Hollywood.  Now film, too, is losing its narrative hegemony, and so the novel is also in ineluctable decline.
  • The new media:  the web was there to provide instant literalism:  the work of the imagination, which needs must be fanciful, was at a few keystrokes reduced to factualism.
  • In the conflict between the medium and the message, in the long run it’s always the medium that wins.
  • Novelists who cannot make a living from their work become teachers of creative writing.
  • Teaching creative writing:  getting paid for the midwifery of stillborn novels.
  • Facebook links embedded in  digitised texts encourage readers to ‘share’ their insights, writing and reading have become the solitary acts of social beings.   And we all know how social beings tend to regard solitary acts — as perversities, if not outright perversions.
  • The current resistance of a lot of the literate public to difficulty in the form [the novel] is only a subconscious response to having a moribund message pushed at them.
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