The novel keeps on dying and new obituaries come in every day. The most recent, Lee Siegel’s “Where have all the Mailers gone?” (The New York Observer June 22, 2010), shows one more time that to write about the novel today you have to adopt an elegiac tone.
Although people get upset over the New Yorker’s latest publicity strategy with its new “20 Under 40” ploy, Siegel suggests, they forget that “fiction has become culturally irrelevant.” Siegel lists three reasons for his death notice. 1. Fiction has become a profession. (Actually, it was a profession a long time ago.) 2. Critical writing about fiction has become self-conscious. That is to say, fiction has achieved a Hegelian self-exhaustion as an art. (Again, this self-consciousness dates back about two centuries.) 3. Fiction has been replaced by non-fiction as a compelling, heart-and-gut writing. (On this, see my earlier post, “Reality Overdrive.”)
Of course, one can look for other proof of fiction’s gradually disappearance from the public sphere. A couple of decades ago novelists could be both serious writers and top sellers of books. And authors like Updike, Mailer, and Vidal had their portraits painted on the cover of Time. Only Stephen King has claimed this honor in the last decade. It would not be hard to argue that the novel (and by extension, literature) has lost its prominent place in the public sphere.
Could we imagine in the United States what transpired in Lisbon on June 20, 2010, when 20,000 mourners paid their respect at the coffin of the Nobel prizewinning fiction writer, José Samarago, many holding copies of his books? (See Vincent Barletta’s post on this topic in Arcade.) Nor could we easily envisage the public events that followed the death in Athens in August 1988 of Kostas Tachtsis, a leading novelist. He was buried in the national cemetery of Athens with the Minister of Culture standing next to the coffin. The national interest in his death becomes even more significant when one takes into account that Tachtsis was a known transvestite who was murdered by one of his clients.
OK. Obama would never go to Arlington National Cemetery for a novelist, even a straight one. Nor would he perhaps seek a public meeting with one, as Napoleon had with Goethe, wanting to greet the person in the artistic world who had attained the heights he, Napoleon, had politically. In all three cases, literature as a public discourse pushed into the limelight poets and novelists.
Today it seems that in the West literature is receding from the front of the stage, no longer enjoying the heightened social and political prestige it once had. Perhaps Tim Blanning is right in The Triumph of Music (2008), that music has superceded all other arts as a public phenomenon. Today you get people like Bono acquiring global fame and influence, able to call on leaders, like Clinton and Blair, and attend meetings with world luminaries in Davos or in Africa. He was named by Time as a Person of the Year in 2005.
We can hardly imagine a novelist or a poet, or even a painter or architect claiming such global authority. This has less to do with individual talent than with the social and economic conditions promoting various art forms and making them representative. We may talk about world literature all we want but the real global powerhouse is world music.
Literature, particularly the novel, was a product of its social, political, and cultural milieu, especially the advent of print, which elevated its social status and made this particular art so crucial to nationalism, to the rise of female identity, and to bourgeois self-understanding. The institution of literature no longer boasts the same authority in the ever-expanding, liquid universe of electronic communication. Are people willing to read the printed page when they can surf the web or the waves of Maui for that matter? This is a question that stirs fears not only among novelists but also among professors and journalists whose professions were also shaped by the age of print.
Yet, it is still too early to invite the lament singers. Perhaps the novel may have seen its time in the sun. Maybe it will become like lyric, read and loved by a small coterie of fans. Or, heaven forbid, it could become like illuminated manuscripts or vase painting, an artistic form of a distant but no longer moving technology.
Again, let’s hold the dirge singers, for a moment, please. Perhaps people today prefer The Omnivore’s Dilemma, The Lords of Finance, The World is Flat, or The Last Tycoon to, say, Out Stealing Horse, a Norwegian novel I read last week. But let’s not forget what function the novel served. It emerged in that special juncture of social life between reality and fiction that was and continues to be vital to human beings. Aristotle said that while history describes the world as it is, poetry imagines it as it might be. It may be more right to argue that literature (and art in general) receives its power by being the only discourse able to move back and forth between illusion and actuality and to talk about the difference between an empirical and an imagined realm.
How can we know what the actual order is if we cannot compare it with one that has been fictionally created? And how can we criticize the real or seek to transform it without looking at it first from the perch afforded by the imagination?
This particular function assigned to art can’t be performed by any other institution, say journalism, economics, or law. Our need to communicate between a real and an invented universe will outlive contemporary impulses and obsessions. So let your friends take their Kindles to the beach this summer where they can read their histories, their economic books, and their biographies. They still need to envision how the world might look, in addition to knowing how it is. Above all, they will always jump back and forth between the actuality of the now and the promise and possibility of an imagined world.
So it may not be the right time for that elegy, unless that elegy happens to be a fiction.