Is The Novel Dead?

A couple weeks ago, an article by writer Damien Walter grabbed my wandering attention. The title: I STOPPED READING NOVELS LAST YEAR. I THINK YOU DID TOO.

I was curious. So I had a read and discovered that Walter is a professional book reviewer, even had a regular sci-fi column for The Guardian. He’s experienced and well-respected and fed up of the novel.

Why?

For Water, the novel lost its magic. It no longer has the same magical feel as it did when he was a kid, “spending afternoons at the local library, selecting books as though I was selecting magical portals to step through. Then I would rush home and lose myself in the magic for hours, days at a time.”

Walter recognises the influences modern-day phenomenons have had on us. Here are some of my favourite quotes from his piece. I’d recommend reading in full too. He’s an excellent writer, the topic insightful.

“There’s no doubt the novel is facing some stiff competition for our attention. Hands up who doesn’t spend 100% more time on social media than they did 20 years ago when it didn’t exist? The smartphone is engineered to swallow as much of your eyeball time as it can. Which, often, is all of it.”

“When high quality tv drama of film releases come along, we’re there for them. But not, it seems, for novels.”

“The novel was always where people who valued real high quality storytelling went to find it. Films and tv had their moments, but they were largely packed with junk. But over the last couple of decades the tables have turned. Prestige tv shows are where we go now for the best storytelling. Novels seems more and more junky. Call it the Dan Brown or Fifty Shades effect. However it happened, I just don’t expect to find good storytelling in novels anymore.”

“If anything killed the magic of the novel, it’s seeing the novel utterly degraded and disrespected by the fevered egos who crank out junk and self publish it on the Kindle. I really wish this didn’t effect how I see the novel, but inevitably, it does.”

“Right now we’re at the bottom of the cycle for the novel. It’s swamped by really awful work, packed full of imitative genre fiction. But it’s when an art form is at its worst that you might start to see green shoots of renewal popping up.”

What do you think? Are you fed up too? Or do you disagree entirely? I’m doing a bit of research for an episode of The Fantasy Writers’ Toolshed, a podcast I host with JM Williams if you haven’t already heard of it (well worth a listen, though of course I would say that…). The results shall be compiled and announced during that episode. If you don’t want to miss them, join my writing community by completing the form at the top or bottom of this article.

Doing Something Different

For the past couple of years, I’ve been working with a publisher called Fiction Vortex who’s trying something new. Something that takes influences from an idea used over a hundred years ago and the contemporary phenomenon of television. Fiction Vortex requires its authors to split their novels into episodes. Each episode is then split into chapters.

When first presented with this idea I frowned. I didn’t like it. I was accustomed to the standard format of a novel and wanted mine to look the same. But as I’ve been writing and editing the book my view has changed.

I’d be a fool to say that I’m not blind to the decline in popularity of reading. It’s something writers try to ignore. Why has it declined? You could write an essay in response to that question and still fail to nail down the reason why. But one thing that’s clear is that television has filled the void of entertainment. People burn through series and episodes on Netflix as if they were chapters of our favourite books. People love getting through them piece by piece, chunk by chunk. Attention spans have fallen, so focusing on something 20 minutes to an hour-long isn’t a big deal. It’s manageable. It’s not a massive time commitment. Reading a book, in comparison, does feel like a commitment. Yes, there are chapters, but chapter lengths vary. Some stretch on for hundreds of pages. I find this taxing too. I love the little milestones in books. I feel like I can end at an appropriate place, that I can stop and look back at the progress I’ve made. It may sound silly, but a lot of writers structure their books with shorter chapters, particularly at the start. Readers love that feeling of making progress.

Fiction Vortex has recognised this too and is trying to merge the traditional format of a novel with the popular formats we see on the likes of Netflix. Structuring books into episodes, novels into series. Readers can burn through chapters and in the same duration it’d take to watch an episode of Breaking Bad, they’ve read an episode of the story. A tenth of the book. One episode a day and they’re done in just over a week. Progress… we all enjoy it.

I must admit I was still sceptical until I got a chance to read the Of Metal and Magic Anthology, due out soon. A big shout out to JM and Anna who worked relentlessly hard to get it all edited and formatted. I promise never to tab again. They’ve done a terrific job of putting together a weighty tome of brilliant original short fiction and the first episodes of a number of novels, including my own. Reading it for the first time in that format didn’t jar at all. It felt like a traditional novel, only different. Maybe even better.

What else can writers do to mix things up? Please send me your comments and suggestions and I’ll cover them during the podcast. You can either use the form below or email thefantasywriterstoolshed@gmail.com.

Thanks for reading!

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8 thoughts on “Is The Novel Dead?

  1. JM Williams says:

    Unfortunately, the Fiction Vortex serial model was also based around a reading app that has yet to make it out of the BETA stage. Once it’s done, the NETFLIX style, episodic, serial, subscription based reading experience will be something, I’m sure.

    Reply
  2. Paul McDermott says:

    Fingerslap. Richie! I had to scroll L and R to read your post – many of the lines are too long for my laptop screen! lol 🙂
    As a time-served “windbag” I can’t believe the Novel is dead, or even dormant!
    I agree with you that TV programmes right now seem designed for “viewers” (as opposed to THINKERS) with the attention span of a mentally deficient GNAT
    Long may tne Novel prevail as a literary genre! Personally I feel I’m “cheating” on my readers if the published book is LESS THAN c. 75,000 words ……

    Reply
  3. Editor says:

    Of course, it’s not “dead.” The analysis is facile. We are in an age of unprecedented upheaval due to computer technology. The world is exploding, the population out of control, the resources depleting, and representative government destabilized across the globe.

    Everyone has a keyboard, and so everyone is a “writer.” The flood of writing has washed over us like a tsunami. There is so much that it’s difficult to even find the worthwhile stuff.

    What could affect the novel is the inability for decent authors to sustain themselves. If they can’t be found and can’t make money they will move on to other pursuits. I’m not sure that’s significantly different than it ever was, but it does suck.

    Reply
  4. wordynerdbird says:

    Reblogged this on WordyNerdBird and commented:
    The title of this blogpost caught my attention this morning.

    “What?” I thought. “How could anyone think that?”

    For me, the novel is most certainly not dead. There is still nothing as wonderful as escaping into a book and finding myself immersed in its setting, caught up in its action and carried away by the story.

    Short stories and novellas are fabulous when life is busy, because I can achieve those escapes in the time I have available. But when time to read is more plentiful, a good novel is a marvellous thing.

    For me, the novel will never be dead as long as there are great books to read. Given the quality of the new books I have been reading, that won’t be happening in the foreseeable future.

    I feel sorrow for any reader who is so disillusioned by their reading that they believe the novel is a thing of the past. More than likely, they have simply been reading the wrong books.

    Reply
  5. Anonymole says:

    I wrote a couple of books. For the last I thought I’d “mix it up” and include a ton of bespoke illustrations. I figured, being a YA story, hey, they like pictures right? You can see a few of the pics done by a great artist from Indonesia here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07JZKB9ZB
    Episodic stories seem wise. Bite-sized chunk that are easy to consume. But how can we compete with the 5-second phantasm that is Instagram? Spend 15 minutes on your feed and you get your entertainment fix satisfied for hours.
    It’s like we’re all returned to being three year-olds, with the attention spans to match. How do you entertain a three year-old? Bright, funny or endearing pictures. Simple text. Instant recognition—nothing that would require actually thinking.
    And that the kicker, we’re all tired of thinking. We think all day long now, information workers, financial workers, programmers, data, data, data. STOP! We just want to cop a buzz and chill these days. Reading novels? Ugh. So much work. And even if I do start to read one, laying in bed… I’m asleep in 10 minutes.
    The novel IS dead. Long live the novel.
    -Anonymole

    Reply
  6. jyvurentropy says:

    I’d definitely agree that reading has changed. People read less novels and less traditionally-published books. That’s part of the reason why I love publishing my books on wattpad (and why I’ve experimented with other serial sites). People aren’t opening up books as much anymore, but people are reading on wattpad, reddit, blogs. People read on their phones. It isn’t a tragedy or the death of literature; it’s just different. Back when novels started gaining in popularity, people thought THAT was the death of culture. Change is always scary, but humans will always love stories. We just have to adapt IMO.

    Reply

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