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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for reading this guide on the question, is the novel dead?