The Death of the Novel

“There’s nothing to say that hasn’t been said before,” Terence in the second century B.C.

“Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.” –Andre Gide

“The idea that everything has already been said has already been said.”

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again, someone needs to artistically slaughter the traditional novel, the novelly novel, out in the street for all to see. That which was once so important to us, is now dead. Writers will keep writing novels, and readers will keep reading them, but the era of the novel, as a cultural touchstone, has been on artificial life support for some time now waiting for someone to pull the plug, so we can reframe the real and rebirth it. Some young, ambitious kat needs to step up to the plate and destroy the art form in such a glorious way that its readers know there’s no turning back.

We pick up a book now, in our local bookstore, and the back jacket makes it feel so real, so vibrant and so cutting edge. Then we see it, the dreaded words “a novel” on the cover. We used to think that all it would take is one exciting, “I just can’t put it down” novel to reignite our passion for the novel, but we’ve read too many paint by numbers’ narrative conventions to believe that will happen. We’ve read too many authors depict wonderful and beautiful landscapes, in captivating wordscapes to want to go through it all again. We’ve read too many authors sort through romanticized sentiments in relatable conversations with side characters to give us a sense that they’re all a lot more like me than I ever considered possible. We’ve read too many authors deploy shadowing techniques to display how clever their main character is by showing us how dumb her side characters are. We put that novel back on the shelf, because we now know that in the author’s attempt to wow us with their artistry, they will attempt to please all of the people all of the time.

Our complaint might not be with the novel alone, but the novel used to be our favorite form of expression. The novel allows its author the sort of in-depth analysis of the human mind for which no other art form has the patience. The novel permits us to live, breathe, and be the character. In the more visual mediums, we might arrive at more immediate entertainment, but they fail to capture the intimacy of a great book. For most of my life, there was nothing better than a great book, and I was always reading one. As I write this, I haven’t read a novel in five years, and that was some light fare compared to my unusual favorites. 

Perhaps we’ve read too many novels at this point, but we can spot an author’s agenda a mile away, and most of us don’t want to know what the author’s agenda is. On the off chance that we enjoy it in some manner, her cloaked positions will strike us as derivative and redundant, and we will spend the breadth of the novel thinking we could’ve written it better. Typically, her main characters will be remarkable faultless, and her bad guys bumbling fools. She will engage in tired tropes, such as children being smarter than adults are, and everyone else knowing more about “the industry” than the CEO who spent 25 years in it. Bad guys gotta be bad and good girls, gotta be good. It’s so tired now that we need some new author to have the audacity to shake it up and teach us something different about ourselves.

In the same way Sam Raimi and the Coen Brother’s “Shaky Cam” killed the typical horror movie, essays, philosophical tracts, and the internet ruined the novel. The novel no longer feels as real or as relevant as it once did. It no longer feels substantial, engaging and cutting edge. It could be as simple as short form vs. long form, but we don’t think so. We think it has more to do with our hunger for some version of an author punching reality into our jugular.

The novel died right after we said, “The novel is not dead!” The writer who pines for a best-seller list might say such things, but does an artist who uses the novel as an expressive art form? After reading a novel, we should charge its author as an accessory to its murder. The reader should despise them for violating the conventions they hold dear. The writer should exhaust the reader’s anger until the reader grows to love them. “I see what you’re doing now, but it took me a while sheesh!” should be the first words that come out of her mouth when she’s done being so irritated with the writer that she put the book down numerous times (in absolute frustration) before she finally finished it.

“Don’t insult the reader,” the writing magazines advise. “Pay attention to your reader.”

Those of us who come from a punk rock school of writing think the modern writer should learn all of the novel’s conventions for the sole purpose of violating them more creatively, and we think they should know them so well that they boldly change them in an atypical fashion. If you think you know what this means, invert that thought, and give that a try. Insult the reader, we say, anger them, and make them despise us for writing what we wrote. We need to confuse, confound, and control the reader’s mind, until they come back begging for more. Could one book do all this? It would have to be an incredible book. I’m more inclined to believe it might take a movement, similar to what punk rock and grunge did for hard rock. 

“I did this for me,” we should tell those writing magazines. “By giving you me, I’ll give you you,” as author David Shields would say.

Even if our subject matter is pleasing, we should write in a way that makes the reader uncomfortable. As boring as most novels are, some earn our hard-earned money. Some offend our sensibilities so much that we find them thrilling. We’re on the edge of our seat wondering how this book is going to offend us next. We finish the book on a spiritual high, only to learn that our compadres have their thumbs adamantly pointed down. “I found it so repugnant that it made me feel uncomfortable,” they said. “Me too!” we say from a 180-degree different standpoint.

Your job, as a writer, is to take us to uncomfortable places. Tap into some uncomfortable places in our psyche and force us to explain them. “I’m not a bad guy.” You’re not, but you could be, if I placed you in such an uncomfortable position that you thought about it. “But I enjoy laughing, and I enjoy it when some beautiful text makes me feel wonderful about myself.” Is wonderful what you’re feeling, or is it publicity? How loud do you shout it out? What’s the difference between charity and publicity? That’s it, right in the jugular. Does it hurt? It’s supposed to hurt. A great writer shouldn’t address what we want. They should address need. Novel writers did that at one time. They’re a dying breed now.

We enjoy labeling eras. How about we label this era the era of same same? This is an era of “if it works, try, try, and try it again.” It’s a little narcissist to list the authors who killed the novel as an art form, but let’s just say that they might’ve been there for a rebirth, but they never did anything to help it mature. This sentiment might lead some to consider us jealous that other writers succeeded beyond us. We can assure you this is not the case, as we want some great author to mess the mainstream up with a hyper-real novel that shakes up our whole world. Yet, it’s impossible to defeat that charge, so let’s focus on an analogous comparison.

I loved the authors in question for a time, as much as I once loved Metallica. I loved the Master of Puppets and …And Justice for All albums. I don’t listen to their other albums, but I have no problem with them trying to make a buck on subsequent albums. I just don’t buy them. Other people were angry that Metallica didn’t close up shop after Justice. Why? Let people buy their other albums, let Metallica get rich. We don’t have to listen to their other albums. We have nothing against a guy trying to make a buck in any other field, but art is special. An artist has an added responsibility to the art form that made them rich. After an artist creates their masterpiece, they need to dabble in the art form to expand it and enrich it. To my mind, the great artist creates a masterpiece, and then they spend the rest of their life trying to destroy it. They should appreciate the masterpiece for everything it was, and they should never insult those who loved it and made them what they are, but they should feel a personal vendetta to top the masterpiece. They might never again create another masterpiece, but they should do whatever they can to create the uniquely spectacular after the fact.

The authors in question often come out with a book a year that duplicates the formula of the masterpiece. How many great books does one author have in them? They write one great book, sign a huge advance for another, and in their desire to make that publisher happy, they create the derivative and redundant, and everyone is happy and no one is. “It’s not as good as his masterpiece,” we say. “How many sequels are?” they reply, laughing all the way to the bank, trotting upon the art form as they escape. The question the reader asks themselves is do we want the author to destroy their masterpiece in their next outing, or do we want to remember them as they were, in the manner of the great athlete.

“Punk rock died when the first punk said, “Punk’s not dead.””

If punk rock wasn’t dead, they should’ve killed it. Those who loved punk rock should’ve planned some bloody, very public, ritual death. Never Mind the Bullocks should’ve been the only punk rock album ever made. One album of absolute anarchy and everything after it mimicked the premise and became commodity. The Sex Pistols were a horrible band, and Never Mind the Bullocks was a horrible album, but those who loved it, loved the definitive punk rock album for what it was. It stood for nothing and something that shouldn’t last. If it does last, it sounds more orchestrated and contrived in every form that follows, thus violating everything for which it stood. Everything you believe in is wrong, and all of that nonsense. The whole motif of that album and the movement it started was that everything is dead.

The novel is dead long live the novel. The truth is dead long live the truth. We should have an artistic labeling process that mirrors the Motion Picture Association of America. An M, signifies the author’s masterpiece, a DR designation informs the reader of the subsequent works from the author that are derivative and redundant, and a US rating informs the reader that the novel in question is not a masterpiece, but it is unique spectacular. Such ratings might help us avoid reading another book by an author, other than their best books. 

Tell the truth, then take it out to the side of the barn and kill it. Don’t try to recreate and recapture. It’s retread. Eat the truth and let it work its way through the digestive system and ask others what they think of it.  

“Jazz as jazz—jazzy jazz—is pretty well finished. The interesting stuff is all happening on the fringes of the form where there are elements of jazz and elements of all sorts of other things as well. Something similar is happening in prose. Although great novels—novelly novels—are still being written, a lot of the most interesting things are happening on the fringes of several forms.” –A review of Reality Hunger on Goodreads.

When we read a great novel by an author, do we seek light entertainment, or entertainment-lite, or do we seek truth when we read a novel? Why then do we read 20 to 30 novels by the same author? How many unique novels does one author have in them? I wasted some of my life doing this once. I spotted the author’s template, and I kept reading. I didn’t violate my rule when I did this. I created the rule. I’d never do it again. I hear a song on the radio I might enjoy, and I flip the station. I’ve heard it too many times. I know every lyric, every beat, pause, bridge, and drum and bass exchange by heart. I change the channel just to avoid redoing what I’ve done a thousand times before. When we spot the template, be done with it. End it now. The author revealed the essence of their truth in that one great book. How many times can they recapture that magic, how many times can we join them before it becomes redundant. They know, and we know, that we enjoy patterns, but how many patterns can we enjoy before we end up chasing our own tail with brainless, puppy like enthusiasm?

“All an author needs is one great book,” Truman Capote.

“Everyone has one great book in them,” Ernest Hemingway.

Hemingway tried a novel approach to achieving the unique novel after he wrote a masterpiece. He destroyed his life … numerous times. He divorced, remarried, and drank his way to total destruction to pave a path to a new novel, until he decided to destroy his life in an ultimate manner. We might not want to follow Hemingway’s path of destroying his own happiness to achieving creativity, but someone needs to find ‘the road not taken’ to put an end to everyone chasing their tails in novel form.   


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