Dim the lights, half-muffle the bells, replace your Hatchard’s bookmark with a strip of black crepe: the novel is dead. Again. Will Self broke the news in last Saturday’s Guardian, proclaiming in characteristically sepulchral tones that ‘our literary culture is sealed’. He has form in this regard: this latest article follows another Guardian piece in May this year whose headline assures us that ‘The novel is dead (this time it’s for real)’, and will presumably be followed by ‘The novel has ceased to be’, ‘Bereft of life, the novel rests in peace’, and ‘The novel has kicked the bucket, shuffled off its mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible’.
It’s worth clarifying at this point that the aeolistic Eeyore is not predicting the demise of prose fiction in its entirety: it’s only ‘serious writing’, and serious readers of it, that are under threat (unserious readers, one assumes, can toddle off back to their Jilly Coopers). For Self, the rise of digital technology – or rather, the proportion of our daily intake of text that comes on a screen rather than on paper – is leading to a re-ordering of our reading habits. He explains that fiction that immerses us, challenges us, changes us, is a product made by and for what Marshall McLuhan called ‘a Gutenberg mind’: a mindset that prizes the printed book as a permanent repository of information and knowledge. The book is a stable medium, comfortingly solid in the hand as we lose ourselves in its pages.
Reading on an electronic device, on the other hand, hooks us up to the carnival of the internet, meaning that all but the most monastically forbearing will alternate brief spots of reading with long skates across a parade of re-tweets, think-pieces and cat videos (or, indeed, a re-tweet of a think-piece about cat videos). The era of undivided attention to a unified work of art is over: from hereon in, the Big Important Novel will become more and more of a niche concern, with chunky hardbacks, like vinyl records, becoming fetishized collectors’ items rather than vital cultural statements.
Certainly the screen-regime appears now to be a fact of life, and inevitably it has changed the way that we process text: even those of us (in W.J.T. Mitchell’s phrase) ‘addicted to the look and feel of tree flakes encased in dead cow’ must accept that the demand for Kindles won’t burn out any time soon. Even so, it’s not necessarily the case that screen-bound text will lead to negligent reading. Distraction is hardly a new peril for the reader, whether on or off the page: at least half of the pages of each serialised instalment of Dickens’ fiction consisted of advertisements. It is hard to believe that print has a special hold on the wandering mind that digitised text lacks. As book historian Leah Price observes, ‘Whether in or out of print, most words end up on the remainder pile. Beauty can be found online, and banality lurks between covers. The medium is not the message’.
Philip Sidney is a writer and academic, specialising in travel, literature and travel literature