Is the Novel Still Novel?

If you have ever feared that paperbacks will one day serve as vintage wall décor for all the nation’s indie coffee shops, then perhaps you are one of those concerned about the future of the novel.

As part of the Michener Writing Center’s Reading Series, The New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus addressed this fear last week, in a lecture entitled “Does the Novel Still Matter?”

Part of this concern is due to the popularity of entertainment forms such as reality television shows, iPhone apps, and the Internet, all of which readily provide quick fixes of amusement.

But whether through blogs or online news, the Internet has actually led more and more people to read, Tanenhaus said.

“It’s a bad excuse for writers to say that there are no readers out there, because there are,” he said.

Spoiler alert: Tanenhaus believes the novel is still important. But changes are certainly evident.

Tanenhaus pointed out that these changes exist both in the way Americans view the role of novelists in society, as well as in how novelists view their own role.

Authors like Norman Mailer, born in 1923, believed that the novelist represented the public consciousness.

But following the death of David Foster Wallace, in 2008, Tanenhaus recalled his surprise that some of his otherwise very educated and cultured friends were unaware of the renowned novelist altogether.

“We know the old novelists, but not those presumably speaking to our present moment,” he said.

Oddly enough, film is the reverse situation: The majority of Americans know current films, but not older classics, Tanenhaus said.

In addition to Americans as a whole, novelists’ view of their own role has also changed, due in part to an ideal known as the Great American Novel. As Tanenhaus suggested, the pressure to create such a work has shaped a generation of writers.

Because America is more complicated than it used to be, contemporary “writers like “[Jonathan] Franzen and [David Foster] Wallace try to write the Great American Novel and they find it hard to do.”

Prompted by a student in the audience, Tanenhaus agreed that a Great American Novelist, as defined by a combination of mainstream and critical success, does not exist today (to which the enthusiastic undergraduate  announced his intention to fill that void).

So does the novel still matter? The mere existence of Tanenhaus’ job title seems to provide some sort of an answer.

Photo by Matt Valentine


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