The Novel: Shark or Dinosaur?


The Novel: Shark or Dinosaur?

Late last year I had the pleasure of attending the Northern Lights Writer’s Conference, an event part sponsored by the Manchester Literature Festival, and in only its second year.

I was bought the tickets by a couple of friends as a birthday present (pays to have good ones) and so, having never had the opportunity to attend one of these gigs before, I was keen to see what it would be like.

And I have to say I was impressed. The whole thing (as you can see above) was high quality, with engaging panel discussions featuring the likes of Orange Award winning novelist, Joanna Kavenna, and the multi-talented director of the UK’s National Poetry Day, Jo Bell. However, my favourite part of the day was the keynote delivered by literary heavyweight, journalist and writer, Will Self.

He had a number of interesting things to say but the one that struck me most was this

‘People have a limited amount of consciousness to spend on culture.’

He was talking about the books trade in particular, passing a jaded eye over what he sees as the steadily diminishing relationship between it and mainstream culture. In short, he doesn’t believe novels have a future (quite a bold statement to make at a writer’s conference, monies from sponsors and likelihood of future invites notwithstanding).

Self believes that with all the varied media streams out there – boxsets on Netflix, ever more bombastic 3D movie blockbusters, computer games, social media, user-led media sharing platforms – the cultural real estate novels used to occupy is a fast shrinking island in a rising tide.

 Will Self is the author of ten novels, five collections of shorter fiction, three novellas and five collections of non-fiction writing.

Will Self is the author of ten novels, five collections of shorter fiction, three novellas and five collections of non-fiction writing.

People have neither the time nor the inclination to consume narrative content in novel form. Books are too long. This is the twitter generation etc., etc.

And let’s be real, the argument is not a new or groundless one. Ever since the dissolution of the Net Book Agreement in 1997 the likes of Amazon have been taking hefty chunks out of the market share of traditional publishing houses, a squeeze that has adhered faithfully to the trickle down effect to shrink advances and royalties paid to authors.

The very measures that were intended to ‘widen the market for all kinds of book,’ as one advocate for the NBA’s dissolution put it, have done just the opposite, straitening the profits of booksellers and squeezing the industry.

Since then publishing houses have been in a double bind, needing to take risks on new kinds of writing to recruit a broader audience, whilst at the same time hindered from doing so by the narrowing profit margins brought about by the removal of the NBA safety net.

Meanwhile the proliferation of online media platforms is filling the void, taking a stranglehold on the market share the books industry has been hamstrung from claiming.

Who needs books when you can watch Breaking Bad on your smartphone? Or even better, make your own content and upload it to YouTube, or a blog. Welcome to the 21st century, brave new digital world.

It’s this kind of thing that has had everyone from Will Self to Tom Wolfe forecasting the death of the novel. But the question is, are they right?

Shark or Dinosaur

In 2013 British fantasy writer, Neil Gaiman, delivered a keynote at the Digital Minds Conference in which he recalled a conversation he’d shared with the author of The Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams. In Gaiman’s words

‘Douglas said; remember that sharks were around at the time of the dinosaurs, some sharks even pre-date the dinosaurs, but they are still around. And that’s because nothing has ever come along that is as good at being a shark as a shark is, and so they last. The book is really good at being a book.’

Gaiman’s own view echoes that of Adams – the novel is a literary format so well adapted that it hasn’t needed to evolve since the invention of the Gutenberg press, and likely never will. Although the delivery methods may change (digital formatting, ebooks etc.) the essential product, he predicted, would not. The interesting thing is, a look at the statistics may suggest he’s right.

Although e-readers are not a threat to the novel as a form, it’s still interesting to note their sales declined last year. Meanwhile ebook sales have stabilised at around a quarter of the market share, failing to usurp its material counterpart as many suggested it would. Which makes sense. Most books are sold at Christmas (ebooks don’t have quite the same shine as a festive gift).

And as Gaiman himself said; books ‘don’t die if you drop them in the bathtub… they keep going.’

Meanwhile, according to research firm, Bowker, around 1.4m International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs) were issued in 2013, over 8000 more than in 1960. At a time when books face more competition for the attention of their prospective audiences, they are being produced in greater numbers than ever before.

Now, this isn’t to poo-poo Self’s warnings. On the whole he’s right. People don’t read as much as they used to, especially novels. Which may have wider implications we’ll need to think seriously about down the road.

As mentioned in a recent (excellent) article by The Economist, books

‘are a technology in their own right, one developed and used for the refinement and advancement of thought… [they] have not merely weathered history; they have helped shape it.’

Translation: books are a big deal, and any threat to their continuance should be given due thought.

All that being said, for now the landscape may be more complicated than Self’s doomsday forecasts suggest. So what do you think?

Shark or dinosaur?

Are books here for the long term, or will they soon be usurped by the growing number of entertainment alternatives?

And if they are, will that be a good or bad thing?

  • Good post. I think of books like transportation; the mode might look significantly different, but the means and need is the same and that isn’t likely to ever change. You can add bells and whistles but the need is still there.

    There is a book out there, maybe yet to be written, that will change lives… then I consider the Good Book that is still doing just that and inspiring new writers and words.

    Call me a dinosaur I guess, but that’s my two cents… or for the new generation, my aluminum can’s worth.

    • Thanks Floyd! And I think (and hope) you’re right. Books will always be valuable things.

      I’ll admit when the whole e-reader thing started I adopted the whole why-are-they-ruining-books schtick. I refused to ever countenance the idea of getting one. In my defence, my wife had a similar response to Satellite Navigation Systems when they first emerged (‘you can’t beat a good map’ etc. etc.). Suffice to say we’ve both reversed gear on each subject.

      I still love the printed word, real pages, and the feel of the book in my hand. But at the same time e-readers can be so convenient. Especially when travelling.

      So I suppose I’m a bit of a sharkosaur in that respect. But then like you say I guess the Good Book is a little like that too. It remains the no.1 global bestseller year in and year out. There are just some things that don’t need to change πŸ˜‰

  • Micah,

    Interesting…I prefer the feel of a book when I read at night and in general…plus the paper doesn’t excite my brain & tire my eyes the way pixels do when I read an e-book…

    I agree with Floyd….I hope novels continue but then I am not connected 24/7 to electronics…

    you might like Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows about what the Internet is doing to our brains…http://www.theshallowsbook.com/nicholascarr/Nicholas_Carrs_The_Shallows.html

    • I definitely find that to be true about reading at night or in the evenings. Lit screens don’t encourage my brain to relax either. I think I even came across some research about why that is once.

      And thanks for the link, Dolly. I’ll check that out. It sounds like a very interesting book. With the world moving as quick as it is, with communication technologies and the internet etc., it could be said human beings as a whole are moving into unchartered territory. I’m always interested in thinking about what the implications, good or bad, may be.

  • Lea

    As frightening as this sounds Self could be on to something. Although I hope it’s not true and history circles back around to a time with longer attention spans.

    It’s funny that you bring this up because I was looking at a house with a friend and another patron made a comment about what to do with the bookselves, like other than put books on them. I was kind of taken back, like why not books. I mean I purposely keep books, that I like, in hopes that I can pass that knowledge and wisdom to my kids.

    I think it’s a shark, I hope. And look at all the movies that are derived from books and other written work like comics. I think books bring a level of creativity and longevity that other entertainment alternatives cannot match.

    ~Lea

    • That’s a good point about movie adaptations and comics too. So much of our cultural narrative/framework comes from books, both classic and contemporary.

      So I also, like you, find it a bit scary. I remember coming across research last year that indicated that a lot of our cognitive reasoning capacity (critical thinking, empathy, relational & analytical skills), is actually enhanced through reading fiction. Books, and novels in particular, actually help us to connect with people more easily and makes us better learners. There are so many extra-curricular benefits that we get from reading, it makes me wonder what will happen if our collective reading habits drop significantly.

  • I just started reading books again, and I’d like them to stay around for a bit longer. Although I actually prefer to buy used books, and I have a long long list of books I need to read (that have already been published) so I guess I’ll be okay for the foreseeable future.

    If audiobooks can become actually affordable, I think that would help. Podcasts are getting quite popular, and I feel like an audio book can offer the same if not a better experience, while being less focus intensive than actual paper books.

    • I like your style. Start stockpiling now while we still can. I think audiobooks are an interesting proposition. I’m a big fan of podcasts but I guess they tend to be focused on particular subjects or ideas. And so I wonder whether audio books can provide the same immersive quality as their printed counterparts do when it comes to fiction. I’ve never consumed a novel in audio format so I wouldn’t know. I expect stories work as audiobooks in general (radio serialisations, tales around the campfire etc.), but I wonder whether novels can work as well that way. What do you think? Have you ever tried an audio-novel? And if so, was the experience better/worse than reading one?

      • If the narrator is good, I’d say it’s not worse, but a little different. It is arguably quite a bit slower than reading(some people who have a lot of menial errands might find they have much more time for audiobooks), but you don’t spend energy on an audiobook, rather, you can do something almost a bit like meditation by closing your eyes and listening. Quite relaxing. I’m listening to the novel “Infinite Jest” right now, and I think it does translate, but sometimes I do miss a paper book a little. It’s useful for avoiding TV-binging, because when I feel “too tired to read”, I can just press play and drift away while I rest my eyes.

        • Man, I absolutely LOVE Infinite Jest. And David Foster Wallace is one of my favourite writers. Love his non-fiction stuff and short story collections too. I can imagine a book like Infinite Jest would be perfect on audio. I’ve always liked the idea of listening to something like that on a very long drive somewhere.

          I think I may try out getting an audiobook. You make it sound very relaxing, and appealing too. In fact, maybe I should try it out at home first, relaxing and driving may not be the best combination. πŸ˜‰

  • While I can’t argue that Self makes a valid point, I’m with Adams and Gaiman on this one. The book is a shark; it’s not going anywhere. It may not be as popular a choice as it once was, but keep in mind that once upon a time, the book was the ONLY choice. Of course sales will drop when presented with other options as well. It’s like school sports and activities. When I was in high school the number of available sports and activities was relatively small – football, basketball, baseball, cheerleading, band, and I think we had tennis. It was easy to do more than one because when a season ended it ended and there was time until the next season began. Kids could do things like band and a sport because there weren’t that many choices. Today? Not the same. Now we have football, soccer, field hockey, basketball, wrestling (although I think we did have that too), swimming, tennis, lacrosse, baseball, softball, cheerleading, and other things like dance teams and club hockey and club volleyball and band. Trying to do more than one is impossible – coaches won’t share, the arts have become so unimportant, and seasons never end – if you aren’t in active season, you’re in “conditioning” which pretty much precludes participation in another season’s offerings. And if you add the other stuff – the social, service, and academic club type things? Forget it. Too many choices. So overall, the numbers in each are smaller. Same thing as with books.
    And yes, we have a greater worry if people aren’t reading as they used to. Nothing opens the world and the mind quite like reading.
    Good to be back here. Not sure how I lost track of you, but glad you came over today and reconnected!

    • Hey Lisa! Thanks for stopping by to share πŸ™‚

      I like the high school sports analogy a lot. And I think – and hope – you’re right. I love reading fiction, and am even writing some and hoping to one day publish it so I definitely have a biased view on the matter. I do think novels are the most immersive of the art/media forms out there because they happen primarily in the mind of the reader, they’re a collobaration that way. A really great book can often evoke thoughts and feelings on a more visceral level than a film or TV series can because they allow us to get right in the mind of a character, to see them from the inside out rather than the other way around.

      That said, I guess it’s true that attention spans probably aren’t what they were. Which probably has upsides and downsides. And it’s true novels aren’t for everyone and people like to take stuff in in different ways. And so having a more diverse array of entertainment options means everyone can find what suits them. Which is a good thing, I guess. I mean, I love films and TV shows too. But I’ll readily admit the idea of being a novel-free culture say 50 or whatever years from now is, to me, a really sad one. It reminds of the scene in Wall-E where the human race consists of people locked in hovering mobile chair units with stuck on TV/media screens, eating popcorn all day and not talking to each other. Then again, maybe I just have an overactive imagination. If so I’ll blame it on the book reading.

      As for the website. I had some technical problems which basically resulted in me being unable to post new content. Tried to fix it a gazillion times but ended up having to just move to a whole new domain and set up a new website – micahyongo.com instead of thoughthouse.org. C’est la vie, as the sensible people say.

  • I’m thinking we will always have ebooks and traditional books, However, the way we distribute traditional paper books will change. The book stores will soon be gone and people will go online to purchase the books they want. It’s still a few years down the road though:)

    • Hi Dan! You know I think you’re right. There are signs of that already with more and more booksellers closing down. I’m not sure how I feel about it. I love the convenience of online purchasing, and I’m certain that’s the way I purchase maybe 70% of the books I buy. But at the same time I’ve always enjoyed being able to go into a book store and browse, and sometimes stumble on a new author/book I wouldn’t have come across otherwise.

      • I also have really enjoyed going to a book store and will not like when they do all go away. It’s going to be a sad day.

        • It certainly will. It seems to be an inevitability, at least for the smaller chains. I’m hoping someone will at least manage to develop a digital equivalent of the browsing experience so that we’ll still have ways to stumble onto books we’d not usually find. Time will tell, I guess.

  • Dubem Menakaya

    Will Self certainly has a point – there’s a lot more options in terms of entertainment than say 30 years ago where it was watch tv, go out with friends, play music or read.

    However these options are a blessing because those who are drawn to reading will read. Doesn’t matter what else is out there. You may not read as much, you’ll definitely still read.

    And another thing – before the internet people used to read in isolation. There wasn’t any community formed around it in terms of online book reviews, fan clubs etc. Technology has enhanced that element so much that great writing/ a great novel that strikes a cord with a group of people actually has a greater chance of spreading than 30 years ago.

    The problem is finding your audience!

    • So true about the increase in entertainment options. The funny thing is it can also make the producing of content more difficult for the same reasons it may hinder the consuming of it. In the past the only thing a writer/artist/creator had to distract them was the things you mention – friends, reading etc. Now there’s so much more out there.

      But the point you make about the increased opportunities for community is huge. Booktube, book blogs, and the way genre events can be recorded and posted to YouTube or whatever else provides an incredible means for an audience to gather around books and writers they enjoy – to debate, discuss, critique or appreciate. It’s one of my favourite things about the rapid increase in communication technologies over the last 10 years. There are more readily accessible content streams to be inspired by as a content creator, and there are more ways for content consumers to create or engage with the kind of platforms you mention. It’s making for a really interesting dialogue between the two processes and it will be equally interesting to see where it takes writing and reading as a whole in the future.

      • Dubem Menakaya

        Oh yeah I totally agree, the increase in entertainment also affects the supply side as its way easier to distract yourself now! I think thats the challenge though, who will ride out those distractions will be the ones who can progress.

        Certainly I love the time we’re in for those reasons of increased inspiration. There’s so many artist I admire who are so accessible with blogs, podcasts, videos you can gain so much creativity in a really short space of time.

        I think it’s going to be much more about dissemination in the future. Now we have this abundance of content and creativity, we still have limited time. So whoever can distill a message or the messages of others in the most effective way will be ahead of the game.

        • Absolutely. I think a great example is the recent film Dear White People (which is a very smart film). The way it was financed (crowdfunding) created (writer/director Justin Simien tweeted jokes and lines of dialogue from the script and asked followers to rate them) and distributed was so innovative. It shows how radically the game is changing. It’s providing new and alternative ways for art – that wouldn’t have gotten made otherwise – to find an audience.

          But you’re right, the discipline of resisting the distractions is going to be a biggy. I read not long ago that the author Jonathan Franzen takes himself off to a private office for 5 hours a day where there is no telephone, no TV and no internet access, just to make sure he stays productive and gets the work done. Whatever it takes, I guess.

          • Dubem Menakaya

            I haven’t watched the film, title put me off to be honest! Though I love the crowd funding and community activating approach – that’s certainly the way game has fundamentally changed and barriers broken down.

            Yes that is certainly the extremes one has to go to. It’s difficult though because the internet is the source of creative inspirations so to take that away…… For writing though I think it’s good to turn of the wi-fi, I’m going to get back into doing that

          • I know what you mean about the title. I had a similar response, I was thinking it was going to be a racist or chip-on-the-shoulder kind of film. A friend said I needed to see it and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. That said, we all have different tastes.

            But the point about creative inspiration is important because like you say there’s definitely a balance that needs to be found. I guess the good thing is the benefits far outweigh the difficulties when it comes to the internet. The access to info is just incredible. Wikipedia by itself makes the whole thing more than worthwhile πŸ˜‰

          • Dubem Menakaya

            Ahh ok I suppose shouldn’t be close minded anyway and see for myself!

            Yeah for sure wikipedia was the only internet I knew up til about 14 lol

  • Very in-depth post, good job!

    Shark.

    I don’t think the book is going anywhere. changes are happening, especially with the ease of Self Publishing, but novels will always be here as will actual books to hold and read. I use an e-reader but I much prefer to hold a book with actual pages. And if I had to choose between books and TV…books would win every time!

    • Hey TC, thanks for stopping by! I’m the same. I love the feel of a book, the pages, the cover, the weight (I’ve got a thing for hardcover editions in particular). But man have my eyes been opened the last year or so to just how convenient an e-reader can be, especially when travelling. Plus there are some great classic titles that are available for free download. Suffice to say I’m now a fan of both printed books and their digitally printed counterparts. So I’m definitely hoping you’re right and the novel stays.

  • I’m a bookworm so this conference is disturbing. I have books in every room and decorate with them as well as read them. But I’m not opposed to change. I like e-books too! They’re so convenient. But please don’t take my books away from me. All of this reminds me of hearing recently that penmanship may not be taught in schools and I noticed that is causing an uproar in social media too. It’s a new age as you report, a high tech “Twitter” world out there and you pose interesting questions. Now you’ve got me thinking! Thank you, also, for stopping by and visiting me!

    • Hi Mary! It was absolutely my pleasure. Thanks for stopping by. And I know what you mean, I felt just as concerned when I was at the conference. The idea of the novel being no more is something I find very difficult to imagine. There are so many wonderful benefits and opportunities available through the internet and the digital technologies we have these days but I still think the novel has a significant place and role when it comes to entertaining and educating. Plus reading fiction does so much to not only develop our imagination but our capacity for empathy and critical thinking and a whole host of other things. And so yes, I do worry about the price that is sometimes paid in the name of innovation and progress as I’m not always convinced we appreciate what is sometimes being lost. Hopefully, when it comes to the novel, we’ll never have to find out.

  • I think books will stick around no matter what other options come up. There’s just something about a book that appeals to so many. At least that’s what I’m hoping! πŸ™‚ There’s room enough for all.

    • I’m hoping so too, Lisa. And I think you’re right, there ought to be room for all. I know in my life there certainly is. I like films, I like digital media, but man I love a good book in my hands too. Thanks for stopping by πŸ™‚

  • Have never ever got tired of the feel of a paper book in my hands. Yet electronic books have a huge appeal to me because of all the traveling we do. I can pack 20 some book inside my kindle…the weight never changes. I have taken to only putting novels on my electronic book and my spiritual books I still get hard copies. Must have the hard copie to make notes in, underline, date, add references, etc. Loved reading the comments on this subject…

    • Hi Betty, and thanks! It’s certainly a topic that arouses passions isn’t it, which I guess is encouraging as it means the book, and the novel in particular, remains a thing we all care about, even in this new-fangled digital age of ours. I’m hoping it will mean books in their printed form stay around for awhile longer.

      I have a similar thing with the paperbook vs e-reader dilemma. I was resistant to getting a kindle initially but it is, as you say, so incredibly convenient. It’s amazing to think we can carry the digital equivalent of a library around in our back pocket now. I can only imagine how great that must be for someone like you who does so much travelling.

      I understand your point about making notes & underlining. Although I have recently begun to get into doing even this on my kindle too (I didn’t realise it was possible until a few months back), and yes, even this feature is amazingly convenient. That said, nothing beats the feel of the pages and the comfortingly solid heft of holding a book in your hands πŸ™‚

  • David

    I think books will likely endure. I like the feel of a book, the rustle of the pages as I turn them. I like folding back the cover when I read a paperback. I even like trying to find my place after I’ve fallen asleep and the book fell closed.

    We have 3 Kindles in our house and I have the feeling e-readers will become a staple in most homes in the long run. An adaptation we kind of need to make because technology warrants it and because some β€œbooks” are only available in digital form. I also see a great potential for e-readers becoming somewhat of an β€œarchive” available to the masses to access more books than ever. But I find it hard to imagine that the books we all know and love will become obsolete or extinct. Though we have e-readers I still prefer to read a β€œreal” book.

    I like perusing the library for titles I’ve never heard of because I can SEE them. I’ve read several books over the years that I just picked up, read the back cover and thought it might be a good read. How can you do that with a digital device?

    Yeah, the publishing industry – as well as the rest of us – will have to adapt to the wiles of technology but I think it will be a very long time before we see the demise of the printed book. Hopefully never …

    • Thanks David! This is a great comment!

      It’s a key point you make about the archiving capacity of digital media. I’ve heard quite a few publishers talk about the advantages of being able to have mid-list authors and works that would usually be out of print, still available for purchase via online outlets. If you know the title you’re looking for this is a huge advantage. And of course, with e-readers, is there anything better than being able to take a library’s worth of books with you when you travel?

      But yeah, I’m with you. I think books will endure despite the growth of digital media in the same way in which people didn’t stop painting when the camera was invented. Every medium has it’s own qualities and often they can’t be replicated even by more technologically advanced methods of producing or distributing content.

      But the biggest thing you mention, and this comes to a point I didn’t get into in the post, is the library/bookstore browsing experience for the reader. I’m yet to come across an app or algorithm that’s able to replicate that serendipitous happenstance we get every so often when we’re perusing the bookshelf. Like you I’ve had quite a few experiences of stumbling onto an author or title when browsing that I’d have never come across any other way.

      So although I’m optimistic the printed book will continue to be a sought for commodity, with the way the bookselling side of things is being strained through the added competition from various online platforms, I’m not so hopeful the same will be true for bookstores, particularly smaller independent ones. And this does concern me. Because how else can a reader discover new tastes and likes, and avoid reading the kind of stuff they’re used to reading because it pops up on an Amazon algorithm or some other tool designed to predict their preferences based on past purchases?

      It makes me wonder whether readers in the future will read more narrowly as a result of this. Or whether the availability of so much content will make us more widely read instead. It’s hard to say.