Has The Novel Had Its Day? Contemporary Fiction’s Inability to Cope with Modern Life

It is a common belief that the literary tradition of Modernism emerged as a response to societal change happening around, and sometimes initiated by, the First World War. Literary techniques we now take for granted – the terse and concentrated prose of Hemingway, the multifaceted complexities of ‘stream of consciousness’, were invented as old forms were seen as insufficient, incapable of capturing the new nuances and fresh horrors of the changing world. 

Novelists began to abandon the novel

Modernism eventually evolved into postmodernism. Novels gained a new sense of self awareness; society seemed to normalize again; the novel became more dramatic, more dynamic, as if it was trying to compete with various golden ages of cinema and popcorn entertainment. Books became longer to justify costs; books became shorter, to satiate our shortening attention spans. Books continued to adapt and evolve to match the demands of, and better reflect, our continuously-shifting ‘current age’.

But then, novelists began to abandon the novel. 

And it wasn’t just novelists, either. BBC’s Top 10s of the 2010s article listed Jamie Oliver’s Jamie’s 30-Minute Meals and David Walliams’ childrens’ book Gangsta Granny amongst their top ten-selling books of the last decade, which included the entire Fifty Shades trilogy (originally a self-published fanfic of Twilight) at the top of the list, and the script for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, as well as the utterly compelling The Official Highway Code. 

The only standalone novel on the list was Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train.

contemporary literature has started to become more and more detached from the real world

Even I have noticed my interest in the novel sap, even as I am midway through my MA in English and continue to have at least one on the go. After graduating from my BA, I enjoyed a blissful year of work where I found myself, for the first time, able to read whatever I wanted, and amongst amazing contemporary fiction I’d never considered before (Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Matt Haig’s The Humans), I realized I had started a fling with non-fiction.

Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Nobody Leaves, Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Sapiens and Homo Deus, Renni Eddo-Lodge’s hugely informative Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race coloured the first half of 2019. Since beginning my MA, I’ve discovered Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement (the only book on climate change everybody needs to read) and Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, a Christmas present from my brother.

The Beautiful Poetry of Donald Trump demonstrates our generation’s tendency to deal with contemporary life at a humorous remove

I have been particularly drawn to these books because I feel contemporary literature has started to become more and more detached from the real world. Plenty of parallels can be made between the worlds of Harry Potter and Game of Thrones and ours, sure, and Hilary Mantel has enjoyed immense popularity with her historical fiction Wolf Hall and its sequels: realistic, of course, but set in the Tudor times, wildly different from our own. A political reading can be wrought out of these, and any texts, but often these readings say more about their interpreter than any meaning inherent in the source material. Meanwhile, Ian McEwan and Ali Smith have been writing about Brexit in innovative, albeit peripheral ways, with few works of contemporary English literature tackling our current state of affairs explicitly. 

In fact, irony rules; the success of The Beautiful Poetry of Donald Trump demonstrates our generation’s tendency to deal with contemporary life at a humorous remove, as if engaging in serious discourse about the current state of life will bring the despair of reality to daylight when we are all more comfortable downplaying the helplessness of the modern world. 

Of course, escapism is a political act in itself, but if I want books that help me understand and navigate the obscure, confused and confusing country I live in that 21st-century Conservative Brexit Britain, I must turn towards non-fiction. Suffers from the Great Depression had Gatsby and Steinbeck; the post-war generation had Orwell’s 1984 and the champions and dissidents of the Soviet Union had that same novelist’s Animal Farm. The closest thing our generation has to accurately portray the contemporary state of modern media is The Hunger Games, which isn’t a bad series by any means, but often focuses on the action of the Games themselves than any nuances of the political state of Panem. 

That’s not to say that all writers have stopped writing fiction; of course, very few have. Ali Smith continues to innovate, pushing the form of the novel like a contemporary Modernist; Amitav Ghosh has always been an academic, and continues to write novels alongside his fiction; Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and its sequel The Testaments are seminal works of her new genre of ‘speculative fiction’; in the East, writers such as Haruki Murakami are exploring how to maintain a national identity under the pressure of internationalisation

But some writers are, nevertheless, moving away from the form. 

Bret Easton Ellis, once infamous for his tales of drug-addled yuppies, has recently published works which toe the line between fiction and autobiography, acknowledging the form’s inability to adequately express our lives in a world where headlines full of supposed facts seemingly stranger than fiction saturate our media. 

Ellis explains this best himself in the opening to White, his seemingly sporadic and unstructured series of rants about or against the contemporary state of the world: 

“I’d been wrestling away from the idea of ‘the novel’ for more than a decade, as evident in the last two books I published: one was a mock memoir wrapped within a horror novel, and the other was a condensed autobiographical noir I pushed through painfully during a midlife crisis.”

The form his publishing house so desired just “didn’t interest me anymore”; after decades spent as one of the most high-profile celebrity authors of the 20th century, Ellis came to realise “novels don’t engage with the public on that level anymore”, and thus begins his latest work, geared to engage with the public through its splintered, short and self-contained unacademic treatises on contemporary life. 

While Ellis seems to lament the novel’s inability to present the personal and engage with the public, Nafisi realised much earlier fiction’s inability to accurately represent her “too explosive, too dramatic and chaotic” life in the Islamic Republic, which were too disoriented and disorienting “to shape into the desired order required for a narrative effect.”

The novel certainly is not dead

This declaration is eerily similar to the Modernists, who wanted to make art new, to find new ways of negotiating with the world. It is no accident that the same century that brought us e.e. cummings birthed Picasso’s Cubism, after all, nor does it seem accidental that copy-and-paste crime noirs continue to dominate the British fictional scene in a region bereft of commericable political novels. Not that this is a lament on the quality of writing; many of history’s greatest authors, such as Jane Austen, cannot be said to be overtly political, but the political does seem to be banished, more than in other generations, to the spheres of non-fiction. Fiction is escapism; in a world so full of horrors, people do not want to turn to art for commentary on them, but rather to face fictional yet bigger, more dualistic black-and-white horrors which do not require the same nuance necessitated by political discourse, diminishing their own woes in the process.

The novel certainly is not dead, but perhaps contemporary literature seems to have lost its ability to negotiate with the wider world. And in a world so bleak, no blame can be given to the artists and readers who choose not to indulge their free time in a fictional world bleak in the same ways as their own.

Matteo Everett

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