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This Business of the Novel Being Over

Daniel Mendelsohn, creator of straw men:

I don’t know how people can still buy into this ridiculous, antiquated notion that the only really “literary” activity is writing fiction. I think the novel is over. It’s so clear to me that the novel is a genre that has reached its final stages, there’s nothing else to do, it’s all been done, the experiments, the this, the that. Naturally people will keep writing novels because it’s fun, and it’s a form you’re sentimental about. But you could certainly make an argument that the novel has now been eclipsed by the memoir as the pre-eminent form of literary self-expression just now—or certainly as eminent as the novel. I just think our attachment to the novel is, in some sense, a sentimental notion; and as a critic, but also as a writer, you have to be aware of the reality of the terrain that you’re in. The fact is that most writing is non-fiction writing.

Do people really buy into this, that “the only really ‘literary’ activity is writing fiction”? I suppose some do, although no one whom I take seriously—and I imagine no one whom Daniel Mendelsohn takes seriously—says anything resembling that “the only really ‘literary’ activity is writing fiction.”

But I’m interested in the much less laughable argument that “the novel is a genre that has reached its final stages.” I disagree with this as well, but I’ll at least grant that intelligent people can make this argument. A large part of what I have to say in The End of Oulipo is an argument that the novel is not over by any means, as well as an encouragement to see literature in terms that broaden out beyond just fiction. Obviously reading the book is the best way to get the whole argument, but you can read the meat of it in this excerpt I published in The White Review.

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9 comments to This Business of the Novel Being Over

  • SirJack

    “If I were a writer, how I would enjoy being told the novel is dead. How liberating to work in the margins outside the central perception. You are the ghoul of literature.”

    –character from Don Delillo’s The Names

    People have been saying the novel’s dead or dying for generations now. The people who say this have given up on pushing against this form, except in the most anemic, self-referential ways (Vila-Matas, Iyers, etc.).

    This fellow’s praise of the memoir is laughable. What memoirs could you really compare to the greatest works of literature? Or can you really categorize Proust, Sebald, Knausgaard as memoirists? All writing is lies. But these writers’ emphasis is on something bigger than their little lives. Hence, they are not writing memoirs, but literature.

  • Pat O'Donnell

    Yes, well, the novel is dead or over argument has been going on since the novel began, as Steve Moore points out in his magnificent History of the Novel, and as John Barth (tongue firmly in cheek)pointed out in the venerable “Literature of Exhaustion.” What’s exhausted itself is the novel is dead argument.
    Hard to discern exactly what the point is of declaring that any form of literature as “pre-eminent” at one point or another: pre-eminent in what terms? Sales? Quality? Amount? The statement is dramatic, but too sweeping and blunt to be useful in any way.

  • I agree with the previous 2 commenters, but would also note that we have an unprecedented amount of liberty to use, play with, distribute, etc. other forms of art using the technology. The novel isn’t dead, I’d say (although it depends which ones you read!), but people are playing with forms quite a lot.

  • Matt

    While there are certainly good novels being written today what is the last novel you can think of that was a really earth moving work, or a masterpiece. If you take the devils advocate position and look at it in those terms then maybe Mendolsohn is on to something. There are books published now that I enjoy but where are the novels that are urgent and demanding acts of art summoned from another dimension? It seems authors are scraping a barrel that is quite empty. You can feel that sense of despair and feel the pieces missing from even the most talented writers of the last couple decades. Maybe the novel Ian dead per se but until that bolt of lightning strikes again one can at least say perhaps the muse is in hiding.

    • Sawn

      “There are books published now that I enjoy but where are the novels that are urgent and demanding acts of art summoned from another dimension?”

      A Naked Singularity – Sergio De La Pava
      The Instructions – Adam Levin
      Super Sad True Love Story – Gary Shteyngart
      Busy Monsters – William Giraldi
      Fever Chart – Bill Cotter

      • SirJack

        Yikes, that list does not make me feel good.

        How about Europe Central (Vollmann) and the Kindly Ones (Littell) for starters. I’m not feeling the despair from these writers (nor does there seem to be anything missing from, say, Delillo, who continues to produce adventurous fiction).

  • Birne

    @Matt: Haven’t you read the other’s comments? I concur with them and with Esposito. Similar claims as Mendolsohn’s have been made over and over again during history. Works that are considered earth shattering, paradigm shifting masterworks today were rated poor and mediocre works by critics when they came out. Do you think that we are better than the critics in those times. Isn’t it more likely that many of the so-called critics do not even know the masterworks of our times, yet, or at least seriously underestimate them? I do not understand why people fall into such traps again and again, even intelligent and well-read people. Typically one hears such stuff from old people who just have not read enough contemporary literature. How likely is it that we are living at a special point in history with respect to the novel? Forget it, it is the usual paranoia. Even world renowned authors fall into this trap. Recently I read an interview with Michel Butor, where he claims that the European novel is dead and that there is a crisis in literature, that nothing of relevance has come out the last decades, that there is stagnation. And then the interviewer asks him if he had ever heard of people like Hrabal, Kis, Tisma, Nadas, Esterhazy, Stasiuk. Of course, he hasn’t. So I am not surprised at all that he comes to such nonsensical conclusions. I am pretty sure that he also has never heard of people like Laszlo Krasznahorkai, Mircea Cartarescu, Mikhail Shishkin, Reinhard Jirgl and maybe not even Sebald, Bernhard, Goytisolo etc.

    If you are looking for ‘urgent and demanding acts of art summoned from another dimension you should watch out for these people and read their books. Read Krasznahorkai, read the Melancholy of Resistance or War and War or Seiobo There Below. You will see…

  • Matt

    Honestly I haven’t read all of those authors but I’ve read my share. I own The Melancholy of Resistance, just finished Nadas Parallel Stories, among a few others there. Again while these books are skillfully executed I wouldn’t place them on the top shelf of literature. I was merely offering a counterpoint. I don’t necessarily agree with all the points of the article but there is perhaps a kernel of truth there that is interesting to discuss and speculate upon.

    • Birne

      Yes, Matt, I agree. Oh, and congratulations on finishing Parallal Stories. The book is looking reproachfully at me from my shelf because I have been neglecting it.

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