The Future of the Novel
Keynote speaker: China Mieville
Chair: Janne Teller
Janne Teller began by addressing the censorship in Arizona.
Ben Okri then read the statement protesting against House Bill 2281 prohibiting books designed for a particular ethnic group, used to distribute books about the Latino community.
Janne reflected on the history of the novel, to give context. She ferenced Nathan Englander: â€œWho the F*** cares if the novel dies?â€ She noted that the novel is a relatively recent form, mentioning Don Quixote. She encouraged debate about other forms of literature. She worked for the UN in Mozambique. She brought a suitcase of books. The horrors of the colonial war almost destroyed her faith in humanity. She memorised a Thomas Hardy poem. It gave her â€œa little bit of hope, a little bit of smile.â€ The concentrated form of poetry led her back to prose and the novel. Literature is to remind us what it is to be a human being. Literature is our story within the story.
She introduced China as a novelist who writes in all genres. Born in 1972, he has written seven novels. He is an award-winning author and lives and works in London. He writes â€œweird fiction.â€
This is the text of China’s speech:
“I have just … paid a depressing visit to an electronic computer which can write sonnets if fed with the right material,” said Lawrence Durrell, at the session 50 years ago of which this is an echo. ” … I have a feeling that by Christmas it will have written its first novel, and possibly by next Christmas novel sets will be on sale at Woolworths and you will all be able to buy them, and write your own.”
Notionally, the horror here is something to do with the denigration of human creativity. But Durrell is aghast in particular that these novel sets will be on sale at Woolworths – the tragedy, perhaps, might have been a little lessened if they’d been exclusive to Waitrose.
It’s not clear how scared he really was. Futures of anything tend to combine possibilities, desiderata, and dreaded outcomes, sometimes in one sentence. There’s a feedback loop between soothsaying and the sooth said, analysis is bet and aspiration and warning. I want to plural, to discuss not the novel but novels, not the future, but futures. I’m an anguished optimist. None of the predictions here are impossible: some I even think are likely; most I broadly hope for; and one is a demand.
* * *
A first hope: the English-languageÂ publishingÂ sphere starts tentatively to revel in that half-recognised distinctness of non-English-language novels, and with their vanguard of Scandinavian thrillers, small presses, centres and prizes for translation, continue to gnaw atÂ the 3% problem, all striving against the still deeply inadequate but am-I-mad-to-think-improving-just-a-little profile of fiction translated into English.
And translation is now crowdsourced, out of love. Obscure works of Russian avant-garde andÂ new translations of Bruno SchulzÂ are available to anyone with access to a computer. One future is of glacially slowly decreasing, but decreasing, parochialism.
And those publishers of translated fiction are also conduits for suspicious-making foreign Modernism.
* * *
What is literature, and what do we want from it? The former is a key question, which I’m going to duck. What do we want from it? Many things. One is an expression of something otherwise inexpressible. An ineffability, by which you don’t at all have to be a person of faith to have your breath taken away. Jewish mysticism warns of theÂ qliphothÂ – husks, entropic shells of psychic muck and detritus that encrust and obscure that numinous. As you can tell, I’m turning my attention to English fiction.
Paulo Coelho’s ill-judged Joyce-bashingÂ has made him a butt of scorn this week, but he’s a safe target because, with books that multitask a little too openly as self-help manuals, he’s not so clubbable. Unlike, say, Ian McEwan, who not-that-differently declared againstÂ “the dead hand of modernism”, for all the world as if the dominant literary mode in post-war England wasÂ Steinian experimentationÂ or some AlbionÂ Oulipo, against which young Turks hold out with limpidly observed interiority, decodable metaphors, strained middle-class relationships and eternal truths of the human condition(TM).
All the usual caveats: yes, there are admirable novels written according to such norms, and conversely there’ve always been writers playing with form, etcetera. But two things remain key.
i) The culturally dominant strain of English novel has for years been whatZadie Smith called “lyrical realism”: the remorseless prioritisation, with apologies for repeating my favourite heuristic,Â of recognition over estrangement.
ii) Today it is not quite qliphothic business as usual.
After last year’sÂ Booker Middlebrowmaggedon, this year’s judges are far too polite to draw attention to their task, which is to salvage something. ButÂ they’ve not done badly. Longlists are performances, and while it’s appropriate to cavil about our excluded favourites, the list sends various messages rather well. Including that the Booker is rapproching with that so-called dead hand.
There’ve been other wind-blown straws.Â The muted, palpable recent shame when Christine Brooke-Rose died, that this astonishing innovator was so overlooked in the country of her birth.Â Renewed interest in Ann Quin. Excitement at the online archiveÂ Ubuweb. With the internet has come proof that there are audiences way beyond the obvious.
* * *
I really, really don’t want to talk about genre, because I always really want to, and nerd-whines are boring. But a detente between litfic and its others is real. It’s a clichÃ© to point out that generic tropes are infecting the mainstream, with a piling-up of various apocalypses by those guilty of literature. But on the other side, say, an extensive interview with Yinka Tutuola, son of the legendary Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola, about his father’s work, is online not at any traditional outlet of the literatiÂ but at Weird Fiction Review, a fabulous site that emerges, with brilliance and polymath gusto, out of genre traditions.
It was a generic, science-fictional horror that oppressed Durrell, those fiction engines. He’s not the only writer to have suffered this nightmare: the Automatic Novel Writing Machine crops up repeatedly in fiction as a sign of awful futurity. Given the fire, flood, uneasy dead and enormity on which one can draw, it’s an underwhelmingly terrifying dystopia, a future in the despotic thrall of the autonovelator, butÂ apres nous le delugeÂ – writers would far rather suffer planetary catastrophe than deskilling, or a scab algorithm.
* * *
The machine is unbuilt. The past future of the novel did not lie in being digitally produced. As traumatically, it’s being digitally distributed.
We are, at last, leaving phase one of the ebook discussion, during which people could ritually invoke the ‘smell of paper’ as a call to cultural barricades. Some anxieties are tenacious: how will people know what a splendid person I am without a pelt of the right visible books on my walls, without the pretty qlippoth husks? A hopeful future: that our grandchildren will consider our hankering for erudition-dÃ©cor a little needy.
Early predictions for what digitality would do to the novel look pretty creaky, as the futures of the past always do. TheÂ hypertext novel? A few interesting experiments. The enhanced ebook, with soundtrack and animation? A banal abomination.
In fact what’s becoming obvious – an intriguing counterpoint to the growth in experiment – is the tenacity of relatively traditional narrative-arc-shaped fiction. But you don’t radically restructure how the novel’s distributed and not have an impact on its form. Not only do we approach an era when absolutely no one who really doesn’t want to pay for a book will have to, but one in which the digital availability of the text alters the relationship between reader, writer, and book. The text won’t be closed.
* * *
It never was, of course â€“ think of the scrivener’s edit, the monk’s mashup â€“ but it’s going to be even less so. Anyone who wants to shove their hands into a book and grub about in its innards, add to and subtract from it, and pass it on, will, in this age of distributed text, be able to do so without much difficulty, and some are already starting.
One response might be a rearguard clamping down, as in the punitive model of so-called antipiracy action. About which here I’ll only say – as someone very keen to continue to make a living from writing – that it’s disingenuous, hypocritical, ineffectual, misunderstands the polyvalent causes and effects of online sharing, is moribund, and complicit with toxicity.
The Creators’ Rights Alliance, with which my own trade union is associated,Â put out a manifestoÂ that ends with a chilling injunction:
[A] fundamental part of this provision should involve education about intellectual property. … All schoolchildren should be encouraged in the habit of using the Â© symbol with their work, whether it be an essay or a musical composition.
The concept behind copyright is so simple that a child can understand it:
“I made it: it’s mine.”‘
A collection of artists and activists advocating the neoliberalisation of children’s minds. That is scandalous and stupid. The text is open. This should â€“ could â€“ be our chance to remember that it was never just us who made it, and it was never just ours.
* * *
The problem with emphasising the authorial voice, and the novel’s survival, even in its new forms, even with a permeable membrane between text and reader, is that it’s hard to do so without sounding as if one’s indulging a kind of ahistorical Olympian simpering at the specialness of writers. That the novel is tenacious as a cockroach is morally neutral. We can hope for a good novel â€“ created by whatever means â€“ decry bad ones, and observe with a shrug that in total they endure.
To love literature doesn’t mean we have to aggrandise it or those who create it. That aggrandisement is undermined by the permeable text. Be ready for guerrilla editors. Just as precocious 14-year-olds brilliantly â€“ or craply â€“ remix albums and put them up online, people are starting to provide their own cuts of novels. In the future, asked if you’ve read the latest Ali Smith or Ghada Karmi, the response might be not yes or no, but “which mix”, and why?
We’ll be writing as part of a collective. As we always were. And so might anyone else be.
“[Y]ou will all be able to buy them,” Durrell says of those novel-writing kits, addressing not the other writers, who didn’t need them, but the public, “and write your own.”
That’s a telling elision – he starts by kvetching about writing by machine, by no one, and segues instantly to doing so about writing by the public, by everyone. That’s apocalypse. That, apparently, is a nightmare future.
The worst anxiety is not that the interfering public will ruin your work if they muck about with it, or that they’ll write a terrible novel, but that they’ll improve it, or write a great one. And once in a rare while, some of them will. How wonderful that will be.
You don’t have to think that writing is lever-pulling, that anyone could have written Jane Eyre or Notebook of a Return to my Native Land to think that the model of writers as the Elect is at best wrong, at worst, a bit slanderous to everyone else. We piss and moan about the terrible quality of self-published books, as if slews of god-awful crap weren’t professionally expensively published every year.
* * *
Of course there are contexts in which particular books become politically important, and writers who exhibit astonishing bravery in the face of oppression. For the most part we’re not talking about that. What if most fiction – which, yes, we all do and should love – is at best moderately important? What if it’s so vague and culturally dribblesome and so mediated by everything else, once the culture industry extrudes it through a writer-shaped nozzle, that our stentorious declarations about subversive literature are, mostly, kind of adorable?
Stand down. The blurring of boundaries between writers, books, and readers, self-publishing, the fanfication of fiction, doesn’t mean some people won’t be better than others at the whole writing thing, or unable to pay their rent that way â€“ it should, though, undermine that patina of specialness. Most of us aren’t that special, and the underlining of that is a good thing, the start of a great future. In which we can maybe focus more on the books. Which might even rarely be special.
One of the problems, we often hear, about online piracy, ebooks and their ephemeral-seeming invisible files, is that they ‘devalue writing’, that our work is increasingly undervalued. Well, yes. Just like the work of nurses, teachers, public transport staff, cleaners, social workers, which has been undervalued a vast amount more for a whole lot longer. We live in a world that grossly and violently undervalues the great majority of people in it.
It’s that hegemony of the market again. We’ve railed against it – as we should – for the last several days. There’s a contingent relationship between book sales and literary merit, so we should totally break the pretence at a connection, because of our amplifying connection to everyone else, and orient future-ward with a demand.
What if novelists and poets were to get a salary, the wage of a skilled worker?
* * *
This would only be an exaggeration ofÂ the national stipends already offered by some countries for some writers. For the great majority of people who write, it would mean an improvement in their situation, an ability to write full-time. For a few it would mean an income cut, but you know what? It was a good run. And surely it’s easily worth it to undermine the marketisation of literature for some kind of collectivity.
But who decides who qualifies as a writer? Does it take one sonnet? Of what quality? Ten novels? 50,000 readers? Ten, but the right readers? God knows we shouldn’t trust the state to make that kind of decision. So we should democratise that boisterous debate, as widely and vigorously as possible. It needn’t be the mere caprice of taste. Which changes. And people are perfectly capable of judging as relevant and important literature for which they don’t personally care. Mistakes will be made, sure, but will they really be worse than the philistine thuggery of the market?
We couldn’t bypass the state with this plan, though. So for the sake of literature, apart from any- and everything else, we’ll have to take control of it, invert its priorities, democratise its structures, replace it with a system worth having.
So an unresentful sense of writers as people among people, and a fidelity to literature, require political and economic transformation. For futures for novels â€“ and everything else. In the context of which futures, who knows what politics, what styles and which contents, what relationships to what reconceived communities, which struggles to express what inexpressibles, what stories and anti-stories we will all strive and honourably fail to write, and maybe even one day succeed?
Contributions’ from writers’ conference delegates and the audience:
Janne Teller: Would something be lost if the audience had a say at the end of it?
China Mieville: There is a strong part of me that thinks my version of these novels is the best. Maybe somebody would improve it? Some of these novels would be startlingly amazing. Some would be rubbish.
Melvin Burgess said that he has done several cross media experiments. He could only find examples with people speaking into webcams. He has done stuff on TV where you hide elements of plot in gaming. There is a limit: story telling is never interactive. Stories on Twitter, etc never quite work. They die on their feet.
Kapka Kassabova asked how many authors wrote collaboratively. Only two said yes, Burgess and Bissett.
Ewan Morrison was asked to do a meeting on the end of the book. The industry is under threat due to the digital economy. He thought some of Chinaâ€™s ideas naÃ¯ve, Dot Communism. Music leads the way. He wants a murder in Crime and Punishment. The digital revolution says we can all make money self-publishing. The Amazon boss proclaims its success. The head of Amazon is saying the revolution in publishing means the top thousand writers would earn eleven dollars a day. Most of us think Amazon is doing more harm than good.
Denise Mina said this interference with other peopleâ€™s texts already exists. What happens is the good versions survive?
Khamila Shamsie echoed Denise referring to Pride and Prejudice with Zombies. Pride and Prejudice still exists. She is torn on piracy. Growing up in the eighties under a military regime a lot of her cultural influence came from piracy.
China made a couple of points.
Let us beware of false oppositions. He is not a fan of Amazon or the anarchists who want information to be free. He thinks the model of copyright is philistine. In India he said get the books from a file-sharing site. He is confident writers can find new forms.
Garth Nix said the best way to combat piracy. Make the books available freely at a decent price. What that price is is difficult to discern. Some people say self-publishing is the only way to go. The novel does have a future. He read Trollope on a different medium. The books donâ€™t go away.
Alan Bissett said he is a technophobe. Tell me the future of the novel and I will turn up to it. Excited about dissolving hierarchies.Â He picked up on the salary cap China mentioned. He wants to keep writing hopefully with his name attached. He said how his friends were furious how football is run. He liked the idea of a salary cap in football and across society.
I spoke about how in the debate of 1962 the public library service was two years in the future and how we had grown up with a certain scaffolding as readers and writers. That was public and school libraries. It is essential to protect libraries, both public libraries and school libraries as places we create readers. I flagged up the October 29th lobby for school libraries and similar work in Scotland.
Janne Teller proposed thirty seconds of silence for the victims of violence in Syria.
Benjamin Morrison asked about form. What genre does China find to represent the destabilisations we see? China said the question of bearing witness, he has no problem with it, but it feeds into the specialness â€˜varnish.â€™ Bakers bear witness. We should get over the idea we alone can do it or do it best. He is much more interested in experimental forms, for example popular culture in the Egyptian revolution. Maybe that is why we are seeing more experimentation now.
Chika Inugwe said that writers do bear witness. Memory is very important. We do not want to forget. The point about bearing witness is not whether we do it best but we do it.
A student asked, isnâ€™t literature itself an enduring quality that should be maintained as an alternative narrative of social history?
Aaron from Ireland thought Chinaâ€™s speech was very challenging, but wondered with regard to collaboration whether it necessarily adds value.
John Burnsideâ€™s son is not to look up on Wikipaedia. He doesnâ€™t trust the state, religious nuts etc not to erase the original text. He doesnâ€™t trust the text of Crime and Punishment not to find God.
Kim Thuy said that novels will always exist.
Matthias Polyticki said he was open-minded. Every reader can spare a brick to build the wall. It needs an architect to build it. He read experimental books. If the novel really wants to touch you, you need all the skills from the books out of creative writing, you have to stay out of the stampede of globalisation and stay local. He appealed for people write in their tongue.
Xi Chuan from China said humanity is in crisis. She cannot see the future of the novel not including the future of humanity. She doesnâ€™t trust the Internet and file-sharing. This is trivial considering the future of humanity.
Owen Sheers tried to tie together some of the points. The search for finding a new model of the economics of the writer is tied to bearing witness. We need as many people as possible who have the time to write that quality fiction. Only the people who have time will be able to write that fiction.
A teacher from Denmark said without readers there wonâ€™t be a future for the novel.
Marianna from Brazil has to go online for the books she wants because they are not in the shops.
A Scottish speaker says you need to order the books in for you at Waterstones.
Ben Okri found Chinaâ€™s talk provocative but thought there was an underlying cultural despair. A lot of what China was saying had something to do with Western civilisation. His brothers and sisters in Africa have still not had their stories told. The form of those stories has not been found. He hears about the exhaustion of the novel and finds it puzzling. The naturalistic tradition of painting has been superseded by the abstract, We have accepted the beginning, middle, end too much. He feels the novel is not dead yet. He feels he is at a funeral. He thinks China has given an oration to the end of the novel. Reality is not as homogenous as that. The novel constantly challenges us. The way we are told the world is is not the way it is. It is more magical, challenging and fragmented than that.
Bernardo Atxaga said he was going to talk about time in relation to the novel. It is said first there was a golden age, then silver, then bronze, then iron now. What is the quality of time readers have for their reading, a time of gold or of iron? Back to Ulysses, readers read between two telephone calls, on the bus. This iron quality stops the novel being difficult. He agrees with Ben Okri, we should change form, but we donâ€™t want to lose readers.
Ben Okri said why does the change of form have to be difficult? Society is about specialisations. Bankers are in trouble at the moment. Writers write. Writing is an infinite craft. It is a specialist trade. It is generous to say everyone can write but to do it well is a specialist thing. It takes time to learn how to write well, to write a good sentence well. To attack elitism is to swing too much in the wrong direction.
Xiaolu Guo followed up Ben Okri. Interesting that when we give a word, we give a definition of that word, the understanding of the novel. He said China is a socialist country but capitalism is so strong there. You may move the boundaries to catch up with the developments of the society. Styles and forms not only come from previous literature, but from reality and other possibilities. We will make something new if we deal with our sufferings, our experiences and our dreams.
Online commentators wanted the debate broadening out to deal with how technology has changed music and other things.
China refused to discuss the music industry. It is not our job.
Allan Bissett picked up on peopleâ€™s reading time. People are on line all the time. It takes a long time to read a novel. Something neurological is happening.
Jackie Kay said novelists predict the end of the novel. Poets donâ€™t talk about the death of the poem in the same way. Why do novelists have that anxiety? Is it like the anxiety people had when CDs came along? The 1962 debat was exactly the same.
Khamila Shamsie hasnâ€™t heard the funeral oration. Fifty years ago the novel was dominant, then film, then TV. When film came along it raised the forest. The novel had to find somewhere else to go.
John Calder said it was about literature generally. Ulysses was a novel of total escape. He was writing about events in 1904. Literature in one form or another it will always continue. The artist can not be stopped. The Art will always be there.
Yiyun Li said take an hour away to read that Ulysses.
A reader said the anxiety may be about ownership of the novel. Who owns a story?
Carlos Gamarro wanted to disagree with a couple of things. Writers shouldnâ€™t be local. If writers only wrote in their local language there wouldnâ€™t be a Nabokov or a Beckett. It is the reasons what you do. Whatâ€™s the use of literature for our kids? It is different in countries with a long tradition of the novel. You feel the weight of that. In the Spanish-speaking world there is no difference between literature and bestsellers. Did Burroughs fail or did we fail on experimentalism? Visual artists say this is art. We tend to be on the defensive.
Ben Okri returned to the anxiety about the novel. It is called novel because it was something new. That newness sits inside the novel. That newness plateaued out. If the novel doesnâ€™t renew itself it doesn not generate and dies.
Matthias Polyticki said the future of the novel doesnâ€™t care what the market needs. You have to stay authentic.
Kapka Kassabova talked about newness. Alain-Grillet the advocate of the new novel was the new thing. It is only now studied at university. There were attempts to renew the novel. Style over content.
Manu Josef as a new novelist felt the only people who helped him were writers. What do famous established writers read? They donâ€™t seem to read their contemporaries? They will only read writers more famous than them or their friends?
Jackie Kay said whatâ€™s not novel against the novel is navel gazing. Enough of the novel, the poem, other forms?