Every year, a writer of importance announces the death of the novel. In 2004, it was V.S. Naipaul standing over the novel's grave. "It is almost over," the Nobel laureate lamented. "The world has changed and people do not have the time to give that a book requires." Last autumn, Norman Mailer took the stage at the National Book Awards, wagged a finger at a crowd of professional readers and likened himself to a carriage-maker witnessing the "disappearance of his trade before the onrush of the automobile."
It is important to remember that this whiff of mortality has been hanging about the literary world long before cars had fins, let alone onboard GPS. Accepting the National Book Award for fiction in 1953 for Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison was moved to say the novel's best days were behind it, and this before Naipaul had even begun to publish. Asked what he thought the best attribute of his prize winner was, Ellison said he "would reply ... its attempt to return to the mood of personal moral responsibility for democracy which typified the best of our 19th century fiction."
It is strange how many writers see the heyday of the novel as that era when people traveled by horse and buggy, read by candle-light and bled themselves to cure illnesses. It suggests that the novel is almost a premodern phenomenon, a temporary crutch—both moral and metaphysical—in human history, something once used for enjoyment and edification by large portions of society but now replaced by flashier forms of entertainment like cinema, television and the Internet.
In many ways, this old saw is partially correct. The novel has been eclipsed by movies as the key make-believe arbiter of social taste, and newspapers and television have long since supplanted a novel's documentary purpose. The result has been an exponential drop off in literary reading levels, which made news in 2004 when the National Endowment for the Arts published a study, "Reading at Risk," which reported, among other things, that the percentage of Americans who read one book a year dropped by 10 percent over the past two decades.
The most alarming statistic for many people was the fact that the steepest decline in reading levels has been in the 18-24 age group, only 42.8 percent of whom claimed to read even a novel a year these days. It's kind of hard to blame them, since a 1999 study showed the average American household now has 2.9 televisions, 1.8 VCRs, 3.1 radios, 2.1 CD players, 1.4 videogame players and 1 computer. And this was before camera phones, text messaging or MP3 players took off.
Even though books are a kind of technology—and a very efficient one at that, being portable, hard to break and cheap—it is fatuous, however, to take this comparison too much to heart. Each one of these forms of entertainment imagines the world for us. We do not have to create the song, color in the graphics of the video art, intuit what Jerry Seinfeld is supposed to look like, or what Howard Stern's voice sounds like. Realism, in the world of entertainment, has triumphed.
In the end, this is a blessing in disguise, because it allows novelists a freer range to imagine the less tangible world. It is no accident that the first billionaire novelist owes her fortune to a make-believe boy wizard who goes off to school to fight the forces of good and evil. How else better to capture the open-ended horizon of what we imagine in our childhood? The same goes for adult life. The last novel to get a big bump from a book prize was Yann Martel's Booker winner, The Life of Pi, the story of a man stranded on a raft with a Bengal tiger.
Novels may once have existed to show us the world, but what they have always been best at is coaxing us into believing we can imagine how something feels on the inside, no matter how far from our experience. Is there a film better than Kate Chopin's The Awakening at depicting the anxiety a woman feels preparing for a dinner party, or a television show as perceptive as Colson Whitehead's John Henry Days about the fakery of reporting one too many fluff stories?
The further afield one goes from mainstream experience, the more writers have leaned on the novel. Truman Capote and Norman Mailer both borrowed from the form to write their great "nonfiction" accounts of murders in the Midwest. Nowhere is the triumph of fiction over nonfiction more evident than in the winner of the 2005 National Book Award, William T. Vollmann's 811-page collection of linked stories, Europe Central, which worms its way into the heads of Nazi and Red Army officials during World War II, allowing, for once, that the people who committed atrocities were average, fearful, human beings. In this fashion, rather than describing battles to death, Vollmann makes the horrors of that war all the more gruesome—and, yes, real.
In this sense, Europe Central also strikes at the heart of the debate over morality and the novel—and whether the form's roll in codes of conduct has eroded along with its readership. As Vollmann reveals, a society's morality—say in Nazi Germany—cannot be equated with right or good conduct. Nor for that matter does a novel need a wide readership to have a say in morality. One needn't have read Thomas Merton recently to appreciate that it is possible our most powerful sense of virtue comes from within.
So what's the big fuss about reading? On the bright side, there are still 90 million people reading literature in America, MFA programs are on the rise, new literary magazines are springing up left and right and, like them or not, a Barnes & Noble is coming to a mall near you. The problem seems to be that in this speeded-up, atomized world of ours, a sense of tradition will be lost. That we will forget T.S. Eliot and replace him with Allen Ginsberg, or that we will trade John Knowles for Maxine Hong Kingston, as some school districts have already done.
It seems that we always remember those in front of us better than those who are fading or gone. Louis Auchinloss was a bestseller in his day. Is he read today? Has anyone picked up Conrad Richter's The Town or The Waters of Kronos today? Both won the Pulitzer Prize. The point is that almost all literature dies, as do the writers who produce it. And it is no accident this news flash is most often brought to us by people who are nearing the end of their life, writers in their seventies and eighties like Naipaul and Mailer, who feel the maw personally.
Eventually, their names will become tiny starlights twinkling in the distance. Perhaps they will even go out entirely—who knows? It's hard to predict. Some of the time, though, they come back. Near his death, William Faulkner's books were almost entirely out of print, his name practically forgotten. Today, he is worshipped among writers and readers, back on bestseller lists thanks to Oprah. Millions of Americans know where Yoknapatawpha county is, even those who have not read a single one of his books.