The novel springs from a sense of its own obsolescence. Novels were already passé in the 17th century, when Miguel de Cervantes dispatched Don Quixote, dazed and confused by the preposterous Amadis of Gaul, to joust with windmills. In the 1950s, Alain Robbe-Grillet demanded un nouveau roman, a New Novel, since the old model had undergone so many variations that it was incapable of novelty. A decade later, John Barth looked out upon a “literature of exhaustion.” By the 21st century, obituaries for the novel had themselves become a tired genre.
All that said, contemporary technology does pose unprecedented challenges to the vitality of novels—and the books that house them. On Feb. 13, The New York Times began publishing lists of e-book best-sellers. Turning pieces of inked paper from right to left has always been a solitary occupation. Now it is becoming a quaint one. In The Late American Novel, Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee gather 26 responses to this crisis/opportunity/transition. The essays are brief—three to six pages—and invariably clever, sometimes even eloquent. Contributors concentrate on long fiction because the novel demands the sustained attention most endangered by e-books. Most of the writers are in their 30s and 40s and, aside from Jonathan Lethem and David Gates, not especially famous. Gates is admirably civilized and worries that enrolling in an MFA program now is “like training to be a farrier or a wheelwright.” Sonya Chung also sees dwindling prospects for earning a livelihood through literature: “[W]hat can be got for free will not be paid for,” she warns.
A few contributors welcome the displacement of pages by screens. Michael Paul Mason celebrates opportunities to commune with the public electronically: “This approach to writing—one of sharing and connecting—has usurped the traditionally hip notion of writer-as-recluse,” he writes. “Today, readers perceive an unattractive, neurotic quality in writers who hide or distance themselves from their audience.” Urging writers to be active and inventive, Ander Monson warns that “if we think our only job as writers is to write nice sentences and hand them off to someone else, we risk obsolescence or, at the least, irrelevance.”
Though books are a burden when changing apartments, Nancy Jo Sales revels in her bibliophilia: “There’s something about the physicality of a book, the way it looks and feels and even smells—the notes written in the margins—that makes it a living, breathing companion (who, like yourself, is actually dying).” Emily St. John Mandel also resists the e-book: “I want to be able to see two pages at a time, I want to take notes in the margins, I want to flip backward to see what I missed.”
Reading The Late American Novel, I wonder whether this is a uniquely American problem. Do writers in Nigeria or Colombia or Japan share the same anxieties and hopes about the future of books? This collection is a published, paper book, but unlike Absalom, Absalom! and In Search of Lost Time, it would not be hurt by being read in short, quick spurts.
Contributing writer Steven G. Kellman teaches comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio.