Is the Novel Dead?
Questions pertaining to the traditional idea of the novel in today’s literary society are becoming an increasing topic of discussion. Due to the rise of numerous sub-genres of the novel, critics and scholars–as well as readers–have begun to question the longevity of the novel. Yet, the novel has been a facet of the literary tradition since the year 1010, with The Tale of Genji, and continues to thrive amongst contemporary readers. Before digging into this newfound issue of whether or not the novel has been replaced, or killed off by newer concepts, let us first begin an inquisition into this proposed threat to the novel by attempting to first define the word, “novel.”
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica Online:
“A novel is an invented prose narrative of considerable length and a certain complexity that deals with imaginatively with human experience, usually through a connected sequence of events involving a group of persons in a specific setting. Within its broad framework,the genre of the novel has encompassed an extensive range of types and styles: picaresque,epistolary, Gothic, romantic, realist, historical.” (Burgess)
The earliest forms of the novel were composed of letters, also referred to as the epistolary novel. Over the evolution of time, literature changed and encompassed new ideas of what a novel would reflect. At times, the influence was political, social, or economical. Gothic novels were thought to be political works that utilized aesthetics as a form of expression. For example, American slave narratives drew upon the format of the gothic novel, while discussing aspects of political concern. According to Frederic Jameson’s Political Unconscious the idea is to always historicize; people will always approach a text with preconceived notions, which is a topic of concern and interest for literary scholars.
The topic of ‘preconceived notions,’ plays an integral part when the changing format of the novel is put into question. Yet, in the context of history, there have been numerous sub-genres of the novel, and this an important concept to recognize when making such a strong assertion such as a fear the “death of the novel.” The novel is not dead; it is evolving to fit with the demands of contemporary readers and the changing aesthetic aspirations of writers.
In attempting to understand the perplexity faced by those who view the state of the novel in peril, a work such as House of Leaves (2000), by Mark Z. Danielewski, immediately comes to mind. The work is classified as a novel, which has left many in an uproar, as the format does not comply with the normal standards of what a novel should look like.
Oddly, Vladimir Nabokov published Pale Fire (1962), a 999-line poem, which was released–and continues to be referred to–as a novel. Is the problem not the actual changing of the novel form, or the fact of the changing face of the novelist? Danielewski publishes his work and many literary critics provided a very cold reception to the work; whereas Nabokov publishes 999-lines of verse (not prose, which is part of the defining factors of the composition of a novel) and it is still deemed a novel. Would this be the case for an up-and-coming novelist, or would their work not be considered a novel?
This leaves two questions: 1. Who decides what constitutes a novel? and 2. Does an author have the right to decide how he or she wants the work to be categorized?
In discussing the changing format of the novel, an important work to mention is Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1980-1991), a serialized graphic novel depicting Art’s father relating to his son the atrocities that took place in Auschwitz during the Holocaust. The novel is unique in an array of aspects, including its minimalistic graphic renditions that relate such horrific events.
Taking a page from old Medieval Tales and even Fairy Tales, numerous characters in the book are portrayed as animals, as a means of further separating perpetrator from victim (the German soldiers are cats and the Jewish prisoners are mice). Though the graphics are unadorned with colors, this tactic of representing people as animals captures the immense separation of races taking place, as well depicting a world in which inhumane acts to take place against human beings.
Robert S. Leventhal’s Art Spiegelman’s MAUS: Working-Through The Trauma of the Holocaust discusses both the traditional cannon, as well as the archetypical model for telling stories of Holocaust survivors. Leventhal acknowledges the sensitive subject of Holocaust literature and the notion that it must be represented it in its “highest” form of art. Yet, he also questions this idea of “high art,” and the changing dynamics of this idea. Leventhal then turns to Spiegelman’s work to articulate his point:
My view is that Spiegelman, precisely by utilizing the “comic-book as the textual medium of a story of the Holocaust, succeeds in breaking the “taboo” or “ritualized fixity” of confronting the Holocaust. It also subverts the assignment of the “comic” to a genre of kitsch and “popular culture” in a twofold way: first, insofar as it supersedes the traditional genre in terms of the scope of its presentation; secondly, insofar as it presents a historical catastrophe in a medium usually reserved for hero construction and morality play.
Leventhal describes numerous aspects concerning the ever-evolving format of storytelling; the necessity to provide readers with new aesthetic modes of representation; utilizing a once critiqued medium for its facetiousness to portray a horrific event in history; and lastly, to defy the conventions of the novel.
Instead of viewing the novel as an endangered species, a better outlook would be to view the progressive changes taking place in constructing a novel format that engages contemporary readers. Yes, the novel is changing dramatically and people are turning to different forms of storytelling, but these should be considered sub-genres of the novel, not works focused on the extinction of the novel. Stagnation leads to ruination and the novel is not exempt from this formula for destruction. Change is beneficial, pertaining to individuals, and the novels people read, and enjoy.
Burgess, Anthony. “Novel.” Encyclopedia Britannica. http://www.britannica.com/art/novel. 5 Oct. 2015.
Leventhal, Robert, S. Art Spiegelman’s MAUS: Working Through the Trauma of the Holocaust. http://www2.
http://iath.virginia.edu/holocaust/spiegelman.html. 1995. 5 Oct. 2015.
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