The New Novel is Conveniently Dominated by White Men

Y’all, you know how you know a book is good? When here it is, five years later, and you’re still thinking about it. So, this morning, I read this little blurb about Salman Rushdie declaring that television is the new novel: “TV drama series have taken the place of novels.”

And don’t get me wrong, I really love the extraordinary things we’ve gotten to see on TV. But I’ve been thinking about this in terms of Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s book, The Anxiety of Obsolescence, which you can and should peruse here (at least read the first and last parts). In her book, she makes the point that we live at a time of unprecedented literacy. At the time she wrote the book, every medium sized town had a Borders or a Barnes & Noble or both. Oprah could make a best-seller just by mentioning a book on her show. And, yes, times are different, slightly, but man, did you see the passions running high about that piece in the Wall Street Journal about young adult fiction ruining children? We actually have conversations about the “death of the novel” at the same time the novel’s being touted as having the ability to ruin children. So, you know, it doesn’t have any cultural power any more, except when it does.

One thing Fitzpatrick is trying to get at is who benefits from that narrative–that the novel is dead, that only a handful of people still write important books, and that those important books are kind of coincidentally usually written by financially comfortable white guys. And I think it’s obvious that those white guys benefit from it. But now, I think we’re at a point, especially with the rise in popularity of young adult fiction which, for all its problems does a much better job of being very diverse both in terms of content and writers than “the novel” has had and the rise of self-publishing where there’s a sense that you couldn’t just snooty-patootie the riff-raff out of writing.

But the idea that television drama has taken the place of novels? Oh, that’s good. That dismisses all of the actual novels being written as, of course, not being necessary, of being obsolete. And it draws a tight little circle around who gets to be these new “novelists.” Hint: it’s not you and me.

3 thoughts on “The New Novel is Conveniently Dominated by White Men

  1. I think part of the problem is that what Salman Rushdie calls a novel and what the rest of us call a novel are most likely about 8 different things.

    Rushdie, for all the prices on his head, has always been one of those whose interest is only in the high-brow literary fiction. After all, he’s had to go into hiding for his art! Deep, man! Like Franzen and Foster Wallace and Kingsolver he doesn’t even stop to consider a Young Adult fiction work or a mystery/thriller or even the magical realism of a China Mieville a Novel.

    Novels are serious, ponderous things that examine the human condition. And the people who used to buy them and read them are now watching Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Those shows ARE the equivalent of the type of Important Fiction the MFA elite refers to as The Novel.

    The rest of it, the stuff written by folks outside the rarified club, is all just books.

    If I sound like I’m complaining, I’m really not. It was a creatively freeing thing for me to realise that no matter how hard I tried or how well I wrote I would never be Ivy League enough, East Coast enough, MFA enough…whatever the parameters are, wherever the moving goalposts are planted, I am not ever going to be in that crowd. In that game.

    And that’s fine for me. I write what I want to read and read what I enjoy. And I’m more than happy to watch book sales rising as ebooks make fiction more accessible, while folks like Rushdie keep casting about for excuses as to why their work doesn’t sell. Because that’s what he’s doing. It’s much easier to blame the audience for getting caught up in the more visually engaging form of serious fiction that cable channels are now throwing out there. Because you KNOW the Novelist does not want to admit EVER that what he is writing isn’t good or isn’t meeting the needs of the audiences out there. All writers play the blame-the-audience game, and most of the time they’re right. Amazon readers won’t ALL get what we put out there so the one-star review is going to happen. But sometimes in some cases “blame the audience” becomes the blanket excuse for failing to revisit angles of the craft that might need some attention.

  2. Yeah, I think this is what part of Fitzpatrick is getting at, too. That this definition of the novel is made up and defended by the very people that benefit from it being something that excludes everyone not them.

    The part I found especially funny is that, for all his talk of David Simon’s shows being “novels” because Simon is THE vision–and I’m not discounting the importance of having someone with THE vision to good story-telling in general, no matter what the medium–one of the reasons Simon’s shows feel like novels is that he hires novelists to write for him. He had a handful of novelists who worked with him on The Wire and Tom Piazza, among others, is working with him on Treme.

    So, are they not now novelists because they’re not working on projects that are solely their vision or are they super-duper novelists because they’re working on the new novels as well as the old?

    One of the reasons I’m glad I have an English degree from the place I have an English degree is that I read pretty widely (though not as wide as many. But I certainly know where my holes are) is that I had very few, if any, professors who made us read things because they were important. Even the professor who took us through Ulysses was obviously crazy about Ulysses. I didn’t come out of that class being a huge Joyce fan, but I came out of that class knowing that there are people who are genuinely in love with his books.

    I think one of the things that these novelists you named–Franzen, Wallace, Rushdie, etc.,–at least in their public posturing seem to suggest is that a lot of novel reading should be done because it’s good for you, edifying. And, if you enjoy it or have fun, that’s a bonus. But that’s not the novel’s primary purpose.

    That was not what I took from college. I took that there are a lot of different types of novels. Some difficult to read. Some easy to read. Some straightforward, some strange. And when you find one that trips your trigger, it is rich and rewarding to think deeply about it.

    I feel like “The Novelists” think the other way–“it’s rich and rewarding to think deeply about novels. If you’re lucky, some will trip your trigger.” And I think sometimes that’s true. The further out I am from Mr. Peanut, the more I think there’s something important going on there.

    But in general, I like reading books I like, for whatever reasons.

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