Two critical catfights are claiming to have buried art-forms which have shaped our civilisation for decades and centuries apiece. Are they entitled to do that?
“If I were a writer,” Owen said, “how I would enjoy being told the novel is dead. How liberating, to work in the margins, outside a central perception. You are the ghoul of literature. Lovely.”
– Don DeLillo, The Names
Is the novel dead? Is rock ‘n’ roll dead? Are we dead, and if so, is this all just some kind of purgatorial torment?
I should apologize before I begin (always a good start): I am about to dig into some arguments which are not, by anyone’s definition, new. They reflect old—some might even say decrepit—concerns regarding elements of our culture and their questionable vitality. They are unified by a shared desire to put their chosen foes in the dirt, whilst simultaneously securing the relevance and survival of their proponents. Almost always, they are arguments between, and for the benefit of, critics.
If you fall outside of that jealous profession, then you were never intended to be a participant. As far as our self-appointed cultural gravediggers are concerned, you are either sheep or cannon fodder. You could be forgiven for not giving a damn.
The problem is, that would buy into the historically stubborn notion that our culture only matters only to our cultural elites, a view which is as dangerous as it is inaccurate. So when the novel is once again pronounced dead despite all evidence to the contrary, or a paradigm shift in music criticism is suggested on behalf of the hurt feelings of Taylor Swift fans, anyone who cares about literature or music has a vested interest. And when confronted by a potential murder, any dimestore detective could tell you what your first question should be: Who has the most to gain from this death? Failing that, though it’s rarely difficult to suss out, what message are the killers trying to send?
Novelist and talking head Will Self speaks loudly and often, but the message often gets garbled in the process: it’s part of his style. Such was the case at the beginning of May, when the Guardian newspaper published an abridged version of Self’s Richard Hillary memorial lecture, under the only slightly self-mocking headline ‘The novel is dead (this time it’s for real)’. This was an tacit acknowledgement, either by Self or a clever subeditor, that writers and critics have been calling time on the novel as an ongoing literary enterprise for a century, at least. Annoyingly for them, the novel or, more accurately, novelists, keep shrugging it off.
A month earlier, the New York Times magazine published a now-infamous essay titled ‘The Pernicious Rise of Poptimism’ by Saul Austerlitz, which proved to be the critical equivalent of kicking a hornets nest that has already been kicked several times that day. At this point, even the hornets are getting tired of going berserk.
Anyone serving up the nebulous issue of Poptimism as fresh meat must ignore the fact that it smells pretty funny, and could only be considered ‘new’ by those who think in terms of eons (if you want proof, here’s a PopMatters article by Rob Horning on the subject, published a mere eight years ago). But like checking the novel’s pulse, it’s an argument that never quite goes away.
Beginning with the (fairly incontestable) claim that “music criticism has gotten really weird”, Austerlitz argued that a populist deference to pop music, regardless of its artistic merit, has overtaken the critical establishment (a bold claim to make from the soapbox of the world’s most famous newspaper).
Though a respectable many threw up their hands at the whole tiresome controversy, howls of anger and derision came in short order from the ever-defensive pro-Poptimist music press, which condemned what it saw as Austerlitz’s old school ‘Rockist’ pretensions. The fact that Austerlitz and critics like him hold rock music up as ‘real’ art while being unable to recognise the virtues of pop proved, the Poptimists crowed, that rock ‘n’ roll has finally become irrelevant, and thus, over.
In defending their own preferences, they now sought, perhaps inadvertently, to kill off those of their enemies. All it takes for this to succeed is for people to believe them.
As manifestly different as these arguments may be, two critical catfights are claiming to have buried art-forms which have shaped our civilisation for decades and centuries apiece. Am I really the only one to wonder if they’re entitled to do that?
“twitter isnt dead the novel isnt dead nothing is dead stop trying to make death happen”
—Ayesha A. Siddiqi, Twitter, 6 May 2014
Let’s get the cheap shots out of the way. There is no world in which I want to live where the novel predeceases Self. Nevertheless, the novel has been deemed DOA by the author of How the Dead Live, a fact which renders his argument ironic as well as risible. Like the determined peasant in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Self believes he is hefting a corpse, no matter how loudly the corpse itself may object.
With perhaps some inkling of his own absurdity, Self restrains himself from full-on apocalyptic prophecy: he admits that ‘serious’ novels will continue to be written and read, and that even in the murky digital netherworld we now inhabit, revenue streams for writing will eventually be established and codified. Yet even when he grudgingly admits that good novels have been produced since the 1939 publication of Finnegan’s Wake—the arbitrarily chosen cut-off point where Self feels the the literary novel finally ran out of steam—he nevertheless argues that they are “zombie novels, instances of an undead art form that yet wouldn’t lie down.”
Reactions from the realm of bookchat came quickly and predictably, and just as predictably, Self’s celebrity could not obscure the easily observable holes in his argument. “If serious novels will neither cease to be written nor read,” wrote David L. Ulin in the Los Angeles Times, “then it’s tough to say that the literary novel is dying — any more now than it has ever been.” (‘Notes on the (non-)death of the book’, the LA Times 5 May 2014.) Meanwhile, writing in Salon, Daniel D’Addario acknowledged that Self’s argument is “certainly nothing new — not that it’ll stop a publication from inciting panic in the publishing industry six months from now by reframing the debate, again.” (‘From Forster to Vidal to Will Self, the debate over “the death of the novel” is very much alive’, May 5 2014)
Arguments like Self’s have often rested on claims that the novel’s artistic possibilities have been somehow exhausted, a tactic which is almost always a means for one literary generation to pre-emptively insult those they fear might follow and surpass them. Self, possibly to his credit, does not depend on these prejudices, perhaps because they become less believable with each and every new publication that successfully challenges our jadedness. Self instead points to the novel’s loss of its former place at the heart of our culture, and the ever-worsening economic climate for professional writers of all kinds.
While the first contention is arguable, the second is undeniable: as this column has argued before, the already-imperfect relationship between art and commerce has only been made more untenable by the Great Recession, and when the livelihoods of artists are threatened, so is the art they might produce.
It makes no sense, however, to argue that the novel must die for capitalism’s sins. Self presents the novel’s death as sad but unavoidable—an artistic natural disaster. But if the novel becomes what Self believes it will—a niche product at the fringe of our culture—it will not be because of any inherent flaw in itself. It will be because claims like Self’s were not challenged, and the problems of sustaining or reforming livelihoods and industries were not tackled. “I don’t care about art,” Tristan Tzara once said. “I care about artists.” But really, it’s impossible to care about one but not the other.
Given that Self’s argument brings no real contribution or suggestion to the problems he identifies, why did he even bother to raise the issue? Is he that desperate for attention? Well, yes, but I believe there’s more to it than that. In making his claim, Self’s priorities can best be summed up by his response to the worries of his teenage son, an aspiring rock musician who Self charmingly refers to as a canary in his own “personal culture-mine”. The younger Self shares the common fear that everything has been done before, and believes that those who did it first tended to do it best.
“Sod you and your creative anxieties, what about me?” whines his father, the famous novelist with a long career behind him and money in the bank. “How do you think it feels to have dedicated your entire adult life to an art form only to see the bloody thing dying before your eyes?” Obediently, his canary/son “immediately ceased his own cheeping.”
In other words, Self’s concern is not for the artists who may follow him, or the future of their art as a whole, but for himself and the ageing literary cohort to which he belongs. From a man who has been cluttering up the chat shows and award ceremonies for as long as I have been alive, this is a difficult plea with which to sympathise.
Self, whatever you may think of him, has had a good run. But when considering the novel and not the novelist, one needs to think in different, bigger terms. Self, and anyone else who believes the novel is even capable of death, cannot see it as anything bigger than themselves and their own squalid careers. Frankly, the novel deserves better.
“Contrary to press reports, rock ‘n’ roll is not dead… It is alive, and here to stay.”
Earl Sheridan, the
The Guardian, 14 January 1969
So Self makes an unconvincing assassin; many could have guessed as much. Has Poptimism had any more luck with rock ‘n’ roll? Well, yes and no.
Again, cheap shots first: as Tom Hawking put it at Flavorwire, “you can tell a debate has become really tired when it reaches the pages of the New York Times.” Beyond that, the spectacle of the New York Times positioning itself as the last defender of rock will be hilarious to anyone who ever listened to Lou Reed’s Take No Prisoners, where he has two choice words for the paper’s high-minded critics (hint: the second one is ‘you’).