That narrow road

The week of the Man Booker Prize is always a good moment to reflect on the power of the book and the novel—and how these forms are changing. Fortunately this year’s winner, Richard Flanagan, got there before me: “I do not share the pessimism of the age about the novel. They are one of our greatest spiritual, aesthetic and intellectual inventions. As a species it is story that distinguishes us, and one of the supreme expressions of story is the novel. Novels are not content. Nor are they are a mirror to life or an explanation of life or a guide to life. Novels are life, or they are nothing.”

Flanagan’s optimism is inspiring, but the sentiment is not universally shared. In a recent Guardian piece, Will Self argued that “deep writing” required “deep readers”, and that these are in “very short supply”—a consequence of the “extension of the human mind into the virtual inscape”. At the Booker dinner, one of the judges told me that they had been given an iPad on which to read the novels, but said they preferred print—only when packaged in the codex that was its original spark do we get a real sense of a novel’s worth, they argued.

Outside of the literary world, the big stories running in the sports pages have also been provided by books—Kevin Pietersen’s “bridge-burning” autobiography, and The Second Half, Roy Keane’s lively memoir. What is the connection? Books permeate our culture, but they also provide the concrete on which it is built. Atomising this, as digital does, will open up opportunity, but at the risk of leaving something important behind. Would Pietersen’s words have the same impact without the permanence of print? Would Flanagan’s storytelling carry the same weight, unbound? Some may chide me for asking the questions, but none of us have the answers­—yet.

What we can say is that all of this is subject to change. The next generation will have new ways of understanding the importance of virtual things—just as we have already adapted to media such as Twitter, now a trusted source of news and comment.

We cannot decide how readers will read in the future. What we can do is make sure they have something good to read. Flanagan said he would honour the commitments that will follow his Booker win, but would then return to his desk to get on with his next book. The money, he said, would enable him to carry on. Most authors cannot rely on prize money alone to sustain them, or the results of such a spotlight. Flanagan’s book, published in July, has so far sold 3,882 copies. It will now sell more. It must. I would like to think that Self is wrong, and that digital will enhance what the book can be, and broaden readership. But, for some, it looks like a narrow road ahead.