Authors have hit back at writer Will Self's assertion that the novel is “doomed to become a marginal cultural form”.
Self’s interview in the Guardian, published on Saturday (17th March), featured insights into his thoughts on the Iraq war, e-readers, the future of fiction and female writers.
The headline of the interview with journalist Alex Clark, ‘The novel is doomed’, attracted much debate on social media with writers such as Colin Barrett, Roxane Gay and Joanne Harris disagreeing with Self.
“I think the novel is absolutely doomed to become a marginal cultural form, along with easel painting and the classical symphony,” Self said. “And that’s already happened. I’ve been publishing since 1990, so I’ve seen it happen in my writing lifetime.”
He said the last novel to become a “water-cooler moment” in Britain was Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting, published in 1993, and described the film industry as being “Balkanised” so that it “no longer needs the novel lying behind it”.
“It’s a disaster for the novel, actually – I think the novel is in freefall,” he said.
The Phone author also revealed he was a “completely digital” reader and was currently compiling a “list of important women writers” for the writing course he teaches at Brunel University after a student pointed out his previous list of literary influencers only contained male writers. He also suggested that he had not previously cited “literature in English from more diverse cultural backgrounds and heritages”.
Self, who was shortlisted for the 2017 Goldsmith Prize, said: “I don’t tend to read contemporary fiction much; I think I’m going to take a bit of a furlough from writing fiction in order to look at fiction a bit more.”
Self’s comments drew some criticism on Twitter from the literary community. Irish writer Barrett, currently based in the US, tweeted: “As a writer, I'd be embarrassed to ever say there's been no good contemporary writing/no good books in X number of years etc, because more than anything it just reveals the poverty of your own appetite for engagement.”
Gay, a writer and commentator also based in America, said: “White men love to declare an end to things when they no longer succeed in that arena. The novel is fine.”
The Essex Serpent author Sarah Perry asked: “Also: who cares if the novel is doomed, anyway? Storytelling is as old as time and the novel is revising for its GSCEs.”
Harris suggested that the linguistic definition of the word 'novel' means it has always been seen as something 'new' and so is constantly evolving.
She tweeted: "Those bemoaning 'the death of the novel' could do with a reminder that from a linguistic perspective as well as from that of our changing times, a 'novel' has always meant 'something new', not 'something outdated and old'."
Many other writers and publishers, such as independent Dead Ink Books, also questioned the validity of Self’s comments and referred to previous interviews in which he had said similar things about the novel becoming obsolete.
However, Clark posted a string of tweets explaining her own take on the interview. She said: “The reaction's taken me by surprise, but has been really instructive. We have to acknowledge that the headline is meant to provoke, but so many commenters seem not have read the rest of WS's sentence ("The novel is absolutely doomed to become a marginal cultural form...)
“This, to me, is a statement of WS's belief that people about cultural power and reach, not about whether writers are writing good books (he mentions several whom he believes are, and doesn't denigrate any individual).”
Clark, who revealed she admired many of Self’s novels “immensely”, went on to suggest that Self’s comment about the novel being “doomed” to become a marginal art form should not be seen as controversial in the light of Art Council England’s investigation into the “crisis” over literary fiction, published in December.
She said: “If this is such a v/ shocking thing to say, I'm not sure why the Arts Council's recent report was so widely shared, nor why writers consistently talk about existential threats to their livelihood. The truth is, writers & publishers say this, in one form or another, all the time…
“These things are arguable and contentious, and we don't all have to sign up to the same position. However: the spite and stupidity of the ‘he only thinks that because nobody reads his books’ really took me aback.”